I’ve been wondering for a few years now whether every issue of this august title should carry a strip on the cover similar to that on a packet of cigarettes, something along the lines of “REMEMBER 92 PER CENT OF THE SCOTCH WHISKY SOLD IN THE WORLD IS BLENDED”. I fully realise that block capitals are bad netiquette, as they suggest that the writer is shouting at you but sometimes shouting is necessary. It is this statistic which explains where we are, why we are where we are and where we are going (sorry, just been to the Gauguin exhibition in London).
It was this statistic which echoed around my head last week as I wandered around the newest and undoubtedly hottest distillery in Scotland, Roseisle. Yes.. that Roseisle, which isn’t nearly as scary as many believed it would be, but I’ll leave Mr Ridley to explain more about that.
That 92 per cent is why Roseisle exists. It’s why Diageo has increased capacity at its other malt plants by a total of 10m litres, why it’s expanded Cameronbridge; it’s why Ailsa Bay was built; why peaty whiskies are being made across the estates of other firms who also have a vested interest in blending. Roseisle isn’t sucking up capacity, it’s part of a massive industry-wide expansion in capacity. Why? Because blends are motoring in new, large, emerging markets: China, Brazil, Mexico, Vietnam (and, in time, India?) and projections are that this global rise in blended Scotch will continue. In simple terms, distillers need more juice.
Good news, though of course there remain issues over where the wood for all of this extra capacity will come from, and also how firms cope with the time lag between rising demand and the availability of said juice, especially in markets which only want whiskies at 12 years of age or older (I also wonder how long Chivas can afford to keep Imperial smelling of naphthalene).
The Roseisle visit came on the back of a weekend at Whisky Live, Paris which this year had widened its remit to include fine spirits - a roomful of rums, a chamber of Cognacs and an upper floor of fruit spirits, absinthe and (whisper it) vodka. The show reflected how one of the drinks industry’s old paradigms has been shattered: the one which stated that once you fall in love with a spirit, it remains your sole partner until you are separated by death.
That blissfully old-fashioned model is no more. Today’s younger drinkers are promiscuous, they will drift from one spirit to another, flirt with whisky, rum and (whisper it) vodka, have a dalliance with absinthe and probably settle down with all of them. This fickle consumer is the one which the marketing teams in Scotch see as their pension plan. They are the ones who will drink the juice.
I sat in on two debates in Paris, one mediating between Dr Bill Lumsden and Luca Gargano on whether rum was a threat to the whisky, and another where I represented non-Scotch whiskies against Richard Pato-san-san on whether Scotch’s hegemony was under threat. Both distillers accepted that quality (in rum/other whiskies) had risen, but that it had done so in Scotch as well and that ultimately Scotch would remain the dominant player.
I’m not so sure. Scotch has already lost its dominant position to rum in mature markets such as Spain and Italy. The same could easily happen in the UK and also the US. The new single malts from around the world may not challenge blends’ hegemony but they will, I believe, make inroads into the smaller volumes of single malts - either globally or in local markets. The challenge from bourbon has also been completely ignored.
In other words, it’s not just a simple matter of turning up the volume and waiting for people to buy more blends. Success depends on distillers having compelling reasons for consumers to buy and compelling flavours to keep them there. The challenge from other spirits is real. Distillers and blenders can see it. The question is, do the marketeers? There’s millions of litres of reasons why they need to.