By Christopher Coates

Editor's Word: The New Wave of Whisky

From New Zealand to France, Spain to Mexico, pioneering distillers are redefining whisky
In case you haven’t noticed, there are one or two new kids on the whisky block of late. And I’m not just talking about the usual street corners where one might expect to find distilleries loitering about.

Sure, the usual suspects of Scotland, Ireland, America, and Japan are all going through a distillery-building boom, and there are certainly a lot of new faces. But further afield we’re seeing what can only be described as a sort of mass birth in almost every corner of the globe; and you know what they say about kids: they grow up fast.

The team at Cardrona Distillery in New Zealand are this issue"s cover stars. L-R Desiree Reid-Whitaker, Mikayla Austin, Sarah Elsom, Jamel Barber.

A lot of these new whisky-producing countries, such as France, Spain, New Zealand, Australia and Mexico, have climates that are prone to what some might call ‘accelerated maturation’, while others have simply been around longer than anyone might care to remember. Sweden’s Mackmyra, for instance, has seen its 21st birthday come and go – still a whippersnapper in Scotch terms, but no bairn either. Whichever way you look at it, in the coming decade (hell, even in the coming year alone) we’re going to see a lot of new whisky appearing. Some will just be little tasters, an amuse bouche, if you will, before the main course arrives, while others will hit the ground running with a fully fledged core range. What we can say for sure is that the shelves of whisky shops and bars had better be bracing for impact, because these distillers are making waves.

High Coast is just one of the Nordic distilleries we explore in this issue.

The old stalwarts had better watch out too. We all know that even the mightiest titans can fall in the game of whisky, and a lot of these new-generation distillers are playing for keeps. Things that the old guard have only just recently started talking about – such as grain varieties, terroir, yeast, sustainability – have been built into the very fabric of these new distilleries since day one. Cereal types and their impact on distillate flavour, in particular, are taking centre stage for many of these pioneering new producers. A world away from telling drinkers things like ‘80% of the flavour of whisky comes from the cask’, these whisky makers are explaining the how and why of the varietals they use, where they are sourced from and how they are processed. As for the green credentials, they’ll proudly show you their solar panels, wind turbines, heat exchangers and biomass boilers, while many of the most well-loved distillers of old desperately try to hide their heavy fuel oil boiler – perhaps by planting a few trees around it.

What remains to be seen is whether they can walk the walk, or just talk the talk

Of course, there are other areas that the established distillers have been more forthcoming with in the past – such as blending, maturation environment, cask seasoning profiles and wood variety – but quite often these topics were simplified to the point of absurdity, watered down and peppered with olde worlde marketing language that I’d argue obscures more than it enlightens.

The intensely complex process behind blending, for instance, would get summarised using phrases such as ‘the blenders’ art’ and left at that. Terms like the ‘angel’s share’, which, as Dr. Nick Morgan recently exposed in his superb piece for The Daily Beast, isn’t a traditional bit of whisky lingo dating back to your great-great granddaddy’s day at all, but the invention of a Cognac PR firm in the mid-20th century, have been bandied about with only the most superficial of explanations. To my repeated dismay, descriptors like Spanish oak, European oak, and sherry cask are still used as synonyms.

Mexican distillers Abasolo are focussing on the flavours that can be extracted from heritage corn varieties, with less wood influence than one might expect from whisky matured in a warm climate.

The prevailing wisdom of the past seems to have been that whisky drinkers didn’t want to know, or, if they did, wouldn’t have understood if they’d been told. Pioneers like Compass Box and Bruichladdich have long put that particular argument to bed, I think, and a quick survey of whisky ambassadors will confirm that the questions being asked by fans at whisky events are becoming more, not less, complex. Case in point: the strength of opposition to the recent removal of one brand’s ‘non-chill filtered’ statement from their packaging shows that there are plenty of whisky lovers who do pay close attention to the details.

An understanding of this new landscape seems to be coded into the vast majority of the new wave whisky distillers. What remains to be seen, of course, is whether they can walk the walk, or just talk the talk.

The cover of Whisky Magazine issue #176, featuring the team at Cardrona Distillery.