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The Genius Marketing of the Ardbeg 1965

The Ardbeg 1965 is one of the distillery’s most limited, most expensive, and most sought-after bottlings on the secondary market. This legendary bottling was released at a time when Ardbeg was rebuilding its brand following a purchase by Glenmorangie plc in 1997. Amongst other strategic vintage releases, this bottling helped to put Ardbeg back on the map. So, with this in mind, where does the story of this amazing whisky start?

The Story of the Ardbeg 1965

When the Ardbeg 1965 was released in 2005, it was the oldest and most expensive Ardbeg offering ever released. Previously, Ardbeg had been having a tumultuous time marred by closures. However, in 1997, Glenmorangie plc purchased the distillery, determined to capitalize on the cult following that Ardbeg had garnered in previous years. This meant keeping Ardbeg exciting, and what better way to do that than by releasing aged stocks?

When the idea for the 1965 was conceived, there were only two casks of the vintage remaining. Neither of them was in optimum condition with leakages and a low number of bulk liters left in the cask. In order to save the casks, the liquid was re-racked into a single refill sherry butt.

The Ardbeg 1965 was bottled in 2005 at 42.1%. Each 70cl bottle was handblown and fitted with a numbered wax seal. The bottle was presented in a glass presentation case reminiscent of those in museums and was accompanied by a matching 5cl miniature. A limited selection of retailers were given access to the Ardbeg 1965 upon release, and they were each provided with a pair of white gloves to wear whilst handling the bottle, again reminiscent of museum practices. Only 261 sets were ever produced.

The Envy of Islay: Ardbeg’s Genius Marketing

The Ardbeg 1965 & matching 5cl miniature.[/caption]

As previously mentioned, this release was the oldest and most expensive Ardbeg whisky ever released by the distillery at the time of its creation. As such, Ardbeg needed huge confidence in its marketing campaign for this bottle.

The strategic release of old vintage, high-age statement bottlings can be a very important string to a distillery’s bow and, when marketed effectively, can alter the perception of the distillery in the public eye. As such, if a distillery is attempting a luxury rebrand (think Dalmore circa 2004 and Macallan circa 2018) then releasing old stocks can be an effective way of signaling the arrival of a new era for the distillery.

The above is very much true in the case of Ardbeg, which had seen two periods of mothballing beginning in 1981 and 1996 respectively. The distillery also changed hands a few times during this period. And so, when the distillery was reopened in 1997 (and a visitors’ center opened the year after) Ardbeg was determined to turn over a new leaf.

In 2000, the Ardbeg Committee was created, an exclusive club to spread the word about Ardbeg and sample some committee-only releases. The committee now has over 120,000 members worldwide, suggesting that the brand outreach was successful. Between 2004 and 2008, Ardbeg released a series of young spirits that had been recently distilled as a sneak peek of what was to come once the whisky reached maturation. These bottled were called ‘Very Young’, ‘Still Young’ and ‘Almost There’. These releases – which weren’t even legally whisky at the time, work in direct contrast to the Ardbeg 1965, which showcases the potential for aged Ardbeg single malts. The simultaneous releases highlight this potential, asking people to take a closer look at Ardbeg and envision what it could be as a luxury Scotch whisky distillery.

The packaging of the Ardbeg 1965 is also to be commended. The presentation of the bottle in a museum-style glass case may be a little heavy-handed, but this (combined with the white handling gloves) gives an air of pricelessness to the bottle and the feeling that what you and handling is, truly, an artifact. It was marketed as the ‘Envy of Islay’.

Ardbeg & Chanel: An Unlikely Parody

Looking at Ardbeg’s marketing and packaging in the modern day, such as the Ardbeg Scorch (dragon-charred cask, anyone?) and the Ardbeg Arrrrrrrdbeg!, it is clear that the distillery is very tongue-in-cheek with its marketing. This is a strategy that has lasted decades, as we can see from the hilarious Chanel parody that Ardbeg used to promote the Ardbeg 1965 in 2005.

Chanel Egoiste, a luxury fragrance for men, was advertised in a famous commercial in 1990. The advert features beautiful women standing on their shuttered balconies in St. Tropez, envious because one apartment – seemingly the home of the male Egoiste wearer, remains shuttered. When the shutter does open, a bottle of Egoiste is placed on the balcony by a hand that quickly slinks back inside. This advert is considered iconic and was rolled out all over the world in several different languages.

The Ardbeg parody of this advert features Islay locals and distillery workers feeling this same envy of the person who owns the Ardbeg 1965, which is placed on the balcony of one of Ardbeg’s shuttered windows. This hilarious play on Chanel’s original advert not only established Ardbeg’s comical attitude towards marketing but also aligned the distillery with an established luxury brand, creating an implicit link between the two.

You can watch both advertisements below:

Comparable Bottles

At the time of the Ardbeg 1965’s release, Scotch whisky was not necessarily considered a luxury asset, with the real perception shift coming much later in 2018. However, there were several high-age statement releases on the market in 2005. 

In the early 2000s, Dalmore was considered the pinnacle of luxury Scotch whisky, having broken the record for the most expensive bottle of whisky ever sold at auction in 2002 when one lucky buyer paid £25,877.50 for a Dalmore 62 Year Old Kildermorie. This bottle is fairly plain, much like the Ardbeg 1965, and is presented in a plain wooden box. By comparison, when the Ardbeg 1965 was released 3 years later, it was priced at £2,000.

Also on the market were the Macallan Fine & Rares. The series began in 2002 and features several rebottlings of Macallan casks previously bottled by Gordon & Macphail, such as the 1937 37 Year Old. The Macallan Fine & Rare rebottlings are worth substantially more on the secondary market than their Gordon & Macphail counterparts. You can pick up a Macallan-Glenlivet 1937 37 Year Old Gordon & Macphail at auction for around £3,000-£4,000. The Fine & Rare rebottling has sold for as much as £34,000 at auction. This price discrepancy shows the power of Macallan’s branding – that the same whisky in a different bottle can be with £30,000 more than the original bottling. 

With that being said, the packaging for both the Dalmore Kildermorie and the Macallan Fine & Rares are fairly plain in themselves. There are no bells and whistles, and the stripped-back nature of the bottles serves to highlight the importance of the whisky inside them. As with any high-age statement or old vintage release, these are assets that you want to show off as much as possible, meaning that maximalist packaging won’t give the desired effect. Ardbeg takes this idea on board and subverts your expectations, going so far in the ‘luxury’ and ‘minimalistic’ direction as to use a museum-style case and handling gloves.

The Ardbeg 1965 is both a love letter to and a parody of other high-age statement releases of the time. Much like the parody of the Chanel Egoiste advert, Ardbeg is seeking to align itself with luxury brands, and yet also set itself apart. 

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Beth Squires

Beth joined Mark Littler Ltd full-time in October 2020 following the completion of her university degree. Since then she has gained wide-ranging knowledge of all things whisk(e)y, and has written extensively for both company and external publications. Beth is passionate about industry innovation, marketing, and sustainability. With a particular affinity for independently bottled rare scotch, Beth is also a whisky bottle investment specialist.

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