People

All in the mix

Some whisky enthusiasts are naturally suspicious of whisky cocktails. But do they provide a platform from which to attract new whisky recruits?
By Dominic Roskrow
The Panel
Dale DeGroff - Renowned as The King of Cocktails (DDG)
Dominic Roskrow - Editor of Whisky Magazine (DR)
Audrey Saunders - New York mixologist and drinks consultant (AS)Q. Firstly, let’s get straight to the heart of the matter for Whisky Magazine readers. Are whisky cocktails good for the sector or detrimental to it? AS: Whisky cocktails are definitely good for the sector, as they are an ‘in-through-theout- door’ means of propagating the faith, which will hopefully help to expand the market into the next generation of new whisky drinkers.DDG: Yes, that’s right. Cocktails can only add to the experience no matter what the spirit. In the case of scotch the challenge is more daunting because of the smoke and peat and so most cocktails focus on blends over malts.DR: And it can work both ways. We’ve done events where non whisky drinkers have found a whisky cocktail they liked and committed malt fans who have tended to sneer at cocktails have discovered a drink that they have added to their repertoire and extended the number of potential whisky drinking occasions. This increases sales of whisky in both cases.Q So cocktails can be a stepping stone and help bring new drinkers to whisky?AS: Absolutely; even if we utilise something as basic as a whisky sour; it helps to introduce a new drinker to the medium.DR: Particularly as the fashion set are discovering the traditional whisky-based cocktails that show off the taste of the whisky. It’s not a big leap from there.DDG: Look at what has happened to beer sales in the key demographic in the United States. The spirit sales are up against beer for the first time in years and of course those increases are driven by the popularity of the cocktail.Q. Bourbons and blends work well in cocktails but we’re seeing malt whisky ones too. Do these present new challenges and what are the potential pitfalls?DDG: The growing popularity of flavours like ginger and savory herbs and spices as well as other unusual ingredients make the malts more attractive as a cocktail base.DR: Yes and as our cocktail challenge shows (see report in this issue) a lot of work is going in to discovering how these flavours work. There are challenges but the best bar personnel seem to relish them.AS: You have to know how to work with peaty, smoky flavor profiles, which are much more challenging than bourbon, rye, or blends. That is very tricky in a drink, if you are looking to do the drink justice. You want to enhance the notes in whisky; not mask its characteristics in juice. It doesn’t work that way. You need to understand the medium.Q. Is the consumer seeking out a greater challenge?AS: I don’t think so; I honestly don’t think the market knows what it wants. I think the market is challenged by diminshed sales, as the newest generation of drinkers do not appear to be gravitating toward whisky the way their grandparents and parents did.DR: I’m not sure I agree with that, Audrey. Certainly in Europe people have become used to extrme flavours in food and don’;t shire from new and challenging flavours in drinks either. Whether they go out seeking a challenge I don’t know. But if they’re presented with the unusual, they won’t back off.DDG: I agree. Look at the cocktail menus in the style bars of the West End and those imitators all around the United Kingdom …same in the USAthe menus are filled with unusual ingredients and re invented classics.Q. Should we encourage any cocktail that uses whisky even when the other ingredients hide its flavour. Or should we be encouraging the celebration of whisky?AS: No, whisky should only be used in a cocktail if it helps to enhance or show off its flavour profile. There’s nothing worse than a whisky cocktail (or any cocktail for that matter) that is drowning in juice. What would be the point of creating that drink in the first place?DDG: That’s right. An accepted definition of a successful cocktail is a drink with a balanced combination of ingredients with no single ingredients overpowering the others, that creates a new and pleasing flavour.Q. In your view, are we seeing a generally more sophisticated approach in general to spirits drinking, and are ‘purist’ attitudes becoming outdated and even redundant?AS: I don’t think that purist attitudes are becoming outdated; on the contrary, we could use more purists in this generation. I’m not quite certain as to what you mean by a ‘sophisticated approach’ to spirits drinking....to me, this includes the ability to enjoy a spirit, neat. And I think we are seeing much less of that than we perhaps used to do.DDG: The purist can never be redundant because it is the purist that celebrates the essence of the thing, but it is also the purist who must accept that there are other ways to enjoy as well.