By Dave Broom

Flava Dave

Dave muses on Dewar's move into the flavoured category
At the time of writing, there is what we in Scotland call a stooshie (*), or at least the beginnings of one, regarding a new product from Dewar’s. Whether this stooshie will turn into a full-blown stramash (†) is as yet unclear, but it has the potential to.

Dewar’s in its wisdom has decided to launch Highlander Honey, a whisky flavoured with, well I reckon you can work that out, although in the way of such things, the honey has been “hand-selected” which sounds like a fairly sticky business to me.

Of course, I’ve probably already made a mistake in saying “whisky, flavoured with”, for although this is whisky-based, it is not ‘Whisky’, and cannot be sold as such because it’s had flavour added to it as any additions (hand-selected or not) are not allowed under the Scotch Whisky Act. The SWA is already making noises about whether the way Highlander Honey looks and is sold puts it in too-close proximity to Scotch, part of our stooshie.

The other part is, of course, the flavouring of Scotch itself. Do I have a problem with this I hear you ask? No. I do it myself. On the table behind me are a host of bottles of whisky which have been ‘adulterated.’

There’s one in which cherries cinnamon and pepper have rested, another with wormwood, chamomile and other herbs and roots, a whisky bitters, another that’s had orange, caraway and cinnamon added. Then there’s more outré ones, a reworked Usquebaugh with saffron colouring and one just influenced by herbs. Madness?Maybe, but all I was doing was following old Scottish recipes... officer.

Take the Usquebaugh. We’re told that this was the Gaelic term for ‘water of life’ which was bastardised into ‘whisky’. Not true. From the 17th century onwards, Usquebaugh was a different drink, whisky based, but one redistilled with flavourings, with saffron becoming the defining ingredient. Whisky bitters was, according to Jamieson’s Dictionary of the Scottish Language (1808): “a dram much used in the Highlands as a stomachic, made from an infusion of aromatic herbs and whisky” and there are plentiful mentions and recipes for it. The others are all recipes from either the 19th or late 20th century. Whisky has long been flavoured.

Well, yes, say some historians, but that was only to cover up bad spirit. Maybe that was the initial impetus, but the prevalence of the recipes, their complexity and where they appear, in manuals for middle-class households, suggest that these were created because they had appeal.

So it makes sense for Dewar’s to do this, which is another irony, as one of its former marketing directors left his job rather sharpish after suggesting at a conference that whisky could be flavoured with Scottish ingredients.

Is all well and good? In principle yes. It is not as if Dewar’s is doing something new. Compass Box Orangerie is well-established, and what is Drambuie other than a superb flavoured whisky, one whose origins backs up the history of whisky with additions. Both of these are excellent products, and that’s the issue.

Dewar’s decision hasn’t been driven by a love of history, but by the remarkable success of flavoured Bourbon. What bothers me is product quality, not of Highlander Honey which I’ve yet to taste, but of what is already on the market. Red Stag may be a huge seller, but have you tasted it?

Does it add to the understanding, appreciation and pleasure of whisky, does it bring people into the category and make them whisky drinkers? No, in the same way as spiced rum doesn’t make people rum drinkers, all it does it set up a new category which proves very welcome to the firm’s bottom line. Captain Morgan Spiced was reformulated to make it “less rummy.” Could the same happen here? Of course.

Should Scotch firms cut corners on quality, what is a logical extension of whisky has the potential to do real damage to a category which still needs to grow its credibility in many markets. Here’s a opportunity to make some interesting, historically accurate, whisky drinks. If not founded on quality, this won’t just be a stramash, it’ll be a full on rammie (¶).

(*) An argument
(†) A scuffle
(¶) A full-blown fight