William Grant & Sons is to launch a new range of blended whiskies under the Hazelwood brand.
Apparently there are now 3,200 craft brewers in the US (probably even more since I started writing that sentence). They define styles, lead – and create – trends.
They are well-organised, financially viable; they challenge the status quo and have in the past three decades changed the landscape of American beer, its flavour, image and consumption.
The same is happening in the UK, where there are now in excess of 800 breweries. The drinking of craft beer has moved from being the preserve of bearded men of a certain age to being that of… er… bearded men of a certain (but different) age – and, more hearteningly, women (but without the beards).
Initially dismissive of the changes in their industry, the major brewers in the US are now applying a new strategy with regard to craft brewers. They’re buying them.
Anheuser-Busch, for example, has bought four of its rivals since 2011 and has declared its intent to continue its programme.
The same process will, inevitably, be paralleled in the ‘craft’* whisky distilling movement. William Grant’s tie-up with Tuthilltown Spirits in New York was the first – but won’t be the last.
We’ve seen it happen for years with vodka, so why should whisky be any different?
Sign of the times: Tuthilltown’s Hudson Bourbon
The big guy provides capital, expertise, a distribution network and (if wise) acts in a hands-off fashion. It’s the distilling equivalent of Unilever’s ownership of Ben & Jerry’s.
There is another option, again taken by American brewers: the creation of a ‘diffusion’ line.
Think of it this way. The new, small whisky distiller has to be different in order to compete. They must innovate to cut through. The best of that new thinking will pique the interest of the majors.
It might be the trigger for investment in – or takeover of – the craft distillery, or it might just give them an idea for a diffusion range.
On the other hand, maybe the big boys don’t need some newcomer to show them how to make new styles of whisky. Have you ever considered that they might know it all already, but are just not telling?
Little birds land on my shoulder on occasion and tell me of some of the experiments and trials which are taking place in the majors’ distilleries and labs. Some are to assist in production efficiency, but others are genuinely innovative.
The question is: will they ever be commercialised? Indeed, can they? Is it possible to run a distillery on a stop/start regime with different yeasts, cereals, ferment times etc?
It has always been said that you can’t, but maybe you can. Perhaps the majors need to start thinking in a crafty way and set up divisions to sell their own ‘experimental’ whiskies.
Could it happen? I think it should.
* I consider all whisky makers to be craftsmen, no matter what their size.
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