By Dave Broom

Is Scotch on the Rocks?

It's time for some sober reflection
This will probably only appear after the grimness of January has been happily left behind and we properly enter a new year, but at the moment of writing, I am surrounded by friends - fear not, this is no deathbed scenario - all of whom are, metaphorically, polishing some rather rusty halos which they have managed to extract from the back of their attics. "I'm detoxing," "No drink for me, I'm off it for a month." "Can you give me some money? I've gone dry for January," (this last one is no more than charity mugging by the way. You have to give money because it is for a good cause, but for exhibiting self-control? Go jump out of a plane mate). One has even entered into a period of monastic seclusion - admittedly in a Norfolk mansion - where he is going to grow a beard and try to find his navel.

I've written about this before - and have many more qualified scientists - but here goes. There is no need to do this! You are not toxic. If you were, you would be dead. The body is set up to remove toxins, it's what it does. The point of having a liver is to flush out toxins, not store them. If you are sensible and take a couple of days off the booze every week it will happily continue providing this function. A quiet period every week (OK, every fortnight) is sufficient.

This idea of this simple solution to 'toxicity' got me thinking however. About Scotch. Not about the volumes I consume (not a lot doctor, honestly), but in its general - or perceived - health. That the figures weren't great in 2014 cannot be denied. The boom appears to have slowed, but that was always going to happen. Even if what we are seeing is a plateauing of Scotch, rather than the start of a bust, then the volumes are still considerably greater than a decade ago. It's not last year's sales which concerns me though, it is what seems to be a loss of focus on the part of the industry itself and a small but perceptible shift in drinkers' consciousnesses that the Scotch's century-long hegemony is beginning to be challenged.

After being the hot property it suddenly seems to be behind the curve, the finger has slipped from the pulse, call it what you want. The need to keep the pipelines full as demand has risen appears to have resulted in a reduction (even elimination) of the time available for trialing innovations and as a result, a decline in any sense of excitement. Today, the talk is of what is happening in Japan, world whisky, Ireland, Canada and, biggest of all, American whiskey. All have their issues but they are all exciting the trade and consumers - is Scotch?

January is, admittedly, a slow month news wise, but the most reported piece of Scotch whisky news so far has been the launch of a 26 Years Old Speyside whisky. It's probably lovely (at £400 it should be) but that's not the point. We've all seen 26 Years Old Speyside whiskies before. Independent bottling is not news. Is that really the best that Scotch can come up with? The fact is the most stimulating developments seem to be happening outwith Scotland - in yeasts, grains, maturation techniques, blending approaches and promotions. Even if they don't have massive impact on volume they all raise interest and move people's minds away from Scotch. I'm not of the opinion that the quality of Scotch has dropped, but as B. B. King would put it, the thrill has gone. Where is the talk of artistry? Where are the serves? Where are the new products? Where are the boundaries being tested? Where is the drawing upon heritage?

Like my friends' livers, Scotch isn't toxic, but like us all I suspect what it needs is a period of stepping back from paying attention to nowt but volume and looking hard - and critically - about what it is offering, how it is sold, to whom it is sold, and how it is spoken about. Time, in other words, for some sober reflection methinks. You know, my monastic friend in Norfolk might just be onto something and let's see what happens in the forthcoming year.

Happy New Year!