Scotland is the biggest producer of whisky in the world, and has been for at least 100 years.
But while Scotland is synonymous with whisky, it isn't the only country to produce it. Others, such as the USA, Ireland and Japan, also have long, proud traditions of whisky-making. And the last decade has seen the return of whisky distilling to England and Wales for the first time in a century, while new distilleries have also been built in South Africa, Australia, Taiwan, Spain and Sweden, among others.
That isn't to say that each country is making the same type of whisky.
There are two main types of Scotch whisky: single malt and blended. Single malt has grown in popularity over the last decade, now accounting for 10% of global sales of Scotch by volume. But most Scotch whisky sold worldwide is blended. Made from a mixture of several different malt and grain whiskies, the biggest brands of blended Scotch, such as Johnnie Walker, Ballantines, Chivas, Grants & Dewars, are household names across the globe.
Overseas, Japan is the only other major whisky-making country to have adopted the same single malt-blended whisky model. Distillers in the United States, Canada and Ireland have all traditionally used other grains or methods to produce whisky.
The USA produce approximately 37 million cases of whiskey each year.
Jack Daniels and Jim Beam are the two most famous American whiskies: one a Bourbon, the other Tennessee whiskey. Together they account for 20 million cases, with exports a growing opportunity for both brands. The stand-out feature of American whiskey is the strong, sweet vanilla flavour derived from the obligatory maturation in new oak casks. While coke is the most popular mixer for American whiskey, the premium end of the category is developing fast and brands in this space, such as Maker’s Mark and Woodford Reserve are appreciated neat or in traditional whiskey cocktails (Manhattan, Old Fashioned and Whiskey Sour being the most popular).
Barley, rye, wheat and maize are the cereals used most in American distilling.
Jack Daniels has had significant success in the UK market. Good marketing and clear targeting have boosted sales to over a million cases, propelling it ahead of Bell’s and biting at the heels of Famous Grouse, the leading Scotch whisky in the UK.
Canada produces just over 21 million cases of whisky, with three high selling brands: Crown Royal, Black Velvet and Canadian Club representing half of all sales. Canada’s whisky is noted for its light and smooth style, and most of it is blended. However, there is a broad range available and some brands, including those with a strong rye influence, are complex and rich in flavour.
Canadian whisky laws stipulate that the product must be aged for a minimum of three years, in oak casks, and it allows for caramel to be added. On these two counts it mirrors Scotch whisky.
Ireland currently produces 7 million cases of whiskey and sales are growing fast. The ten year forecast from The International Wine & Spirit Record (IWSR) shows the growth of Irish whiskey will continue to outstrip that of Scotch and American. And it’s mostly about one brand, Jameson, which sells 4.5m cases, or 64% of the total Irish whiskey sales. The second highest seller, Tullamore Dew is growing at over 10% per annum but is still under the 1 million case level, which ranks it below 21 Scotch whisky brands in terms of sales.
Most Irish whiskey is distilled three times, while most (but not all) Scotch whisky is distilled twice. The use of peat is rare in the malting process, which means that Irish whiskey has a smoother finish as opposed to the smoky, earthy overtones common to some Scotches. There are, of course, notable exceptions to these rules in both countries.
Irish whiskey was once the most popular spirit in the world, and some say Ireland was the birthplace of whiskey. Unfortunately, a long period of decline from the late 19th century greatly damaged the industry. While Scotland can count over 100 distilleries, Ireland currently only has seven in operation and three of these are newcomers with no established products in the market yet. Irish whiskey has, however, seen a great resurgence in popularity since the late twentieth century, and has been up there with the fastest growing spirits in the world. The current growth rate is roughly 20% per annum, prompting the construction and expansion of a number of distilleries. Jameson is no doubt helping the overall Irish whiskey category.
Suntory’s Yamazaki Single Malt Sherry Cask 2013 was recently named ‘the best whisky in the world’ by Jim Murray in his annual Whisky Bible. This caused quite a stir but it was not out of the blue. Japan has been making whisky since the early 1920s when the Yamazaki distillery was built near Kyoto. In those early days Japanese whisky was modelled on Scotch. Indeed Suntory’s master distiller studied his craft in Scotland for this purpose. He spent three years in Scotland, returning to Japan where he was instrumental in setting up Yoichi distillery.
Japan distils its whisky twice, in copper pot stills, and it recognises the very important role that oak plays in the maturation of the spirit. Considerable amounts of Scottish malted barley, some of it peated, is imported into Japan.
The 1970s and 1980s were boom time for Japanese whisky; many of their sake distilleries were converted to produce whisky such was the local demand. However, foreign producers were quick to spot the Japanese thirst for whisky; Scotch, American and Irish whiskies all began to compete with the local Japanese production. Unlike in many other countries, there were no major tax barriers installed to prevent imported whiskies competing on a level playing ground.
The recent revival of Japan’s whisky fortunes has been built, more steadily, on export sales. The reputation of Japanese whisky as a high quality product has been further enhanced by many international whisky awards. The future looks bright for Japanese whisky.
Indian whisky deserves a special mention, as it’s a huge category in India, selling over 120 million cases. The interesting point is that the majority of Indian whisky is not made from cereals but from molasses which is then artificially flavoured and not aged at all. This bars it from being sold as whisky in the EU. In India, many of the locally made whiskies have a top dressing of Scotch whisky to enhance their flavour.
At the top end of the quality scale India too is making headway. Amrut Distillers, amongst others, produce some excellent quality products which do meet European Whisky regulation standards. Indeed, ‘several expressions by Amrut and Paul John have received high praise in the UK from a variety of whisky writers.