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Cannabis: a threat to Scotch?

  • ‘Things have moved on,’ my friend Z was telling me. ‘It’s less about the strength and effect these days. Now we’re all more concerned with flavour.’

    It struck me that anyone with more than a passing interest in a flavour-led substance makes a similar journey. To begin with, it is taken for the impact: the euphoria, the talking, the sense of fun, the loosening of inhibitions, everything which allows whisky to become a social lubricant.

    Over time, however, a more considered approach begins to take over. The fun aspects may remain, but now the drinker has moved beyond wanting the blunt hit of alcohol and is seeking out the subtleties, the quieter transportative trails of aroma which bring to mind place, memory, fruits and flowers.

    But Z wasn’t talking about whisky – he’s more of a rum drinker anyway. He was talking about cannabis. Let it be said from the outset that I am not advocating the ingesting of illegal substances. Z’s findings were undertaken in countries where the partaking of such things is perfectly legal.

    Cannabis and Scotch

    Cannabis calling...: Will consumers turn away from whisky to new worlds of flavour? 

    The shift, he explained, was away from THC (tetrahydrocannabinol – the psychotropic element in cannabis) and towards the plant’s terpenes – and specifically the different terpenes contained in each strain. A shift away from strength and on to subtlety. ‘A guy like you would love it,’ he enthused. ‘It’s what you’re always banging on about. Anyone who loves flavour will get off on this.’

    Keeping things in simple terms, terpenes and terpenoids are the compounds which give aroma to the essential oils contained in plants. They’re used in perfumery, important in winemaking – and exist within whisky.

    The list of terpene-drived aromas contained in cannabis is familiar to any whisky lover. ‘Myrcene’ gives clove, hops, citrus fruits, bay leaves, eucalyptus, wild thyme and lemon grass; ‘pinene’ is as piney as you’d expect; ‘limonene’ is contained in citrus fruits and rosemary; there’s the peppery accents of beta-caryophyllene; the floral elements given by linalool… you get the drift.

    It’s an area of research of great interest to those involved in the potential medical applications of cannabis, and website Greenhouse Seeds has even created a cannabis terpene flavour wheel, which is worth comparing to the Scotch one.

    This is of more than academic interest: cannabis has been legalised in many states in the US and the repeal movement is growing internationally. Only last week, the SNP (Scottish National Party) backed the decriminalisation of cannabis for medicinal use and requested the UK government to devolve the power to regulate the drug to Holyrood. As we’ve seen in North America, medical use inevitably leads to full decriminalisation.

    Could we see a time when a next generation turns its back on alcohol and goes instead for the impact of THC, and then terpene-derived bliss? Will there be It’s entirely possible.

    Cannabis flavour wheel

    Favouring flavour: There is even a cannabis terpene flavour wheel

    There have been numerous financial reports in the US predicting that the alcohol industry could be damaged by the legal cannabis industry, though it is too early to say whether people will make the choice between smoking and drinking – or simply do both.

    The potential threat has been serious enough for that most sober of drinks producers, Jack Daniel’s owner Brown-Forman, to state in its last four annual reports that the legalisation of marijuana should be considered ‘a business risk’.

    A report by financial services firm Cowen and Co senior analyst Vivien Azer concluded that ‘while the alcohol beverage category has looked insulated from cannabis thus far – from a revenue perspective – with the legal market still in its infancy we think the risk to alcoholic beverage consumption will become increasingly apparent… In the last 10 years, alcohol incidence for US men has fallen 200 basis points, while cannabis has risen 260 basis points. Beer and whiskey are the most at risk of losing business’.

    After all, as Z said, it’s all about flavour.

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