By Liza Weisstuch

All About the Image

It was a Tuesday night and United Photo Industries was packed. The gallery is a giant former warehouse located in Dumbo, a hip Brooklyn neighbourhood along the East River. Graduate school students, lawyers, graphic designers and office workers of all types wandered in and out of rooms, talked about the stunning photos and drank Glenlivet.

The event was just of many that the Glenlivet has organised in major cities around the U. S. for the Glenlivet Guardians, its ever-growing brand loyalty program. Each event takes place in a location that's sure to appeal to intelligent trendsetters: a culinary school, a poster gallery, an epicurean destination. There's neither a kilt in sight, nor a bagpipe note to be heard.

For generations, the mention of "whiskey" in America called to mind images of cowboys in ten-gallon hats and maybe some Prohibition-era mobsters. Then, in the 1950s and 1960s, Americans discovered blended Scotch. It was the domain of Wall Street magnates and corporate executives.

With the growth of interest in single malts a few decades later, Scotch remained in executive suits and high society estates. But that's changing.

Sure, the booming Bourbon industry embodies homegrown pride and nostalgia, while Scotch offers fusty old world costumes and unpronounceable words. Nevertheless, in bars around the country, it's not uncommon for conversation about baseball or indie music to turn into a discussion about the glories of Islay malts.

"I think there's a certain level of awareness and sophistication that comes with knowing what you like and coming across as knowledgeable," said Tommie Tardy, proprietor of the stylish Flatiron Room in Manhattan. "There's also a sophistication in knowing what you put into your body. In a world with additives everywhere, whiskey drinkers get a phenomenal spectrum of flavours with just three ingredients." The numbers support the view from the trenches. According to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, a trade organisation, sales of high end premium Scotch whisky in the US increased by nearly 10 per cent from 2011 to 2012. Meantime, sales of superpremiums grew 22.2 per cent.

"Companies are producing things out of their archives to feed consumer interest," said Frank Coleman, Senior Vice President of DISCUS. "It's part of the luxury goods craze that's swept across the globe. Single malts are very much tied to luxury goods in general, but to the food and beverage categories in specific." Some might say that broadening the appeal of single malts diminishes its exclusivity and prestige. But perhaps it's not a matter of Scotch "going mainstream." Maybe it's a matter of the premiumisation, so to speak, of other drinks leading Americans to regard Scotch as a choice on common ground with American whiskies, craft beer and spirits and estate wine.

"We're in a fortunate position because we see how people look at Scotch from two different perspectives," said Chris Riesbeck, national brand ambassador for Classic Imports, the exclusive importer of Gordon & MacPhail and Benromach. The independent bottling label appeals to aficionados on the prowl for rare finds; the single malt offers the story of a small Speyside distillery that's in synch with Americans' obsession for artisanal.

"We have an opportunity to be part of the craft movement not just in Scotch, but in whisky as a whole. Ten years ago in America, Scotch looked at American whiskey as a stepping stone. People would start with American whiskey and move away to single malts. But the quality of American Bourbon and the choice that's out there have really changed the landscape." But not everyone is convinced.

"There's a bit more of a generalist appeal and image around Scotch. Single malts are maybe in that direction because of the recent popularity of all brown sprits," said David Blackmore, Glenmorangie's master brand ambassador. "The boom as we know it brought more people into the likes of single malts who might not have tried it, but when we talk about single malt, it's still certainly regarded as the Rolls Royce of whiskies."