Supermarket – Super Bargains?

Earlier this year Lothian Life magazine hosted a whisky tasting hoping to answer the question – do supermarkets’ own label whiskies offer value for money? The results, detailed below, prove interesting reading. But before considering the findings, let’s have a closer look at what is meant by ‘own label’.

Over time the phenomena of centralised general retail outlets have developed to the point that today we can choose from several chains of stores supplying a wide variety of goods all under one roof. Each chain will broadly offer its own style, be it a particular approach to quality or price.

When selling whisky the shops must offer what is popular with a competitive edge. Some will have unique branded bottlings supplied directly from the distiller and all now offer their own ‘house’ bottlings. These could be blends, single malts or vatted malts. (A vatted malt is the result of mixing the product of more than one malt distillery together. These are also known as ‘pure malt’, more recently ‘blended malt’ or simply ‘malt’. Confusingly, ‘malt’ can refer to a single as well as a vatting!)

Comparing a distiller’s bottled malt and supermarket bottling, the consumer may have confidence that the clearly branded ‘official’ item is the real thing, with familiarity and consistence as benefits. The penalty for this safety is usually a higher price. Others may see in a supermarket label the opportunity to save as much as £10, around 40% of the full priced alternative, for a malt of equivalent age and strength.

We decided to put it to the test. Seven tasters tried five different supermarket offerings against one officially bottled single malt and an independently bottled vatted malt. Bottling practices such as nonchillfiltering, higher bottling strengths and the avoidance of artificial colouring are often benefits of independent bottlers.

The Tasting
To give each dram a fair trial the tasting was held blind (the picture below is not from our tasting!). Tasting blind should mean a drinker’s opinion is based only on the quality of their senses’ experience. In order to avoid palate fatigue, it was arranged that every whisky had the chance to be tasted by a fresh palate. As styles of malts vary, often in relation to their location, this tasting featured only whiskies from Islay. Not for everyone, these distinct smoky peaty flavours were easy to compare next to one another.

whisky tasting 

The Whiskies
A Asda pure malt 10yo 40% £15.98
B Bowmore single malt 12yo 40% £23.75 (variable) distiller’s bottling
C Cadenheads pure malt no age statement bottled at 50% but reduced to 40% for tasting £25.50 (£20.40 pro-rata) independent bottler
D Morrisons 10yo 40% single malt £15.99
E Sainsbury’s 10yo 40% pure malt £16.99
F Tesco 12yo 40% single malt £15.98
G Waitrose 10yo 40% single malt £16.99
Scoring System
Many publications use a 0-10 or 0-100 scale for judging a whisky’s quality. It was decided to stick to this style as numbers increasing in value are easily understood as a reading of improving achievement. The form shown below allowed a value to be allocated to a drinker’s feelings on how well the malt performed.
0. less use than no use – I hated it. Deserves no points
1. ‘dislike’ is too strong but I wouldn’t have another
2. I would have another but wouldn’t buy a bottle
3. I’d buy a bottle but for the price of a standard blend
4. I’d pay a special offer price, say £15.00
5. now we’re talking, standard malt price (~£22.50ish)
6. better than standard, I’d pay a few more quid for this
7. better again but others offered even more
8. best or best equal of tonight’s drams
9. I can now die happy, price is immaterial, best ever
The Results
The results were collated and converted into a percentage. It should be stressed that these results reflect only the opinions of our 7 non-professional tasters. These individuals varied in their interest, knowledge and experience of whisky from infrequent drinkers through casual but regular to enthusiast. On another day they may have had a differing emotion about what they sampled. The same whiskies sampled by another seven people may also reveal a different set of results. However the tasting was held as fairly as possible and the findings reflect how these drams pleased those drinkers on that day.
Waitrose maltBowmore 32%,
Morrisons 40%,
Cadenheads 46%,
Asda 49%,
Sainsburys 57%,
Tesco 57%,
Waitrose 62%

Congratulations Waitrose!

It would appear that, as the branded malt came lowest and the significant difference in scoring between top and bottom of the results table supermarkets can not only offer lower prices but better quality. There did not appear to be a rift in scoring between the high profile single malt status as compared to the pure malt option. Likewise the whiskies’ age did not appear to have an effect on the voters’ opinion. The independent bottling did not record a higher than average score.
Obviously such a small sample group of palates means that anomalous scores will adversely affect the integrity of the results. For the next tasting it is hoped a bigger group will lead to more statistically meaningful data. It is also wrong to associate all official bottlings with the performance of this example, the Bowmore. All supermarkets offered a 10yo except one that had a 12yo. This was also the only example that did not come with an outer presentation carton although pricing was comparable with its peers. The independent bottling (Cadenhead’s) was not tested at the proprietor’s bottling strength but was diluted from 50%abv to 40%abv in order to compare like with like. 

Further Comments
As part of the challenge, those taking part were asked to fill in a brief consumer survey. The group represented whisky buying habits varying from no purchases through about ten bottles a year up to as many as 75 annually. Some bought exclusively as gifts while others saw their habits split 50-50 between presents and self indulgence while some only bought for their own use. Most purchased only malts with average spend on a bottle being £26.80 with the typical spends varying from £17.50 to £40. Tasters on average received between one and two bottles as gifts yearly. It was more likely that these shoppers would choose not to buy their whisky in supermarkets. This was explained as a lack of confidence in quality or, as purchases were destined as gifts, it was felt supermarket offerings may have budget overtones. Only one individual did not change their attitude to supermarket bottlings after the tasting.

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