A New World Order for Whisky?
As whisky's popularity continues to grow, distilleries are appearing all over the world, driven by increased curiosity for new styles and flavours...
All the action used to be in Scotland. Now it’s everywhere, writes Ian Wisniewski for WhiskyInvestDirect.
Ireland, the USA, Europe and Scandinavia have a growing population of whisky distilleries. Japanese contendors are winning ever more awards, Australia has begun a significant new era, and Kavalan has made Taiwan a talking point.
The result is a new world order. But what about Scotland? Has the rise of so many whiskies diminished Scotland’s supreme status ?
Yes. No. Maybe. It depends who you ask, and the criteria used to determine this.
“Status is very subjective, it’s not a maths problem with an exact answer. I’m a Scotsman, I think Scotch is the one that everyone comes to, and is the most interested in. Scotch is more differentiated, more individual and offers more experiences. The distance you can go in terms of flavour, for example from Glenmorangie to Ardbeg, you can’t go that far with other whiskies,” says Brendan McCarron, Glenmorangie’s Head of Maturing Whisky Stocks.
But is this a distinction that Scotland will retain?
“I hear about people trying things all the time that are not traditional to their region. But then experimentation and evolution is a tradition in whisky. We spend a life time constantly tweaking the process,” says Jared Himstedt, Head Distiller of Balcones, the Texan whisky distillery established in 2009.
And every new bottling is eagerly scrutinised by whisky fans, wherever it’s from.
“Anyone interested in whisky and flavour is going to explore, experiment and discover, leading them outside Scotch whisky more readily than in the past,” says John Glaser.
Flavour is inevitably the ultimate test for every whisky, though tastes do of course vary - and even the same person can choose very different styles of whisky depending on the occasion. Preferences are also evolving on a larger scale. Consumption of coffee, for example, has now overtaken tea in the UK, while growing sales of red wine, away from white wine, indicates a move towards more complex flavours.
Change is also apparent in the approach to whisky. “Historically Scotch whisky drinkers began with a mellow blend, which would lead them to single malt and possibly peated malts. But now flavour is the primary driver bringing people in, sometimes straight into single malt, and even straight into peated malt,” says Ewen Mackintosh, Managing Director of the renowned independent bottler, Gordon & MacPhail (which offers an extensive range of Scottish malts, and owns the Benromach distillery in Speyside).
Beyond our palates we also have hearts and imaginations that respond to various stimuli, such as provenance, the production story, or heritage. Scotland certainly has a more established sense of place than whiskies from other countries. Decades of McMarketing have provided us with emotive panoramas: glens and mountains (with or without mist), not to mention pagoda roofs and smouldering kilns. But heritage also has a more pragmatic value.
“Heritage is everything. Glenmorangie is going to be 175 years old this year. And if you add up the experience of the employees in our still house, then on just one day it’s hundreds of years of experience,” says Brendan McCarron.
Those are hot stats. But does this mean more recent arrivals are at a disadvantage ? “You don’t have to have heritage built in. Every distillery and whisky, including those recently established, has its own individual story, and whisky lovers can also be interested in heritage-in-the-making,” says John Glaser, Founder of Compass Box (which launched its first Scotch whisky in 2000).
Meanwhile, Cotswolds Distillery started producing whisky in 2014, with the inaugural release better known than the fact that English whisky was produced from the seventeenth to the early twentieth century. Consequently, distilleries are continuing a tradition rather than inaugurating English whisky.
But being classified on the basis of nationality is not what every distiller is aiming for.
“I hope English whisky stays within the world whisky category, and doesn’t devolve into an English whisky category," says Daniel Szor, Founder and CEO, The Cotswold Distilling Co. "If this happened it could mean the distillery being assessed as an example of a national whisky category, rather than as a distillery on it’s own merits.”
Another aspect of a whisky’s nationality are the relevant regulations. For English and Euro-Whiskies this means EU regulations, which allow for greater experimentation than Scotch whisky, for example. This may sound advantageous, but such ‘freedom’ can also mean the identity (and consequently status) of English whisky is less distinct than Scotch whisky, which has less room for manoeuvre. But that’s not necessarily a drawback.
“We’re steeped in tradition and legally bound by regulation. Because it’s so restrictive, this drives so many interesting innovations, which I love. Innovation is a key part that keeps Scotch whisky interesting, and gives people a reason to come back to Scotch whisky, time after time,” says Brendan McCarron.
This raises a further consideration. Many consumers think in terms of a hierarchy based on competing nationalities, as though it’s a Whisky Olympics. Anyone asserting the supremacy of whisky from a particular country may do so with great conviction. But to do this with authority would mean valuing every expression from a particular origin equally highly, which in turn would entail tasting every whisky a particular country has to offer.
Moreover, every other whisky the world has to offer would also need to be tasted, in order to make a valid comparison and reach a definitive, evidence-based conclusion. If you have done this, please identify yourself. Otherwise, saying that ‘the best’ whisky hails from this or that country is effectively a subjective opinion, based on a selective experience.
Defining a country’s style of whisky is, therefore, increasingly challenging, if not impossible. There are distinctive characteristics to stipulate, but that’s not the same as definitive characteristics exclusive to a particular country. And one reason for this is the level of innovation around the whisky world.
“The rate of proliferation has been remarkable, a distillery used to have 2-3 expressions in its portfolio, but now has several core lines as well as limited-editions, so every distillery is offering consumers a much wider and more varied offering,” says Ewen Mackintosh.
Does this mean we’re en route to becoming whisky lovers who think in terms of individual distilleries and favourite flavour profiles, whatever the country of origin?
“In future whisky producers won’t need to be associated with a country of origin in order to have credibility with whisky consumers, as long as they’re producing something that tastes great and the integrity is there,” says John Glaser.
Jared Himstedt adds, “Americans used to say I just drink bourbon, but no one’s giving up on anything, they’re just broadening their horizons.”
This approach is also apparent within a particular, and very discerning community. Collectors.
“The majority of collectors would have started off as collectors of Scotch, but a much broader range of whiskies are now considered collectable, with a lot of craft distilleries captivating consumers’ imaginations. It’s now so much easier to travel and visit, and if you’ve been to a distillery this creates an emotional bond with it,” says Douglas McIvor, Spirits Manager of Berry Bros & Rudd (a specialist retailer with an extensive whisky range, including own-label Scottish malts).
How much further whiskies of the world can advance remains to be seen. An inspiring example is, ironically, the recent history of Scottish malts, which have achieved monumental progress essentially since the 1990s. Does this mean other styles of whisky could also achieve the same status in a similar time-frame ?
Let’s arrange to review this in 2040.
Ian Wisniewski is a freelance writer and leading authority on spirits, with a focus on Scotch whisky. Over the course of his two decades covering the industry he has published seven books, including the Classic Whisky Handbook, and has contributed to publications such as Whisky Magazine, The Times, The Malt Whisky Yearbook and Scotchwhisky.com.
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