The Glenlivet Capsule Collection – this is why we can’t have nice things

Despite its often staid appearance, the whisky industry is interested in doing new and exciting things. At the beginning of October 2019, Glenlivet embraced that and launched something a little bit different – cocktails served in edible pouches: The Glenlivet Capsule Collection. I went to the launch, drank/ate some great cocktails and went home happy that I’d tried something new.

The internet, however, was having none of it.

What are Glenlivet Capsule Cocktails?

Let’s start with the brand’s video, for a bit of background:

Here’s a quick summary for those who don’t want to or can’t listen to the video:

For London Cocktail Week, The Glenlivet, the world’s second-biggest whisky brand (by some measures) has partnered with award-winning bartender Alex Kratena to serve three whisky cocktails in his bar Tayēr + Elementary, each served in an edible, biodegradable capsule made by Notpla, a company working to find alternatives to traditional plastics. The cocktails – served in 23ml measures, the smallest container Notpla can currently make – can be drunk by nibbling off a corner and sipping, or by sticking the whole capsule in your mouth and biting down to burst it.

So, what happened?

In short: the internet showed that it is, collectively, a dick, and that we can’t have nice things.

To start with, most people didn’t bother reading beyond the preview text that popped up on the Twitter and Facebook posts, and saw the words “Glenlivet whisky” alongside a small, coloured pouch of stuff. Thus started the soon-to-be-canonical stages of Glenlivet Capsule Cocktail Grief™:

  1. It’s blasphemy to mix whisky in a cocktail
  2. They look like Tide pods (washing capsules for those who missed the Tide Pod Challenge)
  3. These will be bought by kids
  4. A glass is better for the environment
  5. You can’t nose them, so they are pointless
  6. It’s still blasphemy to mix whisky in a cocktail
  7. People will put these up their bums

While I assumed stage(s) 1 and 6 would appear before long, stage 2 occurred to me shortly after I left the launch event and stages 3-5 are all legitimate comments with answers (see below), number 7 did cause me to pause for a moment.

Surely there’s a Rule of the Internet for ‘if you can think of it, people will put it up their bum’?

Some statements answered

1, 6: It’s blasphemy to put whisky in a cocktail

No, it’s not. Get over yourself. And it’s not as if they’re mixing ancient Brora with ginger beer. These are cocktails using Glenlivet’s entry-level Founder’s Reserve to create drinks that expand on the flavours in the whisky:

  • Citrus: Founder’s Reserve with grapefruit, bergamot and almond.
  • Wood: Founder’s Reserve with sandalwood, cedar and oloroso.
  • Spice: Founder’s Reserve with oloroso, vetiver, dark walnut bitters and verjus.
Alex Kratena and his cocktails

They were put together by Alex Kratena and his team, and, as you’d expect from one of the world’s most respected bartenders, the drinks are very good.

3. These will be bought by kids

They are available in one bar for ten days during London Cocktail Week. The bar is over 18s only and the capsules only last a few weeks – the combination of being biodegradable and filled with a mixture of sugar, acid and alcohol (amongst other things) means they break down relatively quickly.

They are not an ongoing product and will not be available to take away. They’re also only being served as an ‘amuse bouche’ on arrival at the bar, rather than being for sale. If they were, they would be pricy – based on previous similar Notpla projects and the price of Tayēr + Elementary’s cocktails, I reckon they’d go for in the region of £6-8 a go. Kids would be better off sending their tallest mate into a shop to buy a bottle of Buckfast, like they do already.

4. A glass is better for the environment

Entirely true. However, the environmental focus of these cocktail capsules is more in awareness than saving the planet. The capsules are made from a seaweed-based material developed by Notpla, and from my (admittedly brief) research, they are environmentally friendly in comparison to most plastic. The technology has previously been used to make water pouches for runners in marathons – they can bite off a corner, drink the water and then drop the pouch safe in the knowledge that it will quickly decompose and not pollute – and they have partnered with JustEat to trial replacing traditional plastic sachets of ketchup.

The other half of the equation is that this is meant to be an interesting way of delivering cocktails. The experience of either biting a corner and slurping the cocktail out of the pouch or popping it in your mouth is very different to sipping it from a glass – the experiential side is a major part of the whole project, offering something new to drinkers to get them to try the capsules. It reminds me very much of the spherification craze that kicked off in the experimental end of the fine-dining world in the early 2000s.

5. You can’t nose them, so they are pointless

This has been a common mantra among some whisky geeks, but displays a misunderstanding in how your sense of taste works – you smell from both inside and outside your head.

Traditional smelling (orthonasal olfaction) involves you sniffing something directly, and it truly is one of the great pleasures of whisky. While the rumours of Johnny Depp buying bottles of Lagavulin 16 just to smell rather than drink are almost certainly untrue, inhaling the aroma of a great dram is a key part of consuming it. However, it’s not the only way you use your nose.

The tongue is fairly rubbish at tasting, distinguishing only wide categories of flavour – while the sweet, salty, sour, bitter, umami approach to describing how the tongue tastes is almost certainly inaccurate, it’s a useful approximation. Complex flavour comes from the nose, with vapours travelling around the back of the palate, into the back of the nose and on to the olfactory epithelium, where smell is sensed (retronasal olfaction). This is where we get the interesting flavours of a dram when you drink it, and it’s why you still get the full range of flavours from these capsules even though you can’t sniff them before they go in your mouth.

What now?

Not a lot. The press cycle has moved on and even the angry threads on Twitter – angrily calling people out when they tried to explain the capsules – have pretty much stopped. Although, the folks answering the confused and often angry anti-capsule people didn’t always cover themselves in glory. I’m not sure what it is about Twitter that brings out the troll in people.

I spent a large amount of time over the weekend trying to explain the concept to people on Facebook that encompassed the entire gamut from ‘didn’t get it’ to ”don’t want to get it’. I ended up frustratedly using the phrase ‘you people are joyless’ on a number of occasions. But most people were fine with the project when they found out what it actually was, even if they didn’t want to try it themselves, and I had a number of great conversations with folks who were interested in both the experience and technology. Which leads me to a simple conclusion:

The Glenlivet didn’t communicate what this was to the public effectively

Not only did the video that appeared on Twitter and Facebook have no subtitles – most videos are viewed without sound – it didn’t have enough context for people to work out what was going on. This led to the comments online and then, inevitably, the news articles about the comments online, most of which fell into the same trap as the comments: these were whisky filled laundry detergent pods.

Huge success?

In the end, a lot of coverage has been created – and since the weekend it’s not been all quite so ‘Tide pod’-y – so it’s all looking to be a success. It did also inspire some of my favourite bits of online piss-taking for a long time. It’s an age since I’ve read a booze-up-the-bum thread on Twitter:

The follow-up video was even better:

And who can resist a spot of Tidethumping?

Full disclosure

As some folks on Twitter got very het up and assumed that anyone who said nice things about the capsules was involved with selling them:

I went to the launch event, where I ate a bunch of capsules, drank some cocktails and munched on an excellent katsu sando. Go to Tayēr + Elementary for the drinks, stay for the pork sarnie.

A mate of mine worked on the project for Glenlivet and was forced to try many cocktails over the weeks leading to the launch.

Notpla (formerly Ooho – the sound people allegedly made when they heard about the project) is a start-up that began its life at Imperial College, my old university. Rodrigo Garcia Gonzalez, co-CEO and -founder, was really nice and told me cool things about how they are playing with texture, colour and flavour in the capsule material. His accent is also way sexier than mine.

DrinkUp.London, which runs London Cocktail Week, the event that the project is part of, are a sister company of my employer. I have a pass and will hopefully be drinking cheap cocktails on at least one night this week. They are ten years old this year – well done Hannah and the team.

After the launch, I went down the pub and had a thoroughly excellent evening.

8 Replies to “The Glenlivet Capsule Collection – this is why we can’t have nice things”

  1. Why we can’t have nice things… Well that’s quite inaccurate. Is nice to get whisky in that sort of packaging? Is that going to be the new trend? I personally think it is not, just like many other people. You’re quite right to say that a lot of people moan about producing whisky cocktails, although your “recommendations” to produce cocktails sound just as pretentious. The immediate fact that Glenlivet decides to use this new packaging for mixing… well, proves the point that this is just another marketing gimmick. After all, that’s what the industry has become, a full on marketing exercise. Like me, many other agree, that we would like to see less futile attempts to “reinvent the wheel” and bring all the effort and money it takes to come up with this stupid marketing ideas, to producing a better quality product, more accessible to those that can’t afford great whiskies.

    Their statement of “we are redefining how whisky can be drunk”. Once more, there is already a very cool system and an amazing environmentally friendly way to drink it, it is called glass, is something cooler than drinking from a vesel made of crystallised sand, molten and blown into shape? But well, they also mention “no ice” so I imagine that this is directed to people that normally drink whisky on the rocks, so most likely they’ll buy it, because “it has a nice label”. I also doubt this is a pleasant experience, as I have tasted this in the past with other products and I find it quite disgusting to find something jelly like in my mouth, when I am expecting liquid.

    Overall, it is stupid, unpleasant and quite unhygienic if you think about it. To be perfectly honest, I rather drink straight from the bottle than putting one of those algae based wraps in my mouth.

    1. To answer your points:
      It’s not an ongoing product – it’s a one-off thing for London Cocktail Week.
      I also don’t think it’s going to be the new trend for cocktail consumption, that’s why I didn’t say that.
      Eating/drinking the capsules is quite pleasurable – that’s my opinion, which all the other people I’ve spoken to who have tried them have agreed with. It’s not something we’d want to do with every drink, but it is a fun and different way to consume a cocktail.
      The capsules aren’t jelly-like – the casing is more like a piece of fruit leather or a thin piece of gummi candy, and the contents is liquid.
      It’s not unhygienic – the capsules are served straight from the fridge, and are both produced and handled with due care for hygiene before serving.
      They’re also made from seaweed, not algae.

      I think you’ve missed the point here, and fallen into the same trap that other people online have. These are a fun, one-off project that is only on for ten days. It’s not replacing anything, just creating an experience for people who visit Tayer + Elementary. It’s also creating discussion online, which is great, although getting the nuance and details of the project over to people seems to be have been more difficult than Glenlivet was expecting.

  2. Does Glenlivet even sell anything in a plastic bottle?
    Definitely seems like a cheap gimmick to support a hipster bar and attract a crowd of people that generally don’t drink whiskey because it’s whiskey! It’s not even close to the top of the list when thinkng of mixed drinks unless it’s a jack and coke those are probably the two most sold beverages in their respective categories.
    Also I highly disagree with how this article has been dramatically emphasised. I wouldn’t necessarily call entry level whiskey mixed with sandalwood in a tide pod made from seaweed extract anything close to nice. And who in the right mind would pay $10 for entry level whiskey that’s going to leave your breath smelling like a $2 car air freshener.

    1. So…

      It’s far from a cheap gimmick – as you say towards the end of your comment, it’s quite an expensive gimmick. Other than that, your opening gambit is correct – it’s also what I say in my article, but you used a slightly more pejorative tone.

      As for it not being close to nice, well, I have tried the drinks and you haven’t. I quite liked them, as has everyone else I’ve spoken to who has. It’s unfortunate that you’re not nearer London (I assume), where you could try these yourself and come up with a comment based on experience, rather than an ill-informed guess.

      Also, if you are a cocktail fan, you need to get out to nicer bars. Whisky’s quite popular in drinks these days. We’ve moved on a little bit from Jack and Coke.

    1. Nope – if you want to, you could have nibbled off the corner of the pouch and sipped the cocktail. Like I did and said I did in the article. However, as it was just a thing that happened in one London bar for one week in early October, it will almost certainly not trouble you.

Leave a Reply