Native Palates

Native Palates

While the blended whisky market remains relatively static in the UK, new and emerging markets around the globe have begun to highlight some interesting ways to enjoy blends. Neil Ridley reports

Production | 09 Sep 2011 | Issue 98 | By Neil Ridley

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Whiskey and green tea, At the KTV, nearly killed me”. Perhaps not one of their best lyrical couplets, but this line, recently penned by the popular UK band, Supergrass, conveniently highlights an important phenomenon emerging on the other side of the world. The concept of pairing blended whisky with something as outlandish as green tea is fast becoming one of the most popular ways to enjoy blended whisky in many of China’s (and now South Korea’s) most happening bars. To the western palate, this idea perhaps seems vaguely absurd, but stop for a second and consider how the equally bizarre proposition of mixing tonic water, lemonade, Coke or even ginger ale with a whisky may seem to the average Chinese/Korean drinker, and you have an interesting juxtaposition. The way we have enjoyed our whisky in the more mature markets of Europe is no longer the be-all-and-end-all. As a result, brands are starting to explore as many new ways as possible to get greater traction in these markets.

“Clearly the most radical change to consumer habits in recent years has been the Highball revolution in Japan,” explains Andy Hogan, international sales manager for the Isle Of Arran distillery. One of the most traditional ways to enjoy (predominantly) Japanese whisky since the 1950s, the Highball; a healthy slug of a light and fruity blended whisky such as Hibiki, Torys or the omni-present domestic Kakubin blend, and soda proved to be a perfect accompaniment to Japanese cuisine, and in recent years its popularity has moved from the dining table to the myriad of whisky bars across Tokyo. Highball Towers dispensing pre-mixed whisky and soda in pints are beginning to rival beer as a social drink and such is the domestic rise in success that Scotch whiskies are also getting in on the act.

“In time we’re likely to see more stylish drinks such as brand specific Highballs, with subtle twists to emphasise their individual properties,” proposes Andy.

“Arran works very well in all of this, as the flavours are relatively subtle. What also helps is that Arran is seen as a more mature brand in Japan. So a level of trust exists for Arran in Japan that we are still building in other markets.”

The Far East has traditionally been dominated by hugely successful, domestically produced distilled spirits, in Japan’s case, Shochu , which accounts for vast volume sales, far exceeding those of whisky. Treated similarly to vodka (although lower in strength at around 25% abv) it mixes with just about everything, including Oolong tea, Ume plum juice or in low alcohol beer brands, such as Hoppy. Because the Japanese whisky market is more mature than their neighbours, the flavours of whisky have had time to find favour with the Japanese palate, giving a much wider scope to enjoy it with less dominating mixers. China on the other hand, represents relatively un-chartered territory when it comes to whisky and as a result, needs to find entry points, which are more culturally widespread.

“It is bad etiquette to try to challenge the guest’s sense of adventure, hence why perhaps the tradition of drinking whisky with green tea exists,” explains Mark Jenner, bar manager at the Connaught Hotel’s Coburg Bar in London.

“Like Japan, dishes, heavy with spices, such as Dim Sum tend to call for a more refreshing counterpart, which is another reason that the green tea mixer has become so popular in China.” Traditionally Cognac, sipped neat has been the mainstay of imported spirits consumed in China, but this has largely been the domain of an older generation of Chinese drinker. Whisky represents an equally flavoursome and highly aspirational choice, which is being taken up by a new, more affluent generation of younger drinkers. “Sweetened, bottled green tea is readily available in most bars and convenience shops in the same way soda or lemonade is in the UK,” points out Mark “so it is an obvious choice for mixing with spirits. On a more bizarre level, (and one which must be slightly alarming for the French) I’ve seen some incredible vintage French wines mixed with Coke!”

Clearly a number of factors determine how whisky is enjoyed in new and emerging markets, primarily down to what is already the normal method of spirit consumption, or the level of education on offer from certain brands. “In Hong Kong, Scotch is now being viewed as much more aspirational than it was before,” explains Darren Hosie, Asia Pacific brand ambassador for Chivas Brothers. “We are seeing more and more dedicated whisky bars opening. This is due to people now wanting to maybe drink a bit less, but they are willing to pay more for the pleasure and this is really helping to drive the quest for knowledge.”

Arran’s Andy Hogan highlights the mix of traditional and modern consumer practice in nearby Taiwan. “Scotch is clearly the only show in town and typically you can go into a street cafe or traditional eatery and find a decent whisky list,” he explains. “Sales are generally by the bottle...taken by the measure (there’s your tradition) and downed quickly with frequent toasts. It would not be unusual to see six drinkers get through four bottles over the course of a meal. All of this makes Taiwan a brilliant place to sell whisky in!”

Climate of course has a huge influence in the way drinks are consumed- the humidity and high temperatures experienced in the Far East, and especially in India dictate that whisky needs to be consumed as a long drink. “In India,” explains Glenfarclas sales director, George Grant, “whisky is drunk with Soda and lots of ice. There is a big educational drive certainly to change this but the weather dictates that drinks like this should be drunk as a long drink.”

In the colder climes of the Baltic, such as Russia, spirits have been liberally administered by the shot to keep out the cold, although there is now a growing trend (especially among female drinkers) to demand more flavour from their spirit of choice and whisky is one of the growing luxury products to be sipped and savoured. “Whenever we have held tastings in Russia, we experience a higher level of female attendees than anywhere else,” highlights Gerry Tosh, head of brand education for Highland Park.

As I experienced first hand on a trip to Lithuania last December, (which was discussed in greater detail in issue 94) there is a tendency to ‘spice up’ blended whisky, with locally brewed ginger beer, lime and cocktail bitters, primarily to give the blends used some more flavour but also to give the body a restorative glow against the sub zero temperatures experienced in the winter. It is in essence, no different from the principle of the Hot Toddy, but with added zing.

So could the UK seriously pick up any of these latest drinking trends? Given that Asian, Indian & Eastern European choices are largely driven by culture or climate, the jury is still out.

“The highball phenomena would simply be seen as a fancy Gin & Tonic, here in the UK,” thinks Andy Hogan. But some outlets are beginning to become a little more adventurous with their introduction of whisky (especially blended) with more emphasis on a 360-degree ‘cultural experience’. A few of London’s more up-market Oriental restaurants like Nobu, and Sake No Hana give diners a chance to drink Highballs throughout their meal. In situ, it works extremely well. Whether it will be the drink served at your neighbour’s barbeque this weekend, should the weather be kind, is another matter.

Time for tea

With bottled green tea being a hugely popular mixer for blended whisky in China, a handful of innovative bars in the UK are experimenting with the concept. Following their lead, a visit to Chinatown in London’s West End provided an excellent starting point for a little experiment of my own. Could the trend possibly become popular during the summer months in the UK?Moreover, which blended Scotch whiskies would pair the best?

Three different styles of tea were chosen: traditional sweetened, bottled Chinese green tea, some excellent Matcha powdered green tea, chilled down in the fridge and, as a total wild card, some distinctively smoky Lapsang Souchong, also left to cool in the fridge.

As a refreshing long drink, 50ml of Cutty Sark Original, over ice and topped up with the chilled bottled green tea, was superbly refreshing, despite its rather sweet flavour. Many of the bottled green teas available tend to include a sweet floral note, derived from the inclusion of Jasmine tea. The light floral style of the Cutty Sark paired well to this distinctive note. A simple garnish of lemon zest really helped to bring the drink to life.

As a shorter drink over ice, the buttery, fudge driven notes of Johnnie Walker Black Label (50ml) were offset by the slightly dry, but fresh notes from the Matcha. (100ml) The tea definitely takes an aromatic lead in the drink, but the blend is robust enough to stand up to it.

The real surprise was Lapsang Souchong. Dominant in flavour, an initial pairing with an equally smoky whisky (Caol Ila Moch) proved too much, but when mixed as a Martini-style cocktail, using 25ml of the chilled tea, a dash of sugar syrup and 50ml of Ballantine’s 17yo blended whisky, (stirred over ice in a mixing glass before straining into a Coupe-style glass) a true star was born. The rich character of the whisky was backdropped by the dry, earthy smokiness of the tea, creating a flavoursome cocktail with a distinctly cross-continental feel.
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