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Nick Gillett: The world is our whisky tumbler

Published:  13 March, 2023

Mention whisky and dated images come to mind. Crystal tumblers. Whisky of a specific provenance – normally Scotch. Then think of whisky producers and certain countries will come up: the US, Ireland, Canada, Japan and Scotland, naturally.

Banish those stereotypes, those old images, those pre-conceptions. Whisky today is exciting, dynamic, fast-moving and above all, it is global and diverse.

A spirit distilled from malted grain, especially barley or rye – that is the definition of whisky. New World whisky is from outside those countries that are traditional producers. Or if it is made by countries such as Scotland or the United States, it is made in an innovative way.

Climate plays an integral role. Scotch is the benchmark of whisky quality globally, but it takes 15 years to age. New World Whisky from hotter climates benefits from accelerated maturation without sacrificing the quality. This gives consumers something special: unmistakeable quality with remarkable finishes.

You can now find pretty decent liquid produced in every corner of the world, both traditional and New World whisky. Many of them you will know, but others will surprise you. Whisky is one of the most exciting markets today.

Stories to tell

Let’s debunk one theory immediately: the whisky market is not sluggish. It is growing fast. Between 2018 and 2023, experts estimate that the whisky market has grown at 5.7% each year. And if those boffins at Statista and Mordor Intelligence are right, this will continue – they both expect annual growth of between 5.2% and 5.8% over the next few years. Over 30 countries produce whisky today, in every continent. This scale will drive this growth.

Whisky specialists have almost used a thesaurus to describe these new distillers: ‘driven’, ‘innovative’, ‘creative’, ‘respectful of tradition’, ‘inspired by local culture and heritage’, ‘modern’ and ‘relatable’. For me though, it is simpler: it is about their personalities and the stories they tell; and with many of the New World whiskies, these stand out.

My favourites are easy to distil. I have to mention the story of how nine friends founded a distillery in a remote village on the West Coast of Denmark. They use local grains, traditional techniques such as floor malting and direct-fired small pot stills, and the focus has always been on flavours, not age.

Further afield, when you look at Australia or New Zealand, the story is of experienced distillers who are using fantastic materials and great equipment to produce really good liquids on the world stage. They use high quality ingredients; their ability to age them means they are producing some amazing finishes.

Then there is the story of a distillery from the East End of London, amongst canal-side warehouses and old school boozers. They make a contemporary whisky with vibrant packaging – such as a single malt whisky – and the results are great.

And finally, the story that really fires me up, a New York distillery that makes the best rye whisky. While each of these New World whiskies is priced competitively, their quality is high. And their personalities and stories shine through.

The new consumer

Another image to banish – the stereotypical consumer. Gone are the days when it was the older demographic who enjoyed this drink of choice. Whisky now enjoys a more diverse appeal by age with experts saying half of all whisky drinkers are under 45. Women are drinking more than the preconceptions suggest – 36% of drinkers are female. They are also involved in the making too, witness Victoria Eady Butler’s role as master blender.

Tastes are changing. Typically, young drinkers experiment more with whisky and are less loyal to brands. They are willing to pay more for their first purchase and take their time researching what drink to buy.

Each bar has its own identity cultivated by its owner and its bartenders. These play a crucial role in the drinks market and of course, in whisky. Bartenders inform and educate their customers on drinks to try and flavours to indulge. Research found 62% of UK consumers trust the recommendations of their bartender. In the US, the number is even higher at 82%.

With a new wave of bartenders joining the industry, more contemporary offerings are appearing too, both from restaurants and hotels. Consumers need bartenders to guide them on their whisky journey. Their recommendations mean that drinkers are trying out new whiskies.

Bartenders are finding that they can engage and delight their customers with something that they have never heard of before – a New World whisky – surprising them on the finish but not disappointing them on quality with a liquid that is more accessible on price.

Bartenders are increasingly choosing these New World whiskies. Attracting new drinkers to this seemingly old yet now new market. They are also using whisky in cocktails – an unthinkable trend just a few years ago. Driven by the ever-creative bartender, producers have added non-aged whisky to their range.

What’s next for whisky?

So, is it all over for the traditional whiskies while New World whiskies reign supreme? Not quite. I believe there is room for everyone in this market. If each brand continues to innovate and deliver quality, the market is big enough for both Old and New World whiskies.

But the category does need to do a better job of educating consumers. There are a lot of brands and many companies with only small nuances between their products. Social media and the internet have made New World whisky more accessible. But for consumers, the choice can be overwhelming.

The industry is lucky. We have a huge range of whiskies with a multitude of differences, spanning materials, ageing techniques and finishes from each part of the world. This needs to be communicated and educated to the bartender and the consumer. Those successful brands will be those that engage widely and inclusively and above all, innovate.

Only if that happens will we make whisky accessible to everyone and banish those stereotypes of old as we embrace a world of both Old and New World whiskies. There is a big world out there – something we can all toast in our glass of choice.