The master blender on how new world whiskies are challenging Scotch’s status quo.
The spirit of old East Berlin had clearly possessed me. The audience looked… confused. That isn’t all that unusual. My talks are planned in terms of overall theme, what needs to be said, what drinks will help support this framework (and stop people getting too bored), but quite how I get from A to Z is… well… fluid, which seems appropriate.
This particular one at Berlin Bar Convent was on a history of gin in seven drinks, each one a waypoint in the spirit’s evolution. I was extemporising on genever’s success from the 17th century onwards, and how it had come about directly as a result of pressure on distillers to make a non-wine-based spirit for the local bourgeoisie, whose supplies of wine and brandy had been cut off thanks to the Eighty Years’ War.
‘Actually,’ I continued, ‘gin’s story is one of class warfare.’ This is when the faces began to look puzzled.
I plunged on regardless, outlining a theory (which was forming in my head as I spoke) that, whenever gin was the drink of the proletariat (judging by the faces, a term not heard in East Berlin since 1989), it had a toxic reputation.
Only when it became acceptable to the middle classes, acquired bourgeois acceptability, if you like, would it become popular. The spirit’s history and popularity swings between these two poles.
I stand by this theory, by the way – Gin Craze? Working class. Old Tom? Working class. London Dry? Middle class. Martini and G&T? Middle class.
Gin Lane: the craze immortalised by Hogarth was a working-class phenomenon
There’s even a class element with regard to gin’s collapse in the 1980s, when it was identified as being stuffy, boring, old-fashioned – and irredeemably middle class, the drink of ladies of a certain age, and chaps who wore pink trousers on the weekend. Its current renaissance has been driven by a widening of its appeal to all-new, younger, drinkers.
Could Scotch whisky’s story be told in a similar way? I don’t think so. Yes, Scotch’s initial boost came when toddies, then whisky and soda became acceptably middle-class drinks in London, but the difference between Scotch and gin was that the former always transcended class boundaries.
When growing up, I could go into the Rogano (Glasgow’s great classic bar) and see someone having a dram. I could go across the road to the Horseshoe and see a working class guy having the same.
I would see the G&Ts and Martinis being drunk at the former, but never at the latter. Scotch’s long-term success was based on its ability to appeal to all classes. Its decline in the ‘80s wasn’t driven by class, but by a lack of fashionability.
It has been this appeal to a wider demographic internationally which has been one of Scotch whisky’s greatest assets. It was aspirational at all levels – a standard blend was as much of a treat for the working-class drinker as a deluxe whisky was for the rich.
That is why the current narrowing of focus by many firms is so worrying. Scotch is not just a drink for the elite, for speculators, for ‘celebrities’, it has succeeded because it is the people’s spirit.
Concentrating on one stratum of society is ultimately counter-productive. Just look at gin.
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