Whither Whisky?

I was meeting with my favorite, most knowledgeable wine and spirits guy the other day and we got to talking about the state of the whisk(e)y market. We decided that the world is changing for brown spirits except for the products from Scotland.

According to the Scotch Whisky Association, scotch grew in value and volume in the first half of 2011. But if you look closely at the data provided by Shanken News Daily, of the top brands, only Johnnie Walker and The Glenlivet showed growth.

When I look at other whiskies, I see real sustained growth. Jameson in particular, and the Irish whiskey category, in general, is on fire. I think it’s based on the imagery of the brand, the absence of the smoke/peat taste of blended scotch and, of course, its use in cocktails and as a shot.

Looking at American whiskies, the emergence of flavored products speaks to new users and new usage occasions. I think it will attract a new generation of consumers and contribute to growth in the long run.

To be fair, Scotch distillers have tried to innovate their products by increased aging and changes in barrel storage. While this may be of appeal to the current market, it is probably not likely to bring in a new cohort of drinkers. Although, what I like about Last Drop Distillers is that they have taken the age route to the ultimate with over-age products. Not just aged scotch and cognac but products that reflect category heritage.

If you go to an event or tasting involving scotch, you always see some distillers dressed in kilts. It’s like a metaphor for being trapped in a time warp and reluctance to contemporize the category.

However, two recent news reports show that there are people out there looking to take new approaches to scotch. Wine and Spirits Daily reported last week a company “will start selling single grain and blended Scotch whisky aged 3 years, in a can.” I’m not sure if it is aged in the can or aged then packaged in a can. But don’t worry; the can will be recyclable aluminum. That will attract new scotch users who are environmentally conscience.

Or how about this one: According to the Daily Mail via the Buffalo Trace Newsletter, a company has developed the world’s first “halal whisky” made without alcohol designed to appeal to non-alcohol drinking consumers. The SWA is, not surprisingly, upset. The taste of scotch without the alcohol sounds to me like all pain, no benefit.

Scotch in a can and halal whisky do not fit my notion of innovativeness and contemporizing the category. Better off sticking to kilts.

By the way, that reminds me of something I heard while in Ireland at a distillery some time ago. One of the plant managers, over a few drinks, told me the following:

“You know, the Irish taught the Scots three things – how to make whiskey, how to play bagpipes and the wearing of kilts. But… we forgot to tell them that the last one was a joke.”


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1 comment

  1. I think the flavor profile of Irish whiskey makes it popular with first time whiskey drinkers, but I think price also has a lot to do with popularity, especially with young drinkers trying a product for the first time. Scotch and single malts in particular have raised prices for the past ten years.

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