Flavour Games

Flavour Games

With the increase of flavoured whiskies on the shelves, we report on the various players in the market

Production | 19 Jul 2013 | Issue 113 | By Davin de Kergommeaux

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Tough looking guy sits down next to me at the bar, grunts, then says, 'Do you have Red Stag?' Yeah, I guess flavoured whisky is a thing." So tweets Los Angeles-based food and whisky blogger Steven K. Ury.

"For the record," Steve tells me, "I have no problem with flavoured whisky, as long as I don't have to drink it." When Red Stag Bourbon hit liquor store shelves in 2009, whisky makers and drinkers took notice. An instant best seller, this was the first flavoured whisky in recent years to get real attention.

Dozens followed.

Red Stag is Jim Beam Bourbon that has been flavoured to smell and taste like black cherries. Spiced and honey-tea versions have followed in the wake of its phenomenal success.

But Scotch snobs dismiss flavoured whisky as non-traditional and therefore "not real whisky." With a very superior tone they grumble, "Is it just me or is flavoured whisky a disturbing trend that's dumbing down proper drinks into something simply frightening to sip?" But when does a tradition start? For most of the five centuries of recorded Scotch whisky history, it was unheard of not to add flavouring to Scotch. Honey, herbs, spices, fruit, even cream was used to make harsh whisky palatable.

When they settled in America, emigrant Scots and Scotch-Irish distillers brought the flavouring tradition with them.

Then, further north, came the taxman.

In 1887 the government of Canada introduced a law that required whisky to be aged in barrels for at least one year. (The minimum ageing period has since been increased to three years.) That law had nothing to do with ageing and flavour. Rather, legislators knew that the smallest distillers could not afford to wait a year to sell their whisky. No, ageing was introduced to drive out small producers - those who most commonly failed to pay their taxes.

Scottish legislators studied the Canadian barrel-ageing model carefully, even exchanging letters with Alexander Mackenzie, Canada's prime minister from 1873 to 1878, to confirm its fiscal effects. By 1915, the economic benefits to government were clear and ageing became a legal requirement for Scotch whisky too.

Suddenly, centuries after the Scots began making whisky, the use of barrels became a tradition. And if the barrels had previously contained sherry, port or wine so much the better, especially if there was still a bit of it sloshing about inside. Flavour.

In 2013, Scotland's venerable Dewar's whisky brand reinstituted a practice that was in-vogue when the company was founded in 1846: adding honey. So far, Dewar's Highlander Honey is the only Scottish brand to revive the flavouring tradition.

Elsewhere, this trend brings new consumers to whisky with a spillover effect that is increasing sales of the core brands as well.

When Black Velvet Distillery introduced Toasted Caramel they were unprepared for the demand. "It was crazy here," acting distillery manager, Chris Spearman told me. "But couldn't you cut back on making standard Black Velvet until you caught up?" I asked naïvely. "No," he responded with uncharacteristic animation, "demand for the core versions increased at the same time. We're OK now, but for a while there it was just crazy." Similarly, as its popularity increases, Bushmills Irish Honey is drawing new drinkers to the whole Bushmills range.

These days, North America is leading the way with flavoured whisky. Jack Daniel's Tennessee Honey, and Wild Turkey American Honey have also increased sales of core brands.

As established whisky makers embrace the trend whole-heartedly, new firms specialising exclusively in flavoured whisky are flooding into this niche category.

Canada's Kruger Wines and Spirits has two flavoured whisky lines. Spice Box features a variety of traditionally flavoured whiskies, while Sortilège infuses Canadian whisky with Québec maple syrup.

In the U. S., after nearly a century's absence, the colourful Chicken Cock brand has resurfaced with spiced, cinnamon and root beer flavours.

The most successful flavoured whiskies seem to be those that boost and complement qualities already present in the original whisky.

When Glenfiddich master blender, Brian Kinsman was invited to create a special edition of Gibson's Canadian whisky, he added just a few drops of real Canadian maple syrup to amplify certain savoury notes without compromising the already rich Gibson's profile. The result is bigger whisky with no hint of overt maple flavours.

Nowhere has the combination of whisky and maple been more successful than in the Crown Royal Maple expression. David Allard, marketing director for Diageo Canada's whisky portfolio, says: "On a rolling 12-month national basis, Crown Royal Maple is the largest flavoured Canadian whisky in Canada, and since launching Maple, other Crown Royal variants continue to outpace category growth." In crafting Crown Maple, master blender, Andrew MacKay has taken great care to maintain the familiar Crown Royal profile. "The batch base is the key," says MacKay, referring to a component whisky of all Crown Royal.

"That's where the condensed milk creaminess comes from, and that hint of bananas." Perhaps it's the power of suggestion but when I go back to the bottle, these elements jump right out at me.

Jack Daniel's blenders took another approach when developing their honeyed version. The new oak barrels used to mature Jack Daniel's burst with vanilla and oak caramels. Adding honey to the mature whisky amplifies these elements and results in whisky that is still Jack Daniel's, but which is newly accessible to people who may not have considered themselves whisky drinkers in the past.

Among the most loved of whisky flavours are the spices - cloves, cinnamon and ginger - and there is no shortage of these being added to whisky.

Fireball cinnamon whisky may be anathema to a refined connoisseur, but it sells like hotcakes to new drinkers.

So Scotch snobs be damned. Steve Ury has it right when it comes to flavouring.

After five centuries of adding flavour to whisky, it's time to put recent prejudice aside and let those who enjoy flavoured whisky do so without drawing disdainful, condescending and disapproving stares. After all, it's not as if your old favourites have been displaced from store shelves by this latest new wave.
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