Decades of marketing-led mythology have created many outdated Scotch whisky beliefs.
Whisky producers are visionary by their very nature. They spend every day looking to the future, forecasting what demand will be like in 10, 20, 30 years’ time. This constant crystal ball gazing shapes how they think about whisky – what flavours will consumers be craving next, what lifestyle choices will influence their spending decisions?
With the future on their minds, distillers, blenders, marketers and owners congregated at the Cotswolds distillery last week for the second World Whisky Forum, a space for sharing ideas with the common goal of developing the gloal whisky category. International producers rubbed shoulders with small ‘craft’ operations, while innovative Asian distillers shared insights with traditional Scottish blenders. With such openness, it’s hard to imagine there once was a time when distillers were forbidden from speaking to rival companies.
Developing the whisky category is not just about looking forward and predicting the future, it’s also about being cognisant – aware of what developments are occurring right now, within and without the sector.
With 13 speakers from the likes of Johnnie Walker and Irish Distillers through to New York’s Kings County and Finland’s Kyrö, the Forum was a hotbed of discussion for what trends will shape the future of whisky. The following areas were the most commonly raised, from the global growth of ‘single rye whisky’ to the death of craft.
Safe space: The World Whisky Forum is a trade-only conference for producers to share insights
Challenge everything; ignore the dogma
One of the key issues challenging Scotch whisky in particular is how to innovate sufficiently to stay relevant and appeal to whisky consumers’ changing palates, while remaining within the strict legal guidelines. However Ian Palmer, managing director of InchDairnie distillery, was resolute that the existing guidelines allow sufficient headroom for innovation. ‘The definition isn’t the problem,’ said Palmer. ‘Working within the definition takes imagination – challenge everything and everybody.’
The new Lowlands site became one of the first in Scotland to begin distilling rye (more on that later), and one of only two in the country to use a mash filter instead of a mash tun. Last year InchDairnie used seven different types of yeast, and is introducing two new strains this year. They’re all ways the distillery is experimenting with flavour while staying true to Scotch whisky’s identity, even if sometimes that boundary is blurred. ‘We’re happy to produce whiskies that taste like they should have an ‘e’ in the name,’ he said.
From Scotland’s perspective the rest of the world’s whisky producing countries seemingly bask in looser regulations that allow for greater innovation. ‘Should Scotch be worried?’ challenged moderator Dave Broom. There was a moment of reflective silence before Cotswolds head distiller Nick Franchino replied: ‘Scotch or not, if you make it badly you should be worried.’
Have courage; take risks
Similarly, having the courage to challenge the status quo was a common theme from speakers, one raised early on by Simon Coughlin’s tale of Murray McDavid’s purchase of Bruichladdich distillery in 2000. With only limited stocks of whisky and no new spirit since the mid-1990s, the team began bottling whisky from other distilleries under independent labels. ‘The fringe IB business was doing better than the Bruichladdich brand,’ he said. Realising they were in difficulty, the team was forced to do something daring. ‘We launched the Botanist gin, and it saved our bacon,’ Coughlin said. Never before had a gin been produced on Islay, but using an old still sourced from Dumbarton’s Lomond distillery, the Botanist was born. ‘We had to take the risk,’ Coughlin said.
Honesty and truthfulness
‘Today’s consumer is inquisitive, knowledgable and noisy,’ InchDairnie’s Palmer noted. ‘A thin veneer will be very quickly exposed.’ Foresight indeed from a man whose first whisky won’t be released for at least another 10 years, but it’s an insight that many speakers identified as being a cornerstone of success. ‘You need to believe in something in this industry,’ commented Coughlin. ‘If it’s all built on marketing bullshit you’ll be found out.’
The Cotswolds’ Franchino agreed. ‘There are too many gimmicks going on. When people try to weave something like that into their brand story that shouldn’t be there, it devalues it.’ Similarly, he said, releasing too many expressions in a short space of time that have no correlation to a genuine brand story is confusing for consumers. ‘If you only have one layer and someone scratches below it, you’re in trouble. You don’t have a coherent brand.’
The death of ‘craft’
‘There’s a craft distilling bubble coming if we carry on this way,’ Colin Spoelman of Kings County said. According to his presentation, just five ‘craft’ distilleries were operational in the US in 1990. ‘Now there are more distilleries in New York State than in Scotland.’ Kings County, he pointed out, is smaller than Scotland’s second-smallest distillery, Edradour. But although his operation in Brooklyn pales in size next to some of its global industry peers at the Forum, he claimed that ‘craft distilleries should just be called small distilleries.’ Every distiller and their mouser refers to itself as craft these days, even Irish Distillers’ Brian Nation, whose photograph of Midleton’s sizeable 1,500 litre ‘micro distillery’ stills generated laughter from the room.
There has been much talk of barley terroir, of a distillery’s sense of place, its unique water qualities and climate which contributes to maturing whisky’s flavour. Far less is said of social terroir, of the people who make it, who influence the whisky with their personalities, experiences and skill.
Every speaker spoke of the people that makes their product great. ‘Our area is important to the distillery and the quality of our whisky, but so are the people,’ said Kavalan’s Ian Chang.
Country conference: Some 60 delegates packed into the Cotswolds distillery for the Forum (Photo: Tristan Stephenson)
Age hangups will become obsolete
Greater education is already shifting consumers’ preconceptions that age equals quality, but advances in warehousing technology is likely to drive the conversation toward other signifiers of quality and flavour. Spoelman of Kings County, said: ‘Over the years the focus on age will diminish, but not entirely – the use of controlled warehousing will change it, lower the emphasis on age and allow consumers to focus on other elements.’
On the other hand, the question of how important rapid ageing technology will be in whisky’s future was raised, and very quickly shot down. ‘There are lots of processes that earn a lot of press, but it isn’t interesting to most distillers,’ Spoelman added.
Rye will be a global phenomenon
The majority of speakers at the World Whisky Forum spoke of distilling rye, and not all from countries typically associated with that style of whisky. The explosion in popularity of American rye whiskey, coupled with a resurgence in rye-based cocktails such as the Sazerac, has inspired global distilleries to give it a shot. Under current Scotch whisky legislation a rye whisky would be classed as ‘grain whisky’, but should the category continue to grow around the world a movement to establish a ‘Scotch rye’ or ‘single rye’ definition could take shape. After all, Bruichladdich’s Coughlin spoke of purchasing an adjacent farm on Islay on which to – possibly – grow a rye crop. Miika Lipiäinen and Kalle Valkonen from Finland’s Kyrö distillery are already working on the establishment of a Nordic rye and single malt rye category. Could it be just a matter of time before Scotland catches up?
Meanwhile Hiram Walker’s Don Livermore believes the future of the category won’t include questions about the content of mashbills. ‘Rye has the highest lignin content of all grains, which is the world’s most unappreciated molecule. Don’t ask me how much rye is in my whisky, ask me how much 4-ethylguaiacol it contains.’
Keep moving forward
One of the final takeaways, which not only encapsulated the mood of the Forum but spoke of an ongoing theme driving the global industry, was a need for progression. Not just from the Scotch producers, who are often – perhaps mistakenly – perceived to be behind the curve when it comes to innovation, but for world whisky as well. Not just for individual operations, but for the entire industry as one. A need to continue speaking to one another, to share ideas and collaborate. To look to other industries, take inspiration from bartenders and brewers, chocolatiers and coffee roasters (guest distilling was one, wonderfully exciting, suggestion).
Palmer said: ‘The Scotch industry is weak; they all just talk to each other and so the spiral [of knowledge] is closing in.’ InchDairnie is taking its inspiration from distilleries around the world, as well as other producers across the food and drink sector. ‘We’re even looking at the world of chocolate to see how they create flavour,’ he said.
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