Special finishing school

Special finishing school

Whisky Magazine and The Glenlivet hosted a readers' round table in London. In the first half we asked about wood finishes and innovations

People | 30 Nov 2005 | Issue 52 | By Dominic Roskrow

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Dominic Roskrow - Editor, Whisky MagazineThe participants
Pieter Badenhorst (PB) - Teacher,Waltham Cross
Svat Buchlovsky (SB) - Consultant, Basingstoke
Brendon Humphreys (BH) - Development manager, Loughton
Ian Kendal (IK) - Teacher, Loughton, Essex
Barry King (BH) - Retired, Cheltenham
Rae Sorensen (RS) - National account manager, Bristol
Steen Sorensen (SS) - Buyer, BristolQ: Are wood finishes and other innovations a good thing for whisky or are they to its detriment?BK: I think most would agree that new ideas are a way of attracting younger drinkers, but I think that some of innovations can run the risk of confusing the issue, and you could argue that they are degrading the good name of whisky.SS:Yes, but the whisky companies have to hold their audience and need to experiment, by using woods and that sort of thing. When I meet people who say they don’t like whisky, I will often say to them to try something different and they find they like it. This is what consumer taste is all about; it is knowing what you like and finding something that suits you. Wood changes the characteristics of whisky completely and this might not be to our particular taste. But this could be something that attracts a younger audience. However I think that financial discounts is an easier way as well – making whisky affordable to a younger audience.IK: What really confuses things is the term whisky. It is one word covering such a large range of different tastes and it makes it very difficult for people to understand that. The first job is to get people to understand that we are talking very different products.SB:You mention making whisky more accessible to younger drinkers. But what are we actually talking about? When we say the young generation we really mean those drinkers about 35 years old. The truth is that it’s very unlikely that under 25s are going to drink whisky straight. Many in Europe drink it with coke and it does not matter to them what whisky they put in. What does matter to them is that it is a good brand. Also this group does not have enough money to buy expensive whisky. I disagree with the whole notion that the industry should be concentrating on the young. They should be looking at the 35 to 45 year olds who have enough money to spend on good bottles.BK: What we’re talking about here is how we present the information to potential new drinkers. What do we actually tell people who are coming and looking for a more premium brand? There are so many different types of whisky and many people simply don’t understand it. When buying a brand how do you know what to expect? Information could be put on the labels in an effort to promote whisky.IK: I think we have to bear in mind the costs involved. I don’t know about the rest of you, but it is an issue to me. I fall in the 25 to 35 and I rarely by a bottle at £50 because I can’t justify it. My journey with whisky was a journey through life to where I am here and now. We need to inform people what certain things do for taste. Then we should be travelling with that person to bring them on to different whiskies and help them find the path for them.BK: Labelling is one area where there could be more innovation. There should be a better way of distinguishing different whiskies from each other. There is an argument for good tasting notes on the side of bottles.BH: The big brand names have to somehow find a way of putting out a cheaper bottle of some sort – something from the same distillery as the more expensive stuff. This would give people the feeling of becoming a connoisseur. It would be good to learn from wines as their tasting notes really work, you know what you are getting. The notes would have to be believable. This will make things easier to buy as you will know what you are getting.DR: But then are we in danger of losing the unique selling point of malt whisky?SB:With the innovation debate, if you take out the wood issue, then I think things will go in two directions. We will see small batch whiskies and and single casks being released, and we’ll see distillers looking at trying new areas. Look at Springbank. It is not trying to increase the output of its product, but it is trying to keep the tradition of whisky making going and trying new things. It has now even introduced a whisky beer. This sort of approach should have the backing of the industry. As for the wood issue, I do not think that it will become the norm for other distilleries to repeat the success of Glenmorangie, which has had the best experience with wood. For the consumers wood finishes often just mean a higher price and they don’t necessarily get a better whisky. Sometimes the exact opposite. Wood finishes can be done and they can be done properly, but I feel it should be done in a limited way. The question is how to add this to new expressions. Then we have to be really careful, as I think we do risk losing what makes whisky special. We always have to respect the whisky heritage.IK: Now if we look at younger people who are more adventurous this might appeal more to them.SS:We have to look at the area of brand management and price. I don’t think the brand owners would be interested in lowering the price.BH: It’s not going to happen as they want to have their cake and eat it.BK: And perhaps that’s the right approach because whisky shouldn’t be interested in the people who want to drink vodka because for them it’s all about just getting drunk. The thing is, after a while some of these people may start to move on and want to taste something different and this is where their journey starts. And it’s then that they need to be encouraged by the whisky industryIK: Perhaps supermarkets have a role to play but that brings in a whole other issue because they can sell some single malts under £15 a bottle and that undermines the whole argument about quality and price.BK: That brings us full circle because many people just don’t understand the difference between styles of whisky, including blends and malts. Often they are looking at price alone. That’s when they need to be informed about why some whisky costs more, so that they appreciate value for money. And innovations and a modern approach can help make that possible.
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