In a world awash with whisky, warns Dave Broom, there’s no place for lazy innovation.
The reaction to Diageo’s alleged experiments with Scotch saw monocles dropping. Tequila cask-finished whisky? Where will the madness lead to? What’s next? Tartan whisky? Whisky aged in space? Whisky flavoured with blackberries (© N Boyd)?
None of the Diageo ideas seemed particularly outrageous to me, given we live in a world where bottles of pea-flavoured water sell for £28 (more expensive than many single malts). To many they appeared to spring from the world of Harry Potter’s Diagon Alley – which maybe should be renamed Diageon Alley.
Just because they were thinking of them doesn’t mean that any would have seen the light of day. There’s less of pushing the envelope about the notions, more of being scribbled on the back of one. In fact it would be more surprising if a company of Diageo’s size wasn’t looking at new ways to think about Scotch – after all, this is how categories grow over time.
Diagon Alley: Diageo’s ideas are like something from the world of Harry Potter
Take the Tequila cask, for example. Would Sir Alexander Walker have used Tequila casks if Scotland had been an importer of the spirit in the 19th century? You bet he would, and the only reason that the cask wouldn’t be permitted today is because there is no evidence (as yet) that it was used in such a way in the past, thereby putting it outwith the tradition.
The same, by the way, goes for Calvados which, for me, is as much of a shame. Imagine Caol Ila (which often has more than a whiff of mezcal about it) given a resting period in ex-Tequila casks, or Calvados casks adding a subtle fruit to a Scotch, increasing its complexity.
But was that the actual reason for the Diageon Alley Task Force? According to the Wall Street Journal, the rationale was ‘to explore “whether potential regulatory, technical, legal or other barriers are constraining” Scotch’. It was less a failed attempt to foist outrageous new expressions of Scotch on an unsuspecting market and more of a kite-flying exercise.
Diageo knew that the ideas would be slapped down by the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA), which then allowed it to reveal the true reason for the project: to see whether the SWA was ‘overreaching its remit’.
That is far more interesting, as it suggests that the trade body’s biggest member is flexing its not inconsiderable muscle and suggesting that things need to change. After all, the second part of the Diageo response to the SWA’s decision apparently raised ‘the scope for reform’.
Might that happen? There does seem to be a more nuanced air about some of the SWA’s pronouncements recently. In an interview last month, chief exec Karen Betts said she saw ‘more flexibility’ in how the regulations could be interpreted (and never forget the SWA interprets the law, not lays it down).
As we have pointed out ad nauseam here, there is considerable flex within the regulations, to the extent that it might only be the interpretation which needs to be revised to allow a new flow of innovation.
If the products of Diageon Alley have done their job and are now safely back into the NPD department of Gates’ Wizard Wheezes, could this new, more pragmatic attitude to the regulations see a sensible resolution to the ongoing debate over transparency? It’s my understanding that there is now a willingness at SWA HQ to discuss the intricacies of an issue which will not go away.
The old SWA default setting of ‘no’ is being replaced by ‘let’s consider’ and, while the tradition will always remain a pillar of what helps to define Scotch, it should never be used as a blunt instrument to restrict thinking, or prevent whisky moving forward.
As Japanese paper maker Eriko Horiki once told me: ‘Today’s tradition is the innovation of the past; today’s innovation is the tradition of the future.’ We always move forward. Maybe that path has now been made slightly easier to travel.
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