Berating United Airlines about Scotch whisky Print


In 2006, United stopped serving Johnnie Walker Black Label on its flights, replacing it with Chivas Regal and Dewar's White Label.  This was a bonehead decision and I decided that someone needed to tell them so.  I sent the following letter in protest.




I write to protest a change that you made in your beverage service some months back that reflects very poorly on United Airlines.  Following are some background and some historical reference that may help you understand my comments.

For the record, I love single malt Scotch whisky.  I am a member of the Scotch Malt Whisky Society, I have visited its headquarters in Leith (Edinburgh), Scotland, I have stayed in its flats there on multiple occasions, and I have enjoyed tasting whisky in its Members Tasting Room.  I own (with several friends) two casks of Springbank and one cask of Bruichladdich.  I have over fifty different single malt Scotch whiskies at home that I share with those few friends fortunate enough to know about them. 

So, granted, I am something of a Scotch whisky snob.  I'm also a Mileage Plus Million Mile Flyer, so my taste in airlines should be agreeable.

Now, for some serious background.  Scotch whisky is distilled from malted barley.  Several tons of barley are soaked in water for a few days until it begins to sprout, whereupon it is drained and in the classic method, spread out on a warehouse floor to dry.  After this "malting" it is further dried via a kiln which, in the old days, was frequently fired by burning blocks of peat, which provided the smoky flavor.  It is then distilled in a "pot still", shaped like a pot with a funnel on top, which, along with the distinctive local water, enhances the flavor.

Grain whisky, on the other hand, is distilled in a column still from other grains, such as unmalted barley, or corn, or wheat.  It is cheaper to make and can be made much more quickly.  And, I might add, it doesn't taste as good.  Unfortunately, it is used extensively to extend the production of Scotch whisky by making it less expensive and more plentiful, resulting in blended Scotch whisky.

These are products that were designed in the mid-1800s, and particularly after Prohibition ended, to appeal to international and/or American taste, when most people knew nothing about real Scotch whisky (i.e., single malt), were not used to it, and therefore didn't care for it.  Clever merchants like Berry Bros. & Rudd came up with Cutty Sark, Justerini & Brooks came up with J & B, and so forth.  John Dewar was the first to use glass bottles for a blend.  These blended Scotch whiskies garnered most of the world market and succeeded in spite of themselves, appealing to consumers who didn't know any better.

John Walker & Sons markets Johnnie Walker Red Label and does well at it, and it is better than the other light blended whiskies.  Johnnie Walker Black Label is, in my opinion, the best blended Scotch whisky on the market, largely because it seems to have a higher percentage of single malt whisky in its formulation than others.  This is helped immeasurably by the fact that Caol Ila figures significantly in the blend.  Thus, when an establishment doesn't have single malts available-something that, today, would indicate a bar with little or no self esteem-ordering Johnnie Walker Black with one ice cube will give one a nice dram.

For years, I took comfort in knowing that United Airlines served Johnnie Walker Black Label, and I always ordered a double Johnnie Walker Black with one ice cube.  United was unique and exalted and a very good friend of mine, an American Airlines customer, was always jealous.  Then, one night, the flight attendant informed me that you were no longer serving J W Black, but instead were offering Chivas Regal occasionally and Dewar's usually.

What a disaster.  Chivas is a classic example of a product whose reputation is built almost entirely on good marketing, not quality.  I think it's swill.  So does my American Airlines customer friend.  Dewar's is even worse, being blended with so much grain neutral spirit it hardly tastes like Scotch.  Faced with such a choice, I'd much rather have a martini.

My wife and I went to Scotland in June last year, during which trip we visited our casks and numerous other distilleries.  I was looking forward to the flights-we were in Connoisseur Class-knowing that in Hemispheres you proudly state that Glenlivet (a nice single malt) is available on international flights.

Glenlivet was not available on any of our flights.  In fact, neither was Chivas.  The only "Scotch" you had was Dewar's.  This was very disappointing, especially on flights of this duration, which are usually exciting but long, and it detracted from the overall experience.

All this indicates one or more of the following:

--Neither United Airlines nor its personnel making decisions know anything about Scotch whisky.

--United and/or its service personnel don't care about its customers who may enjoy good Scotch whisky.

Perhaps this was a financial decision.  If so, I hope you saved a lot of money.  But I do want to make sure you understand that your beverage service went from Excellent to Lousy in one step.




John F. Peterson