By Dominic Roskrow

A brave new world

The world of whisky may well still be dominated by the big five traditional producers,but they're no longer having it all their own way.Dominic Roskrow looks at the new wave of world whisky
It was a telling moment. We were at the launch of a new expression of a single malt whisky and we were being addressed by a very proud and very Scottish whisky maker.

No-one makes whisky like the Scots, he said, and although other countries tried, they just weren't up to it. Even the English were trying to make Scotch, he said, with derision.

Now I haven't got a nationalist bone in my body. Indeed, I'm prouder of my Celtic roots than my English ones. But this flippantly lobbed insult riles me. It is coated in arrogance and complacency and worse still, it is deeply and woefully inaccurate in just about every way.

We're not trying to produce Scotch here in Norfolk, we're succeeding in producing English whisky, and the new make spirit suggests it'll be good, too. And of course it's certainly not the case that no-one outside Scotland can produce good whisky. None but the most blinkered Scotch whisky fan believes that Most importantly of all, though, there are a growing number of whiskies that are not only very good, but they taste absolutely nothing like Scottish single malt whisky - and they're none the worse for that.

Most of us are aware of the conventional logic. Scotland produces a high proportion of the world's best whisky, but traditional territories such as Ireland, America, Canada and increasingly Japan produce world class products. It makes for a great pub debate, but if you were to draw up an objective list of the world's 100 greatest whisky two-thirds to three-quarters of it would be Scotch (though not necessarily single malts), a fair few of the rest would be bourbons, Ireland and Japan would contribute a handful, and Canada might slip in with a couple. And there would be nothing else.

Really? For that may well be the view held by most of us, but there's a strong argument - a very strong argument- that a world top 100 would have a smattering of offerings from elsewhere, too.

Indeed the conventional wisdom is deeply flawed. For not only are some pretty amazing distilleries emerging from the most unlikeliest of places and producing great single grain whisky, but they're bringing a range of flavours to the market that we just haven't seen before. World whisky is coming of age, and those of us prepared to climb off our cultural high horses and stop making invidious comparisons with Scotland can look forward to a taste treat.

If you're in the business of launching a new whisky distillery, there are two routes open to you. You can try and emulate and adopt the Scottish single malt route, or you can produce whisky in a different way The rules are, of course, very strict. Just ask the people behind Man-X on the Isle of Man, a clear spirit distilled from single malt whisky but since 1997, emphatically and legally not a whisky. And at the Domaine Mavela Distillerie Artisanale they're walking a very fine line with their P&M Pure Malt Whisky, which is said to include chestnuts in the grist and therefore falls outside the recognised legal definition of whisky.

But the Irish and Americans have proved that it is possible to take the definition of whisk(e)y as containing only grain, water and yeast, and to produce a drink whose difference to Scotch goes way beyond how they spell the name of the drink itself. At its traditional best Canada has done the same thing by a complex marriage of grain spirit and an array of concentrated rye whiskies. So is there scope for other whisky styles to emerge?

It would seem so, evidenced from the development of the newest of the big five whisky producing countries: Japan.

Unlike America or Ireland, Japan was initially at least happy to look closely at what was happening in Scotland, to reproduce it, and to set about making Scotch-style whisky of its own. But in recent years, Japanese whisky has started to develop a distinctive flavour all its own.

Marcin Miller is a director of Number One Drinks Company, set up just over a year ago to import quality Japanese whisky. He believes that these are exciting times for Japanese whisky, as new releases continue to demonstrate a distinctive and unique Japanese whisky flavour.

"It's down to a mixture of Japanese attention to quality and Japanese finesse," he says. "On one level it is all very straightforward but when you look in to it more closely there are all sorts of complexities and subtleties. Japanese whisky is definitely developing an identity very different to Scotch. We have had bottlings of Ichiro's malt, for instance, that have tastes and flavours that you just won't find in Scotch, no matter how many single malts you care to try." One of the key reasons for the differences may well lie with native oak. And if that's the case in Japan, then it's most definitely the case when you consider the whisky that they're producing at Macmyra Distillery in Sweden.

Macmyra quite simply tastes like no other whisky on earth. And while the early two year old spirit was a bit like chewing fir tree branches, the distillery's last two bottlings, Preludium 04 and the new Preludium 05, are excellent but very different - a subtle, shifting sand of flavours, mixing exquisite oak spice and herbal fruit infusions.

Macmyra will celebrate its 10th anniversary next year, and according to one of the eight original founders, the team was acutely aware of the eyes of Scotland's whisky business on them from the start.

"When we started out we went to Scotland and pretty quickly reached the conclusion that if we were going to do this in Sweden there was no point in copying what the Scots did and producing a whisky that was nearly as good as Scottish single malt.

"We set out to find a distinctive taste of our own rather than use a consultant from Scotland. We looked at ways we could change a couple of things in the process. And I think now we are pretty happy that we have managed to do that." Sweden is blessed with a clean environment and top quality water, but also with fine barley and, perhaps surprisingly, an abundance of peat. But Macmyra turned to Swedish tradition to find its unique identity.

"It is normal in Sweden to use juniper branches when you smoke food so for the barley we used a mix of Swedish peat and juniper branches," he says. "This has played an important role in giving the whisky a distinctively Swedish character.

"And while we used some ex-bourbon and ex-sherry barrels we have also used a proportion of barrels made with fresh Swedish oak and this has given the whisky another dimension." Indeed it has, but Macmyra isn't alone.

Over in Wales the team behind Penderyn, which was launched three and a half years ago, was also conscious of the scrutiny of the Scottish industry and like Macmyra, set about creating - successfully - a whisky that would stand apart from single malt.

In this case, however, they did the advice of a Scottish consultant in the form of Dr Jim Swan. Rather than tinker with the ingredients and production process, however, they commissioned engineer David Faraday - and yes, he is a relation - to invent a whole new way of producing the spirit.

The result is a still set up like no other in the world - a sort of 'combi' still that includes a single pot still under two copper distillation columns and produces a spirit with a whopping 92% ABV. To put further clear water between the distillery's malt and that produced in Scotland, Penderyn is made using a special beer wash from Brains' Brewery and maturation is finished in Madeira casks.

"You can get away for a while with the novelty factor of producing whisky from somewhere unusual but you can't sustain it," says managing director Stephen Davies. "You have to have quality in the whisky as well.

And if you're going to market yourself as a rare premium whisky then you can't make something that compares unfavourably with whisky made elsewhere." While Wales and Sweden climatically much in common with Scotland, other countries are developing a whisky unique to their environment because of their climate. The Baker Hill Distillery in Australia, for instance, is starting to turn some heads for its relatively young whisky. It is produced using mainly Australian ingredients, but the climate might have much to do with the fact that even at relatively young ages it is maturing in to complex whisky.

"In Scotland the temperature is either cold or bloody cold," says David Baker. "But in Australia the daily temperature may fluctuate from 10 to 30 degrees. If you warm up any chemical reaction it happens a little faster and so it is with whisky.

"A five year old from here will have many of the characteristics of a 10 or 12 Years old whisky from Scotland." Baker Hill matures its whiskies in small 50 litre and 100 litre casks and bottles each cask individually, giving the distillery an even greater point of difference.

The issue of climate applies to the whisky that they make at the Amrut Distillery, too.

The whisky, made with Punjabi barley, is matured 3,000 feet above sea level in Bangalore, and the process is, to coin a phrase, 'spirit neutral' - that is, while the alcoholic strength of a Scottish malt will decline in the cask over time and the exact opposite happens in the extreme temperatures of Kentucky, in India maturation takes place very quickly but the alcoholic strength stays flat over time.

Amrut did consult carefully with the whisky industry in Scotland, and sees the purchase of Whyte & Mackay by an Indian company as a natural and logical step in the development of a premium Indian whisky market.

The original bottling, tasting far, far older than its tender years, only hinted that Amrut was developing its own taste profile. The cask strength version was a revelation, though, with a distinctively less sweet aspect than that of most Scottish single malts. It has been compared to some to that found in Japanese whisky. There will be considerable interest when a peated version hits the market soon.

The progress has given the distillery the confidence to think seriously beyond its haven of the Indian restaurant sector.

"We have been very encouraged by the way our whisky has been received," says managing director Neel Jagdale.

"We are seeing a growing interest in malt whisky and people who drink whisky aren't the sort of people to restrict themselves to one or two types, they want to try different things. For that reason the growth of new whiskies from around the world can only be a good thing because it gives the whisky enthusiast more choice." And we haven't really started yet. Back in Europe all sorts of interesting things are happening. In Brittany they're making whisky with buckwheat under the name Eddu.

Buckwheat, despite its English name, isn't related to wheat, nor despite its French name ble noir, is it black corn or related to corn.

Indeed it's strictly not a cereal at all, according to the Vegetarian Society, raising yet another interesting legal debate.

And at the Weidenauer Distillery at Kottes, Austria, they're making whisky with oats, producing a distinctive oily and unusual whisky and the world's first Spelt whisky, made from a wheat derivative.

For people prepared to think outside of the box such innovation and inspiration can't fail to excite. Of course Scotland continues to dominate the whisky world, the traditional territories providing solid support, and rightly so.

But there are new winds blowing through the world of whisky, a welcome blast of fresh air. These aren't 'me too' brands, they're changing perceptions of what is known as whisky beyond all recognition.

And frankly, I pity those too blinkered to either recognise or enjoy it.


Preludium 05

Macmyra, Sweden


Penderyn, Wales

Eddu Gold

Distillerie des Menhirs, France

Amrut Cask Strengt

Amrut, India

Waldviertier Hafer Whisky

Weidenauer, Austria

Bakery Hill Classic Malt

Bakery Hill, Australia

Blaue Maus Single Malt

Blaue Maus, Germany


Brennerei-Zentrum Bauernof, Switzerland

Sullivans Cove Malt Whisky Six Year Old

Tasmania Distillery, Australia

Taol Esa

Distellerie Glann Ar Mor, France