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Whisky: in with the on-trade

Published:  23 July, 2008

Whisky has always tended to have a rather polarising effect; people either love it or hate it - there are very few who think it's just okay.

Whisky's image hasn't necessarily been helped over the years by the fact that its core group of fans has stubbornly remained old and male, while the younger style-bar crowd have gone mad for the endless stream of pretty vodkas. But trends are changing, and British consumers are in the midst of a taste revolution, encompassing everything from the freshness of a morning fruit juice to the hang time of their la carte Angus beef.

This growing interest in the quality of all things edible and drinkable can only be a great thing for whisky, particularly of the malt variety. Whisky needs a sophisticated palate and the search is on to track down as many of these as possible. Brand managers and malt whisky aficionados alike are pushing all sorts of ideas to drive whisky forward in the on-trade - serving it as an aperitif, a digestif, a cocktail ingredient and even as a food match. So is all the hard work paying off and is there really a growing interest in Scotland's uisge beathe, or water of life', from which whisky took its name?

It's all very well having an impressive number of whiskies behind the bar, the real challenge is persuading people to order them, and in this case, staff training and product knowledge is vital. Doug McIvor, spirits buyer for Berry Brothers and Rudd, which was voted 2006 Whisky Retailer of the Year by Whisky Magazine, agrees that the key to the on-trade is education, especially in London where there is a very wide global audience'. Berry Brothers has a twofold interest in the whisky industry through its ownership of the mighty Cutty Sark brand, but when it comes to supplying and training its whisky clients, there is no brand bias. Berry Brothers supplies the entire whisky selection and offers staff training for two of London's top lists: the Boisdale and the Athenaeum hotel, which carry 200 and 250 whiskies respectively.

Ranald Macdonald, owner of the Boisdale restaurants, is right behind Berry Brothers' training sessions and says: We do as many of these as possible and we also have a very low staff turnover. All our floor staff can make a number of good recommendations.' However, he doesn't see the need to have a whisky sommelier as such, explaining the whisky list is our sommelier, almost all of our malt whiskies come with a tasting note and I think this is the most accurate way of doing things'.

Antonio Monti, head barman at the Athenaeum in Mayfair, which has recently refurbished its famous whisky bar, also stresses the importance of the training he and his staff have received from Berry Brothers, although he adds that field trips to the distilleries really help the knowledge to stick and bring the different whiskies to life.'

Albannach bar and restaurant in London's Trafalgar Square is currently in the process of a partial overhaul of its whisky list, under the guidance of head barman Jim Wrigley. He took over this role from Jamie Forbes, who also founded Albannach's Aqua Vitae whisky club, and he is keen to freshen things up. I inherited this list and I still need to prove myself in the whisky world so I thought it was time to make some changes. I've brought down the range quite a bit - to 75 on the standard list and around 125 more "esoteric" options on a separate cellar selection - because I wanted to really pick and choose, making sure that each one is there for a reason.' This has resulted in a need for more staff training and, like Monti, Wrigley thinks distillery trips play a big part. We're gearing staff up for the new list at the moment and going on lots of distillery trips. Of course, it's a thinly disguised excuse to drink whisky but we're all learning plenty at the same time.'

Some whisky-oriented bars stick to more informal training methods, such as Bow Bar in Edinburgh, where bar manager Helen McLaughlin insists: Whiskies are not a classroom subject and some people really don't like them. I do casual tastings with any member of my staff who shows an interest. In my view, the best way to learn about whisky is to sit down with a group of friends and have a yabber about whisky in between the usual gossip.' This has proved successful, and two-thirds of the staff are more than competent with advising customers'.

Once you've trained the staff, what's next on the list to get those whiskies flowing? Are cocktails the answer or is it still considered sacrilege to mix malt whisky with anything other than a whisper of water? Wrigley at Albannach thinks people should be free to have whisky in whatever way they choose and cocktails are a popular option. We have 80 cocktails here and 40 of them use whisky. We use all different styles and sometimes throw in really special whiskies.' He also says it's a good way to bring girls into the frame. Some of the men involved in our Aqua Vitae club get their girlfriends to come along with the promise of cocktails. It's a great introduction to whisky.'

Trend setting

Macdonald at Boisdale was one of the early experimentalists with this idea and comments: I started doing malt whisky cocktails seven years ago and no one wanted to get involved. Now they do!' The idea behind the malt whisky cocktail is that a better whisky will make a better, and more interesting, drink, and Macdonald adds that people might even choose to have a Macallan 46 yo with Coke. While some people would shudder at the thought, I would say that it's going to be a damn good whisky and Coke'. McLaughlin at Bow Bar agrees there should be no rules when it comes to serving whisky, with one exception: Do not put Irn Bru with malt whisky, but anything else goes'.

Producing whisky and food-matching menus is another favourite concept from brand managers, and there's a good deal of experimentation with this in whisky-heavy restaurants. Is this a step too far or can whisky really challenge the dominance of wine on the dinner table? McIvor at Berry Brothers is a definite fan of the concept. Whisky and food matching is very relevant. If you take a bit of time to experiment you can come up with some wonderful matches for each course. It's particularly interesting to alter the temperature of whiskies. For instance, when you chill down our Berry's selection single grain whisky, it brings out the buttery, nutty, caramel flavours and goes down a treat with crme brle.'

Monti at the Athenaeum says whisky and food can certainly work. I'm Italian and therefore more wine-oriented, but if you're open-minded, whisky and food can offer something different.' And with the help of Glenmorangie's master distiller, the hotel runs eight whisky dinners a year with this in mind. Macdonald isn't quite so convinced. It's surprising how well it can work, but sometimes the food's just crying out for a glass of claret. Whisky's great before and after, but I think it's nice to have wine in between.'

The team behind The Balvennie has come up with a less formal method. Geraldine Roche, senior brand manager, comments: We have a "tartan tapas" concept, which involves serving canaps that complement the whisky during a tutored tasting. For example, Balvennie Single Barrel 15 yo is superb with smoked, herbed chicken.'

Another way of boosting consumer interest is to run events or promotions. Albannach is taking advantage of the current football mania and running a World Cup Whisky cocktail competition, which involves showing football on the big screen while representatives from four different London bars come to the restaurant and go head to head with cocktail creations. The Boisdale is also celebrating football, although with the slightly more controversial promotion of a Macallan from 1967 to commemorate the moment that Scotland were the best football team in the world', having beaten England a year after its World Cup triumph in 1966.

The Athenaeum offers a whisky promotion all year round in the form of its Whisky Passport', which encourages guests to try 24 different styles of whisky and receive a stamp for each one. When they've collected all 24, the guest can choose a free bottle of whisky from a choice of 12, ranging from a Highland Park 18 yo to an Ardbeg 10 yo. Jon, Mark and Robbo's (JMR) Easy Drinking Whisky Company hopes to capitalise on its appeal to the younger consumer with a JMR-themed pub quiz, which is currently being tested in 12 outlets in Scotland. Or there's always the simple method of talking to people, which McLaughlin has found to be the best approach for Bow Bar: It's all about communication, introducing people to things and chatting face to face.'

The contemporary approach

JMR is just one company that has challenged the traditional perceptions of malt whisky by using contemporary packaging and by labelling its whiskies with novice-friendly names such as The Smokey Peaty One and The Fresh Fruity One (the most recent addition to the range). Monkey Shoulder is another new-style malt to hit the back bar and it sells itself with its bourbon-style bottle and an emphasis on mixing with Coke. John Glaser at Compass Box is making his own set of waves with a range of blended malts with names like Hedonism and Monster.

What does the on-trade make of this new gang of trendy whiskies? Wrigley points out that it depends on the product. I think it's great for new names to arrive on the market if they're good like Monkey Shoulder. But I do have a problem with lots of money being shoved into a product in place of knowledge, experience and passion.' Charlotte Voisey, general manager at Apartment 195 in Chelsea, is very positive about the new brands and comments: I think they're fantastic for the whole whisky category and I believe they've helped recruit bourbon drinkers into the Scotch whisky sector.'

Another imminent change for the on-trade whisky bar is the 2007 smoking ban, looming over the industry like a darkening storm cloud. The Boisdale in particular may have to rethink it's whisky and cigar celebrations. But it's not all bad news, and McLaughlin gives a rosy report from Scotland, where the ban has already been in place for three months. We've been selling even more whisky than usual, which is not the same trend as with some of the other drinks. I think it's partly because people can smell and taste better without all the smoke.' Monti's native Italy has been under a smoking ban for two years now and he also has a positive take on the subject. It's quite simple really, you can't smoke and that's that. People will still drink and they'll soon forget they can't smoke.'

Spirit of the future

Putting these developments - past, present and future - to one side, have there actually been any changes in the demographics of whisky drinkers? In Macdonald's view, whisky is getting bigger and bigger. We have a huge cross-section of people in the Boisdale, three generations at the same bar. Younger people are a lot more discerning than they used to be and they're really savouring the whiskies.' Wrigley continues this argument, saying that it's become steadily cooler to drink whisky and it gives 25- to 35-year-olds an immediate feeling of knowledge and experience'. Tobias Blazquez-Garcia, bar manager at Brighton's Pintxo People (the latest venture of Jason Fendick of Gorgeous Group fame), adds: Whisky is at the top of the spirits chain. The more you are interested in spirits in general, the closer you become to whisky.

L'Oasis Pub and Dining Room in Whitechapel, east London, has a whisky list of 50-plus labels, and owner John Cleary has noticed plenty of awareness from a younger crowd. We have a lot of interest from students at Queen Mary College next door. You might think that the youngsters all head off to Ibiza for their holidays, but many of them are choosing to go on a tour of Islay or something similar.' And it's not just the boys who are interested, he continues, I've been finding women drinking it more as well - I guess they're fed up of all the girly drinks'.

Could this mean that malt whisky is on its way to becoming the fashionista's drink of choice? After all, enthusiasm from top restaurants and style bars is a giant step forward from the traditional image of a grandfatherly bedtime dram. Well, not quite yet perhaps, but there's no denying that knowing your single malts from your blends and your Islay from your Speyside can give the average bar-goer a certain touch of class. Vodka is looking more than a bit pass, and while gin is making some interesting moves, it can't provide the spectrum of flavours that regional malt whisky undoubtedly can. Whisky is by no means the easiest drink to like - it is strong, distinctive and potentially over-powering - but that's what makes it all the more special to master.