Whisky is the world’s most complex and mysterious spirit, according to Tim Forbes of The Whisky Exchange. Here Tim takes a look at the changing world of whisky that is having to make way for relative newcomers such as Japan
For centuries, drinkers have been enthralled by the depth and diversity of this multi-faceted drink. Everyone is familiar with the stereotypical tartan and heather marketing associated with Scotch throughout the 1970s and ’80s, summoning up images of weatherbeaten crofters huddling round a fire with a glass of the uisge to protect them from the elements. Nowadays, however, with the growing popularity of Irish and American whiskies, the emergence of Japan as a major force and the concerted efforts of Scottish producers to take their product into the modern era, whisky is really starting to come of age.
The market for Scotch whisky has changed dramatically in the last two decades. While the vast majority of all whisky sold is still in the blended category, single malt has become an important and lucrative business.
Blended whisky, the judicious marriage of malt and grain whiskies, remains the cornerstone of the Scotch whisky industry, with over 90 per cent of all whisky sold being blended. Brands such as Chivas Regal, J&B, Johnnie Walker, Grant’s and Famous Grouse have developed hugely loyal followings in markets from Glasgow to Guyana and these world-famous names remain key in the drinks giants’ struggle for precedence in the emerging markets in Brazil, Russia, India and China.
In the UK the best-selling blended Scotch whisky is Bell’s – established by Arthur Bell in 1825 – accounting for 24% value share of the spirits category. In the off-trade, Bell’s one litre bottle is the number one blended whisky SKU – outselling all other blended whisky products, including private label.
Blended whisky is both an aspirational product and a status symbol for consumers in these new battlegrounds and much effort is being expended by the major players to ensure that their products are more accessible than ever.
Prior to the 1990s, malt whisky represented a tiny proportion of global whisky sales, and most of the activity was concentrated by a handful of brands such as Glenfiddich – the world’s most awarded single malt Scotch whisky, Glenmorangie and Macallan. Nowadays, the category accounts for approx-imately 10 per cent of the whisky market, and enthusiastic connoisseurs can buy single malts from over 100 distilleries – many of which no longer exist, but whose product is still eagerly sought by collectors worldwide.
The current trend in single malt Scotch is towards the peaty, medicinal style exemplified by the distilleries on the Western Hebridean island of Islay. The nine working distilleries on the island use varying proportions of smoky malt to produce their spirit, and since the late 1990s, consumer demand for this uncompromising whisky has resulted in a surge of sales, and the revival of moribund distilleries Ardbeg and Bruichladdich.
Lagavulin is the Islay representative in drinks giant Diageo’s Classic Malt range, and is typical of the aggressively smoky Southern Islay style.
The Classic Malts series, introduced at the end of the 1980s, did much to popularise single malts in the trend-setting UK market by picking representative distilleries for each of the commonly recognised malt regions.
Other distilleries have benefited from the surge in interest in smoky malts. Talisker, the island representative in the Classic Malts series, has a distinctly peppery flavour profile enhanced by the use of peated barley and it is no coincidence that Lagavulin and Talisker are easily the most popular whiskies in the range.
Keen to capitalise on this shift in consumer tastes, a raft of distilleries that traditionally had very low levels of peat in their spirit are now producing smoky whiskies as well to accommodate demand. Even market-leader Glenfiddich, traditionally one of the lightest of Speyside drams, has produced a smokier version – the Glenfiddich Caoran Reserve 12 year old.
While the blended Scotch market is mature and single malt is still relatively small, Irish and American whiskies are making huge strides in the marketplace. The reasons for this growth are easy to see. Both categories are blessed with strong brand leaders, Jameson and Jack Daniel’s respectively, backed by the generous advertising budgets and distribution muscle of their owners, who have successfully created easy-drinking products with accessible brand identities designed for mass appeal.
It’s probably no coincidence that this is in stark contrast to Scotch whisky, which, after decades of emphasising its exclusive nature, is now struggling to demystify itself in order to attract younger drinkers without losing its cachet or alienating existing consumers. While many Scotch drinkers throw their hands up in disgust at the notion of ice in their dram, the likes of Jim Beam, Jameson and Jack Daniel’s are rarely seen without their ubiquitous partner in crime: Coca-Cola.
Japan joins in
When Japanese whisky first appeared in the UK market around a decade ago, it was regarded in much the same way as Australian Chardonnay was by Burgundy producers at the end of the 1980s – as a bit of a joke. Not having learnt the painful lessons inflicted by Jacob’s Creek on the French, the Scottish producers did little or nothing in the face of what was perceived as an insignificant threat.
Fast-forward to today and Japanese whisky has successfully stormed the barricades of the whisky industry with a string of stunning whiskies released in the last few years. Japanese malt whiskies command respect through their sheer quality, and their blends are easily equal to their Scottish counterparts. Sales of Japanese whisky are mushrooming in the UK and other key markets such as France and Germany. While the category may never equal Scotch in global sales volumes, the reputation of Japanese whisky is already assured among the cognoscenti.
With a winning combination of fidelity to the traditional methods of whisky-making – long abandoned as inefficient by many Scottish distilleries – allied to the technological innovation and meticulous attention to detail that characterises Japanese industry, whiskies from distilleries such as Yoichi, Yamazaki, Hakushu and Karuizawa have picked up a string of international awards and are hugely popular with knowledgeable whisky fans in all the major markets. Indeed, nowadays many top-quality Japanese bottlings have become highly collectable and can change hands for hundreds of pounds – an unthinkable idea only a couple of years ago.
The success of Japanese malts has encouraged whisky lovers and innovators in other countries as well. Since the turn of the millennium new whiskies have been introduced from new distilleries in a host of countries including Sweden, France, Australia and India proving that whisky’s appeal is truly globally inspiring. This most traditional of spirits has discovered a new dynamism in the last decade, and shows no signs of slowing down.
Rebirth of English whisky
On 27 November 2009 history was made in the world of whisky. For the first time in over 100 years English whisky was produced – in a purpose-built distillery in the heart of the stunning Norfolk countryside. Essentially Catering was there to witness this momentous occasion for the Nelstrop family, that had been dreaming of such a day for generations.
Extraordinarily, father and son James and Andrew Nelstrop, Norfolk landowners and farmers, only decided to make the family’s dream a reality in 2005. Within months the state-of-the-art and aptly named St George’s distillery was built, followed soon after by a conference centre, shop and café. European Law states that a distilled spirit cannot be called whisky until it has been in the barrel for three years, so the pouring of the smooth amber liqueur at the end of November was a day on which to feel justifiably very proud for James and Andrew.
“This day has been a long time coming,” said Andrew, “and we are delighted that our brand new whisky is proving to be so popular, even with the Scots! Our intention has been not to compete with the many established varieties of Scotch whisky, but rather to create something a little different that will stand proudly on its own feet in the whisky arena.”
Certainly the dram of single malt we tasted was smooth, sweet and slipped down a treat. Now we only have to wait until May when St George’s distillery will be bottling its first peated whisky.