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Out with the old

Published:  23 July, 2008

It has been quite a year for Scotch whisky. The category has been bogged down with issues such as tax stamps and legal definitions - both drawing attention away from the more important aspect of what's in the bottle, not on it. But a quick look around the category highlights many examples of creative thinking, and new takes on a classic product.

The most obvious piece of innovation in the Scotch whisky industry has been the use of alternative finishes. Many companies claim they were the first to do this - Bowmore says it was using Cognac and Madeira casks as far back as the 1890s - but in recent years, Glenmorangie is arguably the most well known, with gift packs containing a quartet of finishes, including Port Wood and Burgundy, a frequent addition to stores across the UK. In all, the company has released around 20 expressions, albeit some in very limited numbers.

Glenmorangie is very honest about its decision to go down this route, admitting that it was a marketing choice, pure and simple, back in 1994. Master distiller Bill Lumsden says, Back then, we only had the 10 Year Old and the 18 Year Old. We were looking for something more visually appealing to consumers as a range, but being Glenmorangie, it had to taste decent and had to reflect positively on the brand.

It is a balance between tradition and innovation, and we do still want people to buy our 10 Year Old, because that is the flagship expression. The last thing we want is for people to think that we're tinkering with our whiskies, but it's almost expected that companies will offer different expressions.'

The company's most recent addition to its portfolio is the Artisan Cask, which was distilled in 1995 and matured in special casks made from slow-grown oak trees in the Ozark mountains in Missouri. And new from Ardbeg (which Glenmorangie purchased for 3 million in 1997) is a trio of limited single-cask bottlings from 1974, as well as The Peat Pack, containing four 5cl miniatures of Ardbeg, two of which are unavailable elsewhere. But despite Glenmorangie's success with its various finishes, others are a little uncomplimentary and think that a glut of finishes detracts from appreciation of the whisky itself.

Jim Murray, author of the annual Whisky Bible, is better qualified than most to offer his opinion. He says there is a disproportionate amount of money being spent on these innovations rather than on the original whiskies; he also thinks that the industry would do well to pull back a little and concentrate on educating the public about whisky, full stop.

And while Mark Reynier, CEO of Islay distillery Bruichladdich, admits that his whiskies are occasionally finished in non-bourbon casks (the company has used Rivesaltes barrels, for instance; this practice is given the name ACEing', where the ACE stands for additional cask evolution), he is still against the concept of finishing per se, and no mention of it is ever made on the label. There's no definition of what a finish is,' he says. To me, it's where a spirit has been altered to allow a marketing advantage to be obtained. Of course, we're aware

that wine casks of European oak have a completely different set of flavours, and while it's not something we can use for long-term ageing, for short-term influences it's very interesting. But - and this is the important point - if you can detect what we've done, then we've ballsed it up.'

Bruichladdich has irritated whisky purists with its irreverent approach - much to Reynier's delight. We're just telling it the way it is, instead of the usual corporate propaganda bullshit! There's a lot of nonsense spoken about whisky, a lot of misinformation and a lot of ignorance, and we're trying to put a bit of reality back in.'

Free spirits

David Robbo' Robertson of The Easy Drinking Whisky Company has enjoyed great success following the launch of a trio of new whiskies with user-friendly names such as The Rich Spicy One and The Smokey Peaty One. He thinks the Scotch industry has to be careful not to stifle creativity but at the same time not to let producers devalue the product. On the subject of finishes, he suggests, tongue firmly in cheek, that an IKEA MDF finish isn't far away, but he would still like the ability to experiment. Where does the addition of wine/Sherry/Port stop and wood-finishing start?' he asks. The current guidance suggests that any casks that have been traditionally used in the Scotch industry can be used. By law we cannot add flavourings, but most of the wood finish impact is via previous liquid content and not the wood.

I like the innovation, and I love some of the flavours that can be created, but we should be free to do that anyway and not wrap it up just to meet the SWA [Scotch Whisky Association] definitions and have to do it as a wood finish. We run the risk of being overprotective and stifling flavour development. We need to find a way of catching up with flavoured rums, vodkas and so on that offer consumers great taste at a great price with huge mixability.'

It's clear that Robertson, who was once master distiller at The Macallan, is a bit of a maverick, so it's no surprise that he is a fan of John Glaser at Compass Box. Glaser is now able to let his imagination run riot, having freed himself of the shackles of a job at Diageo, marketing Johnnie Walker. He is a champion of blended whisky, and he selects individual whisky casks and markets a range of blends and vatted malts, with striking names such as Hedonism, Eleuthera and The Peat Monster.

He says, I wanted to create a completely new boutique whisky company that only used top-notch casks. I realised that Scotch is not belched out of a factory in Glasgow, despite what many Americans may think! It's a crafted product.' Glaser is a self-confessed wood freak, whose innovative techniques include using rejuvenated casks. Having been used a couple of times, rejuvenated casks are then shaved down to a layer of fresh wood and then retoasted. They are similar to first-fill casks, in that the sweetness is transferred to the whisky but not the vanilla notes. And for his latest release, Spice Tree, Glaser travelled to the Vosges forest in France and found a mill making staves from 195-year-old Sessile oak, which is air-dried for two years outdoors to season the wood and evolve the flavours.

Mixing it

The other key reason to innovate, besides freshening up a brand's portfolio, is to draw new consumers into the category; and with one quarter of Scotch drinkers in their 60s (at the very least), it is clear that younger generations not only need to be seduced by the product, they also need to have the product communicated to them in an appealing way, which means doing away with the traditional trappings of tartan.

A key driver of this is educating younger consumers on the mixable qualities of Scotch. Opinion seems to be divided on this one. David Robertson says Scotch is one of the best base spirits bartenders have at their disposal for cocktails; others, like Nick Marshall, senior brand manager at Allied Domecq, says that his impression is that bartenders either know too little about Scotch or are too afraid to use it.

But Robertson disagrees. Flavour, flavour, flavour!' he exclaims. Let's face it, if whisky retains its yuk factor - that is, on first taste for most people, neat whisky is not great - then we and others in the industry must persuade them to try it mixed with the right partner to create an outstanding drink. Whisky is mixable - you just need the right hooch with the right bartender, and you can get some fabulous results.'

You have to admire Robertson's drive: he is passionate about the spirit he makes and also believes in its long-term future. His company is planning to launch a fourth whisky - a single grain this time - which is better suited to mixing than its predecessors and also, in his words, will be untainted' by smoke, which puts off some consumers.

He adds that his company is having great fun in the on-trade, speaking to creative bartenders and showing that whisky doesn't have to be wrapped up in fogs, bogs, tartan and stags, like glen-anything and the also-drams'.

William Grant has also pushed the cocktail button and, with its Glenfiddich brand, has hosted a number of whisky nights (The Glendfiddich Independent Mix) in top-end venues such as Cargo in London and Cabaret Voltaire in Edinburgh, with cutting-edge DJs such as Gilles Peterson in tow. Drinks on offer include The Fiddich Remix (Glendfiddich Special Reserve

and ginger ale) and The Fiddich Fusion (Glenfiddich Caoran Reserve, green tea cordial and fresh mint). Another example of the company's keenness to move away from the norm is its sponsorship of the World Golf Trick Shot Championships.

William Grant's other major news this year has been the launch of Monkey Shoulder, a triple-malt Scotch' (although technically a blend of Glenfiddich, The Balvenie and Kininvie) and the first new whisky from the company for nigh on 40 years.

Rory Steel, William Grant's PR manager for the UK, says, The bottle shape takes its cues from bourbons, and although the whisky is very much a Speyside malt, it does have that bourbon flexibility to it, which is great for mixing.' Steel adds that by remaining a family company, with no shareholders to keep happy, the business has the freedom to experiment and innovate, and it does not have to shift 40,000 cases in a product's first three months.

Another blend making waves is Diageo's J&B -6C. Much lighter in colour than some whiskies, the product has come in for criticism, with some claiming that it is trying to attract younger drinkers into the category by making the product look as much like vodka as it can (that's chill-filtering for you). Royal Mile Whiskies describes the product as aimed at capturing those wot like cocktails and mixers, innit?', but Jim Murray is a big fan, awarding it 87 points out of 100 and describing it as delightfully mouthwatering', with a nose as clean as it gets'.

Age-old problem

But even if Diageo is trying to attract younger consumers, so what? This is something that all categories need to do, and every whisky company is trying to do the same. The perennial problem of attracting new - and, by definition - younger people into the Scotch whisky category is being addressed, and sales of single malts are on the up.

And for blends, Johnnie Walker, the biggest-selling Scotch in the world, sells 12 million 9-litre cases a year and has added 1.5 million cases in the past two years alone.

Melissa Draycott, Sainsbury's spirits buyer, says that whisky is growing in-store by 4.4% a year, helped in part by the multiple's efforts to educate the public. Sainsbury's has introduced a whisky guide for shoppers, explaining the difference between malts and blends, and the regions, and it also sells a three-pack miniature range of own-label regional malts - an inexpensive and convenient mechanism to drive trial'.

Of course, with all this innovation emerging, someone has to monitor the situation to ensure things don't get out of hand. Step forward the Scotch Whisky Association. Campbell Evans, the SWA's director of government and consumer affairs, says that there's no fixed time period if a distillery chooses to finish a whisky in an alternative cask, but its laws do insist, not unreasonably, that the end product has to have a whisky aroma to it. Having said that, though, Evans adds that the SWA is more concerned with making people in our domestic market realise that they have a fantastic product on their doorstep', something that the Cognac houses have been trying to impress upon the French, some of the biggest whisky consumers on the planet.

Indeed, proud Frenchman Richard Weiss, sommelier for the Blue Elephant and La Porte Des Indes restaurants in London, recently announced that he had stopped drinking Cognac and had moved over to Scotch. La Porte des Indes is considering introducing a whisky menu in the New Year, with each course matched with a Scotch whisky.

Colin Dunn of Fior Brands (jointly owned by Morrison Bowmore Distillers and Campari International), whose portfolio includes Bowmore and Auchentoshan whiskies, has worked with both restaurants and thinks it is high time for sommeliers and chefs to get switched on to the potential of food and whisky matching. He says, We've got to experiment. These days, chefs are making a huge connection with drinks, and if you go to a top cocktail barman, he'll be working with his head chef, asking about herbs, ingredients in season, that sort of thing.'

Looking at the Scotch whisky category, while it has had setbacks and challenges, it looks safe in the hands of the Glasers, Robbos and Bruichladdichs of this world - shaking up the whisky market with their new take on blending, cask selection and marketing. Even labelling has been given a shot in the arm thanks to groups like The Scotch Malt Whisky Society, which recently collaborated with 26, a national organisation that champions the imaginative use of language in the business world, to design new labels for 26 of its unique bottlings.

Glaser adds, I think whisky's in a very good place. Sales have been growing for a long time. The number of whisky festivals around the world each year, and the people who come in with a great interest Overall it's doing really well. People always forget that the industry is constantly evolving. The Scotch whisky industry can change and evolve if you've got people in the industry who are trying to push the boundaries, and that's why I applaud any new brand, even the ones that are ludicrous!'

To order a copy of Jim Murray's Whisky Bible 2006, e-mail