Whisky on my mind

by Susan Young

There is no shortage of whisky news – whether it is a new expression, a new distillery or award winners. I am amazed that our whisky gurus can stay abreast of it all and that they certainly seem to do.

You only have to speak to Matt MacPherson, winner of this year’s Deanston Whisky Guru of the year, at the Malt Rooms in Inverness, to get immersed in the world of whisky and there are many more people of the same ilk – too many to mention and most are only too happy to share that knowledge. In fact Matt, has set himself up in a small business sideline which sees him advising other bars and restaurants in the Inverness what whiskies they should be putting on their drinks menus and it has been effective – some that have taken him up on his offer to improve their whisky lists have seen sales increase.

Says Gavin Stevenson of Gellions in Inverness and now The Highlander, “He has doubled our whisky sales since we had him curate our whisky lists.”

So it may well be worth reaching out to a whisky guru, such as Matt, to see what advice they have to offer could help you grow your whisky sales over the coming months and years.

244B552E-3FF1-4618-A203-D904D039FCCFAs you all know your biggest selling Scottish whisky (unless you are a malt whisky specialist bar) will be a blend, and in my view, and in the views of many others, blended whisky has been a missed opportunity when it comes to the up and coming generation.

In fact the biggest selling whisk(e)y in the UK on-trade is Jack Daniels. In 2021 – its sales were £107.8m, with Famous Grouse the next best selling brand with sales of £40.3million. Surely we can persuade (no offense to Jack Daniel’s) Scots to drink more blended Scottish whisky – after all the youth of today do like to show their sustainable credentials.

Imported whisky now accounts for 42.8% value share of total whisky sales. That’s a lot of spirit miles. But what could we do persuade people to embrace blends? Could we shout about them more? Can we make them more accessible? Yes, and Yes. Says Adrian Gomez of the Tippling House, “I think people think there is not a lot to talk about when it comes to blends. But there is. When people know about blends – they talk about either how to drink it, for instance in highball, or they talk about the core malt component, no one talks about the grain – it is a dirty word but 50/60% of a blend is a grain. So let’s talk grain for a change.”

That’s exactly what Adrian will be doing in the near future when he embarks on a brand advocacy programme for Cutty Sark called ‘Unclipped.’ Grain whiskies may require longer in barrels to become interesting however even young grain whiskies are easier to drink than most single malts, which is why they are such a good introduction to whisky. Blends setting out their stall include Whyte & Mackay.

It won a Gold award at the International Spirit Challenge 2022 and followed it by a return to our TV screens with its biggest campaign in years. The brand’s point of difference is the fact that Whyte & Mackay is triple maturated “to create a smoother, richer taste.” And that’s exactly what the advert set out to promote. An actor is shown trying to perfect his tone… the performance metaphor is that the actor’s delivery gets closer to the desired smoothness with each attempt. It’s clever and effective because it gets the message across.

Another blend making waves, and one of my favourite’s, is Black Bottle. The Distell owned brand has had a very successful few years. It launched its Alchemy Series in 2021 with two experimental releases (Double Cask and Island Smoke). They were the only two blended Scotch Whiskies to scoop a highly coveted ‘Master’ award at the Scotch Whisky Masters.

Island Smoke was also named Best Scotch Blended whisky in the 2022 World Whisky Awards, whilst Double Cask was announced category winner at both the 2022 ISC and IWSC awards. Now it has launched two brand-new single-batchproduced expressions in the Alchemy Series – Black Bottle Andean Oak and Black Bottle Smoke & Dagger.

CB6376CF-F01D-4DAF-8154-ADDD9DE0FFE4Black Bottle Andean Oak is the first Scotch Whisky to be created with virgin Andean Oak casks at the heart of its recipe and Black Bottle’s whisky alchemists have combined smoke and charred oak to create Black Bottle Smoke & Dagger: Fusing together smoother, older malts with a one-off, supercharged, highly-peated Moine. Julieann

Fernandez, Master Blender for Black Bottle, said, “We pushed ourselves this year to try something never attempted before in whisky and couldn’t be happier with the result. Both expressions offer drinkers the opportunity to explore the world of smoky whisky in new and exciting ways.” But as usual they are not doing things by half – it marked the global launch with a three-day mind-reading pop-up in Manchester that challenged taste perceptions around smoky whisky. Using cutting edge electroencephalography technology (EEG), (not easy to pronounce either before or after a dram) they measured electrical activity inside guests brains at the Cane & Grain bar in Manchester, as the guests watched video footage showcasing an abstract visualisation of tasting notes and ingredients. The technology tracked the viewer’s brain response, revealing that their tastes might not be what they think. I wonder what the feedback was?

Next up is Johnnie Walker, it has certainly had its fair share of press coverage in Scotland since owner Diageo opened the Johnny Walker Experience in Edinburgh’s Princes Street. I would like to think that its 34% increase in sales had something to do with that. Of course it is a global brand but in its first year of opening more than 300,000 people from almost 100 different countries walked through its doors. And half of the visitors were not even regular whisky drinkers.

The company itself calls Johnnie Walker “a star” selling some 21 million cases wordwide. A key part of the mission of Johnnie Walker Princes Street was to introduce Scotch whisky to new consumers and to challenge traditional perceptions of Scotland’s national drink. Fifty percent of visitors to the venue were women, 56% were not regular Scotch whisky drinkers and domestic guests noted a 26% increase in likelihood to drink whisky within four weeks of visiting the experience, rising to 29% for international visitors.

That can only be good news for the industry and the on-trade, because that is where most people try whisky brands for the first time. That’s why the on-trade is so important to the industry.

However The Famous Grouse saw its sales slide in 2021: over the 52 weeks to 11 September, its value shrunk by £17m, dropping 6.9% to £229.4m, on volumes down 8.3%. It brought out a new version of The Famous Grouse called The Famous One, a premium blended Scotch whisky that was sweeter than the original. It was only available online, the first time the company have launched a brand in that way, and I haven’t seen it rolled out to the on-trade yet, however licensees could buy it online if they wanted to stock it.

Blended malts are part of the whisky mix that some of our gurus believe could be ready to take off, especially as companies are being quite experimental. As ever there are too many to mention however I’ve selected a few – Edrington rebranded Naked Grouse as Naked Malt earlier this year with the aim of focussing on its quality credentials – the blend of some of Scotland’s finest single malts.  They didn’t change the liquid or the bottle just the branding.

While some new additions to the blended malt category include EOI (Elements of Islay), from Elexir Spirits. This autumn they release a core range of blended malt whiskies.

Elements of Islay Cask Edit, Elements of Islay Bourbon and Elements of Islay Sherry all of which are small-batch, expertly sourced and independently bottled – natural in colour and non-chill filtered.

Oliver Chilton, Elixir Distillers, Master Blender comments, “We’re very excited to present a new, re-imagined core range of whiskies for Elements of Islay. We already had an excellent reception from the trade and hope we’ll introduce more drinkers to the joy of Islay whiskies”.

There’s also a new maritime blended malt, which has been launched by Inverclyde based Ardgowan Distillery. Selected by master whisky maker Max McFarlane, Clydebuilt Sailmaker is the latest bottling in the Clydebuilt Collection and comprises a blend of six premium whiskies from Highland, Lowland and Speyside distilleries matured in first fill Oloroso sherry casks.

Max McFarlane said, “Previous blended malts in The Clydebuilt Collection were of Highland and Speyside origin. Sailmaker gave us the opportunity to incorporate Lowland whiskies to the Highland/Speyside mix – something I had wanted to do for many years. The addition of Lowland malts, adds significant dept and richness added to the flavour profile, making for a sumptuous dram.”

Gordon & MacPhail have also created a new range of blended malts CRN57° however they are only available at their new distillery, The Cairn, which has only just opened this month in Grantown-on-Spey. It has a core range of 12yo/18yo/25yo/30yo and a special 50yo and 70yo… the latter is the oldest blended malt whisky in the world.

The whiskies, as you would expect from G&M have been expertly crafted. On the malt front you have to give credit to Jura, from the Whyte & Mackay stable. In 2021 it became the number one single malt brand by volume in the UK, and also took the title ‘fastest-growing single malt brand in the US’. It has just debuted a new advertising campaign ‘More than a Whisky’, which is all about the island of Jura with a community of 212 people – all of whom lend a hand in adding unique character to the whisky.

The creative agency created the whole ad around the idea of ‘More than a whisky’ – because it’s not just liquid inside – the campaign captures the journey of the bottle – being passed through the hands of all of those islanders that help make it what it is before it sets off from the Island.

Jon Gledstone, chief creative officer at the agency, Mr. President said, “Jura has such a unique story to tell. So often alcohol brands are searching from protagonists from afar – it is so special to have this built-into the brand of Jura. Given the role that the community plays in making and distributing the product itself, we felt it only right to hero them and the incredible landscape of Jura, in the campaign.”

It follows on from a ‘Hello to Jura’ campaign which saw another agency work with the local community to spread the word about the island and the brand. The Hello to Jura campaign saw volume sales increase 32% year on year, here’s hoping the new campaign will create a further spike in sales. You can see it on youtube.

Another coastal brand Old Pulteney has also just launched ‘The Coastal Series’, a collection which comprises four exciting new whiskies that have been matured in seaside casks and which will be released annually from this year. To create the series, Wick’s Old Pulteney has partnered with spirits makers from coastal locations around the world, further maturing its much-loved whisky in a specialist selection of casks and creating four beautifully unique, limited edition expressions that bring wonderful new coastal flavours to the ‘Maritime Malt’.

868CF667-420E-44F0-B044-13E0869184F0The Coastal Series launches with Old Pulteney Pineau des Charentes, bringing flavours of the French coastline to the Maritime Malt. In new territory for the brand, Old Pulteney’s whisky is further matured in ex-Pineau des Charentes wine casks, carrying echoes of the iconic, sweet aperitif native to the Charente-Maritime region on the southwest coast of France, and intertwining them beautifully with the salty flavours of the North that Old Pulteney is known for.

Malcolm Waring, Distillery Manager at Old Pulteney, said, “We’re very pleased to introduce Old Pulteney Pineau des Charentes, the first in a new, exciting series by the brand. Old Pulteney’s past, present and taste is influenced by its home by the sea on the Caithness Coast, and The Coastal Series beautifully explores cask maturations that highlight wonderful expressions influenced by their global coastal homes.

“Our Pineau des Charentes expression is a beautifully light, fruity single malt that showcases both the flavours of our wonderfully matured spirit, but balanced with the rich sweetness of the Pineau des Charentes, resulting in a truly exquisite expression.” It certainly sounds it.

Another interesting single malt is Indri-Trini launched by Picadily Agro, and distributed here by Gordon & MacPhail. It is distilled from six row barley from the foothills of the Himalayas and is aged in three barrels – bourbon, sherry and wine. It’s won quite a few awards including Best Indian Single Malt at the World Whisky Awards. It is certainly something different something for your back bar.

2445B002-1400-4BCE-B25C-5F3084C72956Gordon and MacPhail certainly know how to push the boundaries they have just unveiled a collection of exceptionally rare whiskies from closed distilleries across Scotland – a new annual series of single cask releases from its revered liquid library. The ‘Recollection Series’ features a trove of whiskies from distilleries lost to the mists of time, giving enthusiasts and collectors a unique opportunity to enjoy forgotten masterpieces.

Said Stuart Urquhart, Operations Director at Gordon & MacPhail said, “We’re excited to release a series that revives and celebrates the spirit and character of these closed distilleries from across Scotland. “Each remarkable expression is vanishingly rare and captures an unrepeatable moment in Scotland’s rich liquid heritage.” The future is definitely positive. Here’s hoping that new distilleries such as The Cairn and Arran’s new Lagg Distillery herald a new era, and the continuing success of whisky, and some adventurous whisky drinkers and publicans.

To be honest this feature could run and run, with all the new creations – but we just don’t have the space, so keeping watching here for more.

Category: News, Whisky
Tags: blended whisky, malt whisky, Scotch whisky, Scottish whisky, Whisky