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Hot Scotch

Kate Portman looks at how blended Scotch is making an impact across the globe from beach parties to trendy bars.
By Kate Portman (nee Ennis)
From the chilled-out beach bars of Brazil to the nightclubs of buzzing Beijing, blended Scotch is the global spirit of choice being liberally poured in some of the world’s most dynamic hotspots and enjoyed in a diverse number of ways too.Despite gloomy conditions in Western Europe, the raging thirst for blended Scotch elsewhere around the world is leading the whisky industry to forecast a sunny outlook and raise production to levels not seen since the 1960s. According to the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA), blended Scotch shipments accounted for 82 per cent of the value of total exports in 2007.“The equivalent of more than one billion bottles of blended Scotch was exported from Scotland, in a record year for both the value and volume of shipments,” says the SWA’s David Williamson.Blended whisky’s growth shows the greatest potential in countries with burgeoning economies and massive populations. Large numbers of affluent middle class consumers are emerging who are attracted to the foreign allure of whisky as a luxury and a lifestyle statement to announce they’ve arrived. So who’s drinking what and where?Latin America is one big territory enamoured with Scotch – the city of Recife to the northeast of Brazil is said to have the highest per capita consumption rate for whisky in the world. Teacher’s is one of the blends thriving here. “Brazil has a casual drinking culture so it’s about community socialising and enjoying whisky long on the beach,” reveals Michael Cockram, Scotch brand director for Beam Global. “The occasions and ways to drink Scotch are completely flexible, so it’s enjoyed at parties or at a beach bar in the afternoon mixed with coconut milk.” As well as standard blends, Brazilians are trading up to more premium aged bottlings, such as Chivas Regal and Ballantine’s 12 Years Old. “There’s a strong history of premium-tier whisky in Brazil inherited from American influences so middle class consumers and business people are drinking 12 Year Old blends on more formal occasions,” explains Peter Moore, brand director for Ballantine’s.Diageo’s Johnnie Walker Black Label and Buchanan’s 12 Years Old are also strong across South America. “In Venezuela, Mexico and Columbia, blended Scotch is part of a big occasion, such as a business lunch, where it’s consumed long with soda or water,” says Diageo’s Charles Allen.This interest in premium deluxe brands is a key trend within the blends boom and Korea is a good example. Whisky is a status drink marking your position in society so lends start at 12 Years Old but are frequently older – Diageo’s Windsor 17 Years Old sells well, as does Ballantine’s 17, 21 and 30 Years Old expressions. “Korean palates like well balanced, smooth blends that perform well with ice or water over a long period of time,” says Peter Moore. “Whisky is largely served by the bottle in traditional room salons with hostess service to male groups engaged in upmarket business entertainment,” he adds.The wider industry watches markets like Korea to predict what will happen in China – the most exciting new country for whisky that also carries the biggest question mark.China’s vast scale is attractive, yet simultaneously a big disadvantage so exploration has been led by whisky’s two biggest players due to the substantial investment required. Chivas Regal and Johnnie Walker are dominant, although Dewar’s is currently touring China with its Academy of Whisky. Initial signs look promising. Scotch is being enjoyed by young people going out together to sophisticated western style bars and ordering a bottle for the table to share with various mixers over ice – including green tea.Many smaller whisky companies are hoping Scotch will break into the mainstream, however, if future demand remains with aged blends, stock issues could be a major problem. Furthermore, China’s fledgling consumer could prove fickle (as in Taiwan) and move towards other international spirits.Other countries whisky-makers are tentatively keeping tabs on include India, which has a vast whisky-loving population but is currently off limits due to prohibitive taxes. Russia shows more promise, although its scale is problematic so brands like Chivas Regal and Johnnie Walker Black Label are leading the way, supplying the young and ambitious with a luxury spirits brand.Neighbours in former communist countries also strive for the spirit once off limits to them. In the Baltic States, Burn Stewart’s Scottish Leader is popular, while in Romania, Teacher’s is gaining ground.“White spirits don’t traditionally have a good image in this region, whereas Scotch is seen as reliable high quality spirit,” says Michael Cockram. “There’s a real spread of uses from drinking with coke and other mixers in nightclubs to having after dinner in restaurants or at home over ice at the end of the day.” All the countries mentioned are relatively new to Scotch so what’s happening in the more mature markets? Whisky’s popularity is cooling in the once hot countries of Southern European, like Spain and Greece, but blends like Cutty Sark are trying to remain dynamic in these markets. “We’re trying to make standard Scotch more available to more people by encouraging different uses,” says Cutty’s marketing director David King. In Spain, Cutty is emphasising the Shanghai to London tea route of its namesake clipper ship and promoting cocktails made with Oriental ingredients like red tea and wasabi in bars and nightclubs. J&B also remains popular in Spain enjoyed in late night-drinking bars where it’s generously free poured and mixed with coke.Elsewhere, Scotch’s popularity and drinking habits are less clear cut. Although South Africa was seen as a mature market, it’s now finding new popularity among various ethnic and economic strata of society.America is also fragmented, as the popularity of blends in Latin America and Asia are influencing the drinking habits of Hispanic and Asian expats living in the US.Such developments certainly prove that drinks trends can be cyclical as generations and attitudes move on.We can only hope that global popularity of blended Scotch may prompt the places where blends are least appreciated to give them a second look. Peter Moore sums things up nicely: “If you only drink single malt, you’re only seeing a partial view of what Scotch is all about. Malts are largely difficult to drink, individual and onedimensional.In terms of something that’s easy drinking to enjoy and relax with, it’s blended whisky that really performs.” TOP TEN
TOP TEN markets for Blended Scotch
Whisky shipments in 2007 (by value):
1 USA £322m
2 Spain £276m
3 France £221m
4 Singapore £143m
5 S.Korea £134m
6 Venezuela £102m
7 Greece £97m
8 S.Africa £81m
9 Germany £63m
10 Portugal £45m