Our expert Prof tackles this oxymoronic riddle that often leaves whisky drinkers puzzled.
The office has a distinct smell of juniper. In fact, I’m pretty convinced my skin smells of it as well. That comes from deciding to make 300-plus serves from 80 different gins. It’s been a long day, but I wanted to get to grips with what has happened to the gin market in recent years – and the change is noticeable.
Gin started life as the first global spirit, though in a manner different to how we use the term these days. It was the first social spirit whose character came from ingredients obtained from around the world; the offspring of the mercantile empires of the Netherlands and Britain; the first manifestation of the world shrinking, an exotic distillation of trade routes.
Local spirits spoke in a different way. If gin was expansive, they looked to their soils, earth, and air. They looked inwards. In time although Cognac and single malt Scotch became global in reach, they remained rooted to place. Gin stayed global in flavour… until now.
As gin has become reborn, so its new distillers have begun to make spirits which reflect more clearly the scents of the place: South Africa’s fynbos or the Australian outback, the shores and moors of Wales, Ireland, Scotland, and England; the mountains of Norway, the hillsides and forests of Japan. Pepperberry and lemon myrtle, yuzu, sencha and hinoki; bog myrtle and horseradish, rowan berries, elderflower, milk thistle, and seaweed. Yes, the botanical mix still has global reach, but many gins are now more determinedly distillates of a specific environment.
Sense of place: Single malts like Talisker are rooted in their locality and individual identity
Blended Scotch has long been moving in the opposite direction. By their nature, global brands become – or can become – stateless, not so much the product of a place than a concept with a tangential relationship to origins. The brand becomes the focal point; its place of manufacture is secondary.
Maybe blends’ success is down to them being malleable, their ability to adapt to the needs of different occasions and markets, having the versatility to be served in numerous ways. This fluidity of image and usage makes it easier for people to relate to. It becomes theirs, but as a consequence it loses touch with its roots.
Blends’ biggest challenge in a world where the local is becoming a more important motivation for purchase is to try and reinforce their Scottish roots. It’s a tricky manoeuvre, and one which can easily slip into cliché and sentimentality. But the majors are trying – the Johnnie Walker Experience in Edinburgh is at the forefront of this recalibration.
If the blend world is one of amenability, flex and inclusiveness, single malt’s point of difference is being an intense expression of a singular identity. Each single malt will always be different to its neighbour. Why? Because blenders need that to be the case. It means that the malt world is one of variety and exploration.
Global-local: Johnnie Walker’s Edinburgh Experience fuses the locality of malts with the global reach of blends
It may chafe with the globalist views of marketing departments, but malts do what blends can’t – and vice versa.
If single malts begin to try and wear the same garments as blends in an attempt to become global brands their essence is eroded. Malts are defined by location and the specificity of their flavour. The distiller has to balance being true to that distillery character while still finding new ways of expressing it.
The danger lies in forgetting that and trying to imitate what other malts are doing. ‘There’s a backlash against Sherry? OK we’ll do a volte face and take it out.’
‘Consumers like vanilla? We can do that as well.’
‘Some folks don’t care for smoke? We can hide it.’
In each case, the distillery’s foundations are being chipped away, individuality being replaced by standardisation. Malts can become brands, they just can’t become brands in the same way as blends. Malts are local.
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