How do you drink yours?

How do you drink yours?

Ian Wisniewski discovers how whisky is drunk around the world.

News | 10 Nov 2006 | Issue 60 | By Ian Wisniewski

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It’s a classic drinks industry motto. ‘Act global, think local’ promotes a comprehensive perspective, as the bigger picture also includes a focus on individual traits in different countries.While some trends are increasingly international, various countries maintain an indigenous drinks culture, which means that for many people it can be more a case of ‘act global, drink local.’ “Some trends will move around markets, cocktails are one example, but when you look at the bulk of consumption methods they are deeply rooted in local custom and ritual, and I think this will continue,” says Nick Morgan of Diageo’s Classic Malts Selection.In Scotland for example, serving malt whisky neat, with water, or on the rocks, is becoming more popular, but there are also other established options.“A traditional practice that can still be seen in Glasgow pubs, passed on from father to son, is known as a ‘half and half,’ which refers to half a pint of beer and a ‘half,’ or small measure of blended Scotch. You knock back the whisky in one, and pour the remnants from the glass into the beer,” says Gordon & MacPhail’s Derek Hancock.Ordering a Scotch can also mean repeating another familiar name. “Blended Scotch with lemonade became very popular after World War Two, and started to decline in the mid-1990s, although in Glasgow and Edinburgh pubs it’s still drunk like that by more mature, mainly male consumers,” says Derek Hancock.“The Scots definitely like heavier rather than lighter blends, that may be why we prefer a sweeter mixer such as ginger ale, to balance it out, and traditionally we have a sweet tooth in Scotland,” he adds.Across Europe and Scandinavia the way malt whisky is served shows variations on a theme.In France and Germany, for example, malts are typically drunk neat or with water. The Spanish take a similar approach taking malts neat or with ice. Scandinavians serve malts either neat, on the rocks or with water, while the Russian preference is malts or blends with ice and water.In Japan there’s also a certain seasonality in the whisky market. “It’s still popular to give a bottle of whisky as a gift, especially in December, as we have a custom of exchanging gifts at the end of the year,” says Tomoo Akaike of Suntory in London.Meanwhile, a custom in Japanese bars is for friends to order deluxe whisky a bottle at a time, and at the end of the evening the barman keeps the bottle behind the counter, ready for the next visit. However, this practise has declined since its peak in the 1970s-80s, replaced with a ‘by the glass’ approach.A classic serve for blended Scotch in Japan is mizuwari (‘mizu’ meaning ‘water’ and ‘wari’ meaning ‘dilute’). A typical ratio is three parts water to one part whisky, together with some ice. An alternative is serving blends with soda water, while malt whisky is drunk neat and on the rocks as a digestif.“In traditional bars where real connoisseurs go to drink single malts, they’re served either neat or with a splash of water. Another option is a large tumbler with a perfectly spherical ball of ice, carved to fit the tumbler, over which whisky is poured. A bartender’s apprenticeship includes learning to carve ice in this manner,” says Glenmorangie’s Simon Erlanger.There are similar scenes in Taiwan. “If you go into the modern, more fashionable bars, it’s a revelation. People of both genders in their 20s and early 30s sit at tables with a bottle of single malt in front of them, and drink in a very sociable and enjoyable way. This usually means a large glass with whisky poured over a large piece of ice, which chills the whisky rather than melting and diluting it,” says Nick Morgan.Scotch whisky is showing dynamic growth in China, where it’s also served in a particular way.“Blended Scotch is drunk by 25 to 35 year olds in very trendy bars, as a long drink primarily in a tall glass with green tea and ice, which has a refreshing quality to it. Older, deluxe blends are drunk by consumers aged 40 plus, served with ice and water,” says Martin Riley of Chivas Bros.India is another developing market, where “premium blends and malts are drunk with ice and water, or a big tumbler with ice and a splash of water. It’s very much an aperitif, with a lot of volume going through at wedding parties, as Scotch is considered a luxury, prestige product,” says Laphroaig’s Michael Cockram.South America also offers significant potential for Scotch whisky, with established serving styles. “In South America Scotch whisky is drunk with ice and water as a long drink, or with cola by younger consumers. Venezuela is a very big Scotch whisky market, where an equal measure of water and Scotch is served in a tumbler, together with ice,” says Martin Riley.In the USA malts are typically served with water or on the rocks, though malt’s mixability is also going way beyond adding water.“Using malts in cocktails was low-level, but has taken off in the last three to four years, people in the USA like to think they’re experimenting and the old rules don’t apply.There’s an increasing trend to use malts in high-end cocktails, which is a metro trend in New York, and to a lesser degree in San Francisco and Los Angeles. It’s about showing that they’re discerning drinkers who appreciate a fine spirit in a quality drink, and a part of that is prestige,” says Michael Cockram.“The use of malts in cocktails seems to be across the board of malts, including older malts, with an 18 year old for example used in place of a premium blend.There’s a trend towards premiumisation and people like to feel they’re discerning,” adds Michael Cockram.While cocktails can offer existing whisky drinkers a new way to enjoy whisky, another factor is that consumers are naturally more adventurous when ordering cocktails. This provides an important ‘recruitment’ opportunity, as consumers are often more likely to try something unfamiliar when it’s mixed.Additionally, a current cocktail directive in the UK is that the accompanying ingredients in a cocktail should always enhance the flavour of the whisky, whereas up until a few years ago the approach was more a case of masking the whisky to provide an ‘easy drinking’ option. Consequently, it’s now possible to discover the character of whisky, and individual expressions, through a cocktail.With every decade having seen cocktails going ‘in’ and out’ of fashion in the USA and the UK, it seems that cocktails are now established as an essential element of contemporary lifestyle. While cocktail culture is currently most advanced in the USA and the UK, the trend for cocktails is developing across Europe, Eastern Europe and Scandinavia, which means whisky cocktails are set to play a more significant role.While using malts in cocktails is a recent development, bourbon has always thrived on mixability. This includes the manhattan, old fashioned, whisky sour, and the mint julep, which makes a special appearance at a particular time and place.“Every May we make mint juleps for the Kentucky derby, it’s not a year-round drink, it’s served during the racing season, which is a huge social event,” says Kris Comstock of Buffalo Trace Distillery.Meanwhile, bourbon’s cocktail repertoire is also evolving beyond classics.“Bourbon cocktails are predominantly metro/urban-based, with two streams of cocktails; classics like the manhattan and the old fashioned have seen a revival across the USA in the past 10 years. You’ve also got bartenders creating their own bourbon cocktails,” says David White of Jim Beam Global.Bourbon’s increasingly varied repertoire also reflects an enhanced status in the USA. “There has been increased interest and respect for bourbon because it’s an American spirit, and there’s a sense of pride in bourbon because it’s increasingly specialised. Consumers are starting to realise bourbon is just as hand-crafted as other whiskies. They’re not drinking more bourbon, they’re drinking the same amount, but better,” adds Kris Comstock.Beyond national trends there’s a particular, local way of drinking bourbon.“The classic way of serving bourbon in Kentucky is sometimes called Kentucky Tea. Since this is local parlance there can be various ways of serving it. For the Noe family this is as simple as a long serve of bourbon with ice and water. So, if you were in a bar ordering a Kentucky Tea, there would be some discussion of exactly how you’d like it,” says David White.Internationally, bourbon consumption tends to divide into three options. Super premium brands, including small-batch, single barrel and longer-aged brands, are generally drunk neat or on the rocks.Premium bourbons are typically served as cocktails, “The manhattan is probably showing up most in London style bars, bartenders are playing with the classic recipe and coming up with their own variations on the theme,” says David White.Meanwhile, standard bourbons are served with a mixer. “The trend of mixing with cola has increased radically over the past 10 years. Younger consumers have a sweeter taste and want a drink that’s easy to consume. Meanwhile, ginger ale with bourbon is also making a comeback,” says David White.The extent to which international trends may thrive alongside, or even replace local traditions, and whether any local trends become more international, remains to be seen. But what’s clear is that attitudes tend to change with experience and knowledge.“When people get more confident they start challenging the usual assumptions and think we can drink whisky how we like it,” says Michael Cockram.
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