From the Editors

Shorts from our editorial team

  • Re-imagining the single malt drinker

    29 June 2016

    Pretending to be something you’re not hasn’t worked out well for anyone in the past. Some good examples include Top Gear’s new presenters, Chris Evans and Matt Le Blanc (who are they kidding trying to be anything other than a radio presenter and Joey Tribbiani?), Donald Trump as a serious politician, and Boris Johnson as likeable…

    It’s concerning then when one of the world’s best-selling single malt Scotch whiskies – in fact one of the first malts to be exported from Scotland in 1963 – begins taking its marketing cues from American whiskey.

    So much so that at first glance Glenfiddich’s new Rethink Whisky campaign for its 14-year-old Bourbon Barrel Reserve could easily be mistaken for an advert for Jack Daniel’s, what with its American bluegrass score and backyard BBQs.

    The next generation of single malt drinkers need to be tempted away from Bourbon

    ‘Think America’s next big whisky is from Kentucky?’ a deep, gravely American voice asks. ‘Introducing the smooth sophistication of Scotland, with the sweet kick of Kentucky.’

    The product itself is still Scotch whisky both legally and organoleptically – it’s matured in Speyside for 14 years in ex-Bourbon casks, before finishing in virgin American oak. However, the expression is described as ‘a true celebration of the American spirit, and the American whisky industry’s contribution to Scottish single malt.’ The truth is, if it were marketed any other way the comparison wouldn’t have arisen.

    As a US exclusive, Glenfiddich has positioned its ‘rich, sweet and vibrant’ Bourbon Barrel Reserve to appeal to American whiskey drinkers. How some can still claim Scotch whisky’s Bourbonisation doesn’t exist I can’t fathom, when this is a clear example.

    As I’ve previously stated on the subject, this is potentially dangerous territory. Scotch has a long-established flavour profile and reputation of its own; the second it starts masquerading as another popular style of whisky it loses that identity. Trends come and go, and in a centuries-old industry like Scotch whisky, a reliance on piggybacking onto other whiskies’ popularity could damage its reputation in the long term.

    However, I’m sticking my neck out here by saying this campaign is something to be applauded. Considering the risks of Bourbonisation to an established brand, it’s courageous of Glenfiddich to break the boundaries of convention to attract a new generation of single malt drinkers.

    Whisky as a whole has done a fine job of shrugging off its stereotype as an older man’s drink (the gains seen on Bourbon (5% according to Discus) and Irish whiskey (16%) in the US over the past few years are in some part testament to this), but single malt Scotch, as arguably the most aspirational whisky in the world, still has some way to go, despite growth of 7% to 1.46m nine-litre cases last year. Ironically, in the UK the brand is still peddling itself to the male elite, through the launch of a ‘gentleman’s whisky lounge’ at a Knightsbridge hotel.

    Stateside, however – the world’s largest malt market by volume – Glenfiddich is using its Bourbon Barrel Reserve to tempt young, modern Bourbon and American whiskey drinkers to try malt. This segment, after all, is key to the future of the category.

    Rethink whisky, the campaign says (really meaning ‘rethink single malt Scotch’), while visibly eschewing every convention associated with the product.

    In the series of four themed digital shorts that are being posted across social media, Scotch is poured not daintily but sloppily into rocks glasses that don’t match; Aunt Evie pours more than a responsible two fingers worth; and a good slug is poured over ice and handed to a woman tending the BBQ. Could Scotch get more radical?

    Next we’ll be seeing limited edition summer bottlings packaged in leather biker jackets and sporting hipster beards.

    And why not?

  • Expensive but poor cocktails can jog on

    01 June 2016

    One of the most memorable cocktails I ever had – one that honestly gave me a ‘wow’ moment and, dear readers, a single malt-based drink – was From Dusk Till Dawn at the The Gibson in London. It was one of those concoctions featuring such exotic ingredients I expected David Attenborough to sweep through the door with a camera crew: Capuacu butter wash Craigellachie 13 Year Old, Valerian root and tamari soya, black garlic honey, millet amazake and fresh lemon. Yeah, I only recognised the whisky and the lemon juice too, and thought Valerian root was a Game of Thrones reference.

    Often enough bars get carried away listing ingredients with unpronounceable names and elaborate garnishes without a thought for flavour. Not this drink. This was sublime. One of the best I’ve ever had the pleasure of getting to know, and great value for money at £11.

    No, journalism does not pay enough to warrant a Gibson visit very often, but on the rare occasion I do shell out for a cocktail I want a good one.

    From Dusk Till Dawn: a cocktail worth parting with your money for​

    Now, I’ve had the fortune of drinking in some of the best bars in the world, most of them destination bars for good reason – they create cocktails worth a thousand mile trip and a £10-20 hole in my pocket. Others, unfortunately, are more like the Kardashians – beautiful to behold but lacking substance.

    The price of a cocktail – or wine, whisky or beer for that matter – in a high end bar includes the pleasure of sitting in beautiful surroundings, enjoying an ’elite’ experience, but surely the quality of the drink comes into play as well?

    While on my holidays last week, a friend recommended I pop into the most extravagant and historic hotel in Marrakech for a drink in their bar – named after a famous British Prime Minister, and rumoured to be an experience I wouldn’t want to miss.

    Unfortunately the live jazz pianist and charms of the bartender weren’t enough to make up for the poor quality of the drinks: an eggy and unbalanced ‘Lapsang Souchong-smoked’ sour made with Laphroaig 10 Year Old and a watery Old Fashioned (made Pendennis Club-style) with Luxardo maraschino liqueur instead of a cherry. At £20 each, these were more expensive than most London bars. More so than a cocktail at London’s Artesian, the luxurious hotel bar voted the world’s best by Drinks International several times over.

    Now I understand Marrakech is hardly London or New York – the two great cocktail capitals of the world – and this is hardly the first time I’ve been disappointed by an excessively-priced drink in a five-star hotel, but some perspective must be heeded where pricing is concerned. That, or bartenders need to up their game.

    Bars needn’t be elaborate with their drinks to gain favour – simple classic cocktails executed with precision are enough to put a smile on my face, despite a high price tag. I’d happily hand over a tenner for a sumptuous Old Fashioned (made with Scotch, of course), down my local boozer, so long as it was made well.

    Incidentally, you can still try From Dusk Till Dawn at The Gibson (and I recommend you do). Meanwhile, my ‘friend’ with less trustworthy recommendations will be buying the next round.

  • Confusion over ‘single estate’ whisky

    11 May 2016

    Have you ever considered the multitude of coffee that’s available? There are over 30 different drinks, from espresso to Americano, plus options to go skinny, Mocha, iced and now even the trendy cold brew.

    Starbucks UK sells 19 different types of coffee bean including blends, flavoured batches and single origin varieties from exotic countries. I couldn’t be bothered to count all of Starbucks USA’s offerings, but help yourself – the list is endless. Just calculating the number of options available at the chain’s UK outlets alone you’re looking at around 2,000 coffee combinations, and that’s without factoring in syrups. There are 152 varieties of latté alone; has anyone tried them all?

    This isn’t a free advert for Starbucks – far from it. Having too much choice is overwhelming, and according to American psychologist Barry Schwartz in his book, The Paradox of Choice, can actually make consumers feel less satisfied with their decision than if they were given fewer options.

    Ironically most people choose the same coffee regularly (mine’s a white Americano if anyone’s buying), perhaps as a result of this coffee besiegement and a lack of comprehension of the various styles – anyone know the difference between a latté and a flat white?

    Coffee confusion: can too much choice be a bad thing? (Image: Starbucks)

    The same confusion exists over single origin coffee and single estate. Unless you’re a hipster or coffee buff you probably won’t know the difference, which is why some Scotch whisky producers’ recent adoption of the latter term could be a dangerous move.

    During the Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival I was given a tour of the relatively new Ballindalloch distillery by owner Guy Macpherson-Grant, whose family owns several acres of arable land and the nearby Ballindalloch Castle. Since its inception in 2014, Ballindalloch has maintained a USP as a ‘single estate’ distillery. In Macpherson-Grant’s view, because the distillery processes barley grown on the family’s estate it qualifies as single estate. Except for the fact that the site doesn’t malt its own barley. Neither does Arbikie in Angus, which has recently begun distilling barley for its own ‘single estate’ whisky. One might argue that malting is the first step in the whisky production process and if it’s conducted elsewhere then how can a distillery claim to be single estate? (NB to Ballindalloch’s credit it doesn’t mask the fact that its malting is done elsewhere).

    This is just an example of two separate Scottish farming families moving into whisky distilling using crops that already belong to them. However, with the number of small, artisanal farm distillery planning applications on the rise, the Scotch whisky industry could very easily be joined by a wave of ‘single estate’ distilleries soon.

    Single estate? Ballidalloch's barley is harvested from the estate, but not malted on-site

    As far as whisky is concerned, the term ‘single estate’ hasn’t been defined (the new ‘craft’, perhaps?). In respect of tea, coffee and cocoa it refers to produce grown on one single plantation, or a collective of local farms. And therein lies the problem.

    If consumers, eventually, come to understand single estate as referring to produce from one farm, how can it be applied to a distillery, and even then, to a distillery which doesn’t control 100% of the process? Particularly when new distilleries that do malt their own barley come online. 

    Furthermore, if the debate surrounding the effect barley terroir has on flavour continues (and it will), we could eventually see an influx of farm-specific whisky on the shelves. Bruichladdich from Sunnydale Farm, anyone?

    I’m all for innovation and broadening choice of flavour, but it must be done with purpose and not simply for the sake of establishing a USP. Even so, the danger of inaugurating too many ‘single estate’ whiskies that have varying definitions could – like coffee – end up overwhelming consumers and encourage them to stick with what they know, ultimately leading to – in Schwarz’s view – dissatisfaction with their choice.

  • Gluten-free garbage

    22 March 2016

    There’s a scary marketing trend gathering pace in America that could have a (slight) negative impact on Scotch whisky sales.

    Over the past 10 years there’s been a rise in the number of American consumers choosing a gluten-free diet, regardless of whether they suffer from gluten intolerance or, worse, coeliac disease.

    According to a recent Gallup poll, 20% of Americans now include gluten-free products in their diet, from natural foods that don’t contain gluten, to modified GF breads and pasta.

    For those who are unaware, gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley and rye that some people can be intolerant to. Symptoms include fatigue and depression. In worst cases, the body reacts to the digestion of gluten as if it were poison, making sufferers very ill. This is called Coeliac disease.

    It’s not necessarily the rise in the number of Americans going gluten-free that’s the issue. The problem is the rise of gluten-free vodka. Now bear with me.

    Bread is usually made from gluten-containing wheat, and can be dangerous if eaten by someone with Coeliac disease.​

    Distilled spirits do NOT contain gluten. The process of distillation removes the protein from the grain, so all you’re left with in your glass is alcohol, water and a few congeners that contribute flavour (unless it’s a liqueur then add sugar and flavourings to that list. And botanicals if it’s gin).

    According to glutenfreeliving.com: ‘Vinegar is accepted as gluten free by major celiac disease centers and support groups. In the United States most distilled white vinegar is made from corn. And even when it is made from wheat, which does happen often, the distillation process removes the gluten protein. Donald Kasarda, Ph. D., a grain scientist who is now retired from the USDA and who has a specific interest in gluten free grains, said there is no scientific evidence for gluten peptides in vinegar. Further, he said he does not know of a single chemist who thinks there are gluten peptides in distilled products.’

    So why are there more and more ‘specialist’ vodkas purporting to be gluten-free when all distilled spirits are such?

    The American Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), which is a department of the US Treasury responsible for making sure alcoholic beverages are labelled correctly, identifies a gluten-free spirit as being a product produced from raw material that does not naturally contain gluten (such as brandy or rum), or that has been modified to remove gluten.

    As corn does not naturally contain gluten, any vodka made from it is permitted to use the term ‘gluten-free’ in large letters across its bottle.

    However whisky – single malt Scotch, blended Scotch, American rye, even Bourbon with a mashbill that contains rye or barley in addition to corn – is exempt from this permission.

    In a ruling posted in February 2014, the TTB stated: ‘TTB does not believe that this provision [as outlined above] will generally be relevant to malt beverages fermented from malted barley and other gluten-containing grains, or distilled spirits distilled from gluten-containing grains, as these products are usually made from the grains themselves, not from ingredients such as wheat starch or barley starch.’

    Stoli Gluten Free – it's made from 88% corn and 12% buckwheat, so of course it's gluten-free.

    What does this mean for Scotch whisky? Well for starters while the rest of the world can identify it as gluten-free, it is not considered as such in the eyes of American Federal law. This is a country that’s close to putting a fascist, racist bureaucrat in the White House after all.

    According to research conducted by Stoli vodka (who incidentally has launched its new gluten-free product this month), 56% of people don’t know that vodka is naturally free from gluten anyway.

    Here’s the punchline: producers know spirits are gluten-free, but in order to educate consumers they have to create an entirely different product that conforms to the TTB’s inaccurate definition. Americans with an intolerance or coeliac disease are under the impression they can ONLY consume products labelled as such. That is simply not true.

    Essentially this TTB ruling is ignoring scientific research and preying on the naivety of consumers. As all Scotch whisky sold in America cannot legally be labelled as gluten-free (as it must contain an element of malted barley), the entire category is going to struggle to gain the attention of this consumer segment if the trend toward gluten-free living and selective marketing of a handful of spirits continues to grow.

  • The whisky bar that’s a game changer

    09 March 2016

    It’s tough to admit that there is still, after so many years of marketing to millennials, a lingering perception of whisky as elitist and an ‘acquired taste’. One needs only to read the countless Buzzfeed and HuffPost articles on the ‘26 Ways To Impress Your Boss/Girlfriend/Mates With Your Whisky Knowledge’ to realise whisky maintains an air of exclusivity. You won’t see Buzzfeed publish ‘26 Ways To Impress Your Boss/Girlfriend/Mates With Your Tea Knowledge’ any time soon. Everyone drinks tea; it has no secrets.

    Brands often talk of ‘demystifying’ whisky for consumers to make it more accessible, but just how complicated is whisky, really?

    Whisky drinkers – real whisky drinkers, not the ones absorbing clickbait internet articles in a bid to look intellectual or cultured – are spoilt for choice. There are hundreds of brands and styles within Scotch whisky alone, never mind the vastness of American whiskey or burgeoning – and in my opinion extremely exciting – Irish whiskey.

    Imagine walking into a whisky bar or specialist retailer anywhere in the world and coming face-to-face with so many bottles it seems the walls are made from them. One section contains Kentucky Bourbon; another features single pot still Irish whiskey. Each purports unique maturation or production techniques and many have unpronounceable names. Some have ages, others don’t.

    For whisky lovers it’s a haven, but if you were a newcomer wouldn’t you be overwhelmed? Where to even start?

    Whisky is a flexible beast that can be as complicated or as simple as need be, offering enough variables in its production to keep the fact geeks happy, while – at its most basic level – tasting fucking great. The problem is that too many whisky bars and retailers have neglected to address the needs of the new consumer, who just wants to understand whether or not they'll enjoy the flavour of what they're drinking.

    Black Rock: Whisky bar meets minimalist hip-hop den where flavour is king

    That is why the opening of Black Rock in London’s Shoreditch this week is a breath of fresh air. From Tristan Stephenson and Thomas Aske, the same team that introduced progressive cocktail bar Worship Street Whistling Shop, comes a whisky bar with a twist. This is a space geared toward blowing away whisky’s complications and perceptions – gone are the Scottish tweed and hunting lodge décor in favour of a minimalist, hip-hop vibe (how very Shoreditch). At Black Rock the focus is on flavour as the core communicator.

    Here it doesn’t matter whether your whisky hails from Dublin or Dufftown – if it shares the same flavour profile, it shares the same shelf. Age and price are also irrelevant in a space where the raison d’être is to actually demystify whisky in a meaningful way that consumers with zero experience can understand.

    ‘Our aim entirely is to simplify whisky so our guests are the ones feeling as though they’ve discovered whisky.’ Aske told me. ‘We don’t want to be too clever; everything we're doing is designed to simplify whisky as much as possible.’

    Whisky aficionados are still catered for – among the bar's 250-odd bottles there may be an appearance from the guys’ personal Karuizawa stocks – but one thing is for sure: Black Rock is a game changer.  

    In London at least, navigating the whisky landscape just got a whole lot easier for the newcomer.

  • The importance of regional styles

    27 January 2016

    Scotch whisky regions have become increasingly insignificant as indicators of flavour.

    This is not a new trend. As a general global interest in whisky has spread, and Scottish producers have found themselves competing against their American, Irish and Japanese brothers, a desperate need to innovate and diversify has sprouted.

    This has led to unpeated Islay whiskies, heavily Sherried and robust Speysides and light, fruity Highlanders, not to mention the tidal wave of experimental cask finishes that have altered traditional regional flavour profiles beyond all recognition.

    The Scotch whisky regional map is often used by educators such as The Scotch Whisky Experience in Edinburgh to communicate flavour to new drinkers. Photo: Tripadvisor.

    For the seasoned whisky enthusiast this is no big deal – they moved beyond judging a whisky’s style by its regional provenance long ago. Factors such as age, wood type, distillery reputation and even filtration are much more accurate representations of flavour than provenance. It’s led many to believe categorising Scotch styles into geographical regions is an outdated method of communicating flavour, and they’re correct to an extent, but it also provides an expedient map for the Scotch newbie.

    Whisky educators consistently use the regional map as a tool to break down the admittedly overwhelming spectrum of Scotch whisky styles for new drinkers. It’s clear, easy to navigate and stands true for the vast majority of entry-level malts on the market.

    Grouping Scotland’s 115-odd distilleries into five geographical areas makes the category so much easier to digest. You like a light and fruity dram? Great, explore Speyside. Is your preference for something smokier? Islay is for you.

    Some 34 whiskies were blind tasted at the 2016 Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival Whisky Awards.

    Last week I had the pleasure of judging the Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival Whisky Awards, a mouthful of a competition that’s open exclusively to distilleries from the region. A newcomer to the category might expect glass upon glass of fruity and floral liquid, but that was far from being the case.

    If the whiskies entered give a snapshot of their region, one could only conclude that Speyside is home to the most diverse range in Scotland. Sherry monsters, wine cask finishes and even peated whiskies made an appearance, all of which combined to challenge the concept that regional variation still exists, for Speyside at least.

    It’s all well and good to give whisky drinkers some choice and variety – innovation is the key to driving the category forward. However experimenting with flavour beyond any recognition of a region’s historical style will make Scotch whisky as a whole more intimidating and tough to navigate for newcomers. It’s all about balance.

    If you want to realise Speyside’s diversity for yourself, get along to the Spirit of Speyside festival on 28 April – 2 May (tickets on sale on 2 February). There you will also have the oppotunity to pick the winner of the whisky awards.

  • Precision beats power

    16 December 2015

    Thirteen seconds! Anyone watching Conor McGregor’s takedown of Jose Aldo this weekend was either thoroughly disappointed by the brevity of the fight or left gaping at the power and accuracy of the Irishman’s left jab. Or both.

    After just 13 seconds McGregor walked away as the new UFC featherweight champion, chalking up a claim to the fastest UFC championship victory, and an extra US$500,000 in his pocket to boot.

    His calm, confident yet matter-of-fact attitude and loose fighting style makes earning half a million dollars in the same time it takes to read this sentence seem easy [click here for more #thingsthatlastlongerthanAldo].

    McGregor puts his success down to the fact that ‘nobody can take that left hand shot,’ but adds, ‘he’s powerful and he’s fast, but precision beats power and timing beats speed’.

    The same can be said of Kilchoman’s rapid success. In 2005, founder Anthony Wills could have built a behemoth to match Kilchoman’s Islay cousins, but a decision to strictly focus the distillery’s USP as a small-scale farm operation has allowed the company to carve itself a niche. Similarly, an unwavering dedication to select only quality casks for maturation enabled the distillery to release its first whisky at just three years’ old. The first run of 8,000 bottles sold out within two weeks. Even its flagship Machir Bay bottling is a vatting of whisky aged just five to six years.

    Even now, 10 years on from the date Kilchoman’s stills came to life, Wills and his team, including master distiller John MacLellan, are not rushing to compete against the capacity and marketing might of other single malt brands. Yes an expansion of the plant is underway, but Wills is reluctant to add any more stills to retain that farm distillery character Kilchoman is so renowned for.

    At the same time, the distillery’s first mainstream 10-year-old bottling – an exclusive one-off expression was sold at a charity auction just this week – is likely to be a few years in the making yet.

    It’s Wills’ determination to operate Kilchoman at a slow, steady pace and expand in a way that’s right for the brand that has cemented the distillery’s place among Islay’s whisky set.

    Much like McGregor, Wills is taking a measured approach and as we learned from this weekend’s fight, precision beats power; timing beats speed.

  • Stop discouraging female drinkers

    18 November 2015

    I’m not an active feminist. I get more worked up over the correct pronunciation of ‘Bourbon’ (it’s not a bloody biscuit!) than I do women’s rights, not that I’m not in favour of them of course. It’s just that I actively choose to focus my frustrations elsewhere.

    However two instances of thoughtless marketing in the past couple of weeks have lit a feminist fire inside of me strong enough to burn a bra or two (okay I probably wouldn’t go that far, they’re way too expensive).

    I’d dismiss the first as a throwaway comment if it weren’t for the fact it was widely distributed in a press release to communicate the launch of a new product:

    ‘Ballantine’s Hard Fired is a modern, masculine expression that responds to current trends in the whisky market…’

    What does a ‘masculine expression’ mean exactly? And surely if it’s modern and responding to current trends it shouldn’t be masculine as everyone knows more women than ever are enjoying whisky?

    I had the opportunity to ask Peter Moore, global brand director for Ballantine’s, precisely what he meant by the comment.

    ‘We saw that [Ballantine’s Hard Fired] reached into a male interest in fire and smoke and craft, which made it a little bit more masculine,’ he told me. ‘What man doesn’t love going out there and letting off fireworks and having bonfires and things?’

    Personally I love the seduction of a roaring fire, the scent of burning wood and the glowing warmth that threatens to blister your skin. How is that experience masculine? Are fireworks a pastime only men are privy to now? In fact it should be men who are more pissed off at Moore’s dated generalisation of themselves as primordial pyromaniacs.

    ‘We do not want to suggest in anyway this won’t be enjoyed by women, he added. ‘The French have this wonderful thing of calling things male or female, well this has a much more masculine character than a lot of other Ballantine’s which tend to be unisex.’

    Unisex whisky? Never heard of it but there he has hit the nail on the head. Flavour is subjective. There is no such thing as a female palate or a male palate, only an experienced and inexperienced one. Marketing to a certain sex on flavour preference alone is generalist and insulting.

    No women allowed: by adhering to outdated stereotypes companies are inadvertently alienating the female sex.

    I said there were two instances of thoughtless marketing, and the second bout came in the form this week of a more upsetting, apparently exclusive whisky fan club.

    Beam Suntory Germany needed a new name for its Signature Malts fan club to integrate the portfolios of both companies following Suntory’s acquisition of Beam. Unfortunately the group chose to name their club ‘Men of Malts’, an insensitive moniker that seemed to exclude the membership of women.

    I say 'apparently exclusive', because Beam Suntory Germany later claimed the term ‘men’ had been used to mean ‘humanity rather than the male sex’. While there was no strict rule listing the ownership of a phallus as a condition of entry, females coming across this group would almost certainly have been discouraged from joining up.

    The name is now being changed, thanks to the eagle eye of a female blogger and a few words from Scotchwhisky.com, but whisky companies need to be more careful not to deter women.

    If we want to encourage more women to discover whisky we need to move away from dated stereotypes and quit attaching these archaic and sexist sentiments to it.

    For a category that’s desperately trying to attract a growing demographic of whisky-drinking women through concocting light and sweet innovations, taking the time to consider whether its marketing initiatives are in fact a deterrent to the very consumer they’re hoping to entice would do no harm.

    Otherwise we may as well hang a big sign around bottle necks saying ‘Hands off ladies, this is a real man’s drink’, while offering a slap on the bum and leery smirk free with every purchase.

  • Is Whiskey Union breaking with tradition?

    13 November 2015

    What exactly is the most ‘unorthodox and weird’ thing about Diageo’s new Whiskey Union range?

    Could it be the seemingly whimsical way these whiskies have been assembled and launched? It took the group just six months to create the concept – an unusually brief period considering most NPDs are on the table for two years before they come to fruition.

    Or is it the fact that Diageo has in the past insisted Bourbon is not taking market share from Scotch, but its Smoky Goat is now strategically placed to appeal to Bourbon drinkers with its ‘sweet’ flavour profile and deliberately competitive price point? It’s a strategy that Diageo is not alone in following.

    The Mobsprey: the new face of Scotch whisky? 

    Perhaps it’s Huxley's bizarre description as a ‘rare genus whiskey’, which is not only spelled rather confusingly with an ‘e’ when it contains multiple types of whiskies, it’s also such a bewildering term that even Wikipedia’s definition is dizzying to follow.

    Furthermore, instead of taking its branding cues from a particular region’s geography, heritage or weather, Huxley is more aligned with a macabre Victorian fascination in taxidermy, featuring a nightmarish chimera of a moose, bobcat and osprey, named Mobsprey, on its label. Is Diageo developing a morbid side?

    Meanwhile, adding hops to a whisky mash is not necessarily a brand new concept – several independent distilleries in Canada and America have been experimenting for at least a decade (see Charbray, Sons of Liberty, Corsair and JP Wiser’s) – but never before has there been a hopped ‘Scotch’ in the form of Boxing Hares (admit it, ‘hopped Scotch’ has a certain ring to it, even if it moves the SWA to pull out its rulebook and wagging finger as it’s technically incorrect).

    The entire concept is so far outside Diageo’s comfort zone that it’s unorthodox by its very nature. The world’s biggest drinks group launching a new product, let alone three, before it’s been properly tested and considered? Blow me down.

    The drinks industry is well aware that most new product developments (NPDs) are doomed to fail, but for the first time, a large drinks group is openly admitting it expects that. Is this transparency a way for Diageo to appeal to Joe public who has lost faith in sinister large corporations?

    Bourbon, beer and hipster: Covering all consumer trends with Whiskey Union.

    A more cynical person than myself might suggest Whiskey Union smacks of desperation to claw back declining sales for Diageo’s Scotch category by covering all current trend bases in one swoop. It’s become a case of chasing consumer spend rather than investing in doing Scotch better.

    Craft products? Check. Millennials targeted? Check. Transparency? Check. Combatting interest in Bourbon and beer? Check. Enticing new entrants to the category? Oh yes.

    But on the other hand, Diageo is addressing a factor that has long been missing from Scotch whisky but is present in every other major brown spirits category – fun. Aside from William Grant’s Monkey Shoulder, which other Scotch brands meet the needs of the younger consumer who’s out to party?

    It’s all very well having an aspirational brand such as Johnnie Walker or Buchanan’s as an entry level Scotch, but where is Diageo’s answer to Jack Daniel’s or spiced rum, that party spirit that can be mixed with coke without stigma attached? Diageo may be driving Smoky Goat on the rocks, but its sweet and smoky flavour profile is perfectly suited to cola, while its cheeky, quirky personality positions it nicely as a trendy, fun serve.

    Ultimately, the most unusual thing about Whiskey Union is that with it Diageo is finally addressing a gap in the market that its prior preoccupation with tradition and heritage in Scotch whisky blinded it to.

  • Back to the Future Day

    21 October 2015

    Great Scott! Bust out those self-tying sneakers, hop onto your hoverboard and switch on some Frankie Goes to Hollywood, for today is Back to the Future Day.

    Yes, we have finally arrived at the date in time Marty McFly and Doc Brown broke through the space-time continuum to in their Delorean, in the smash-hit 1989 film sequel.

    The day Marty McFly travels back to the future is now a reality.

    For our favourite time travellers 21 October 2015 was a fantastical world apart from the familiar shoulder pads and big hair of the 1980s, though director Robert Zemeckis did accurately predict several innovations.

    Hoverboards are now scarily real, as is 3D cinema and video chat. Heck, Zemeckis even predicted the invention of the Google Glass.

    Certainly technology has evolved in the last 26 years, as has the Scotch whisky industry, which rose from the ashes of a crash in the 1980s to export 1.19bn bottles a year all over the world.

    Even distilleries have implemented new technologies that have streamlined production, yielding more liquid faster than ever before, while biomass plants that convert waste product into energy are now par the course.

    In celebration of Back to the Future Day here’s a look back at some of the highlights occurring in Scotch whisky in 1989.

    'Hey McFly you Bojo! Those boards don't work on water!'

    Ben Nevis. In 1989, Long John International – the whisky arm of brewer Whitbread – sold Ben Nevis distillery to Japanese distiller Nikka, a long-term customer of the business.

    Lagavulin. The now iconic Lagavulin 16 Year Old joined Diageo’s Classic Malts portfolio in 1989.

    Bowmore. Japanese drinks group Suntory bought a stake in Islay distillery, Bowmore, in 1989, going onto acquire the site fully in 1994.

    Glentauchers. United Distillers sold the mothballed distillery to rival Allied Distillers (later purchased by Pernod Richard) in 1989 and became a named component of Ballantine’s.

    Imperial. The mothballed distillery is sold to Allied Distillers in 1989 but not reopened for another two years. Eventually the site was demolished to make way for Chivas Brothers’ gleaming new Dalmunach plant.

    Glenrothes. While much of the whisky industry was struggling under a fall in demand, Glenrothes swam against the tide of closures and increased its distillery capacity with the installation of two new stills, bringing its total to 10.

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