As I write this, it’s mid-December, which means it’s the time of the year when every newspaper article, trend roundup, talk-show segment, television advert and sentimental think-piece begins with ‘it’s that time of the year when.’ For me, it’s the time of year when Led Zeppelin’s ‘What Is and What Should Never Be’ loops through my skull like the perpetually falling glitter in a snow globe. (And yes, I consider myself very lucky, indeed. It’s the time of year when there are certainly worse earworms to contend with.) I’ve come to reason that this song gets lodged in my brain every December because the title points to every industry-watcher’s favourite holiday-time parlour game: trend forecasting. And so, I figured I’d use this issue’s column to take a minute to consider, first, what is. As far as the whisky world goes, at least.
At this moment, supply chain tie-ups and driver shortages have whisky makers all over the world sitting around waiting for glass bottles, cork closures, labels and, in some cases, yeast, grain, and wood staves. Fuel prices are high, inflation is looming like a dark, bloated cloud and, to make matters even more expensive, costs on shipping containers are multiple times more than they were two years ago.
Also, just in from the Department of End of Times, the popular brand Barefoot Wine, which is helmed by a woman who is, according to the website, the most awarded winemaker in the US, launched an Oreo-themed wine and the internet was split over its response: one half emphatically relieved and the other half just crushed. While we’re on the topic of not-whisky, according to data analytics firm Nielsen, sales of non-alcoholic beverages rose 33.2 per cent in 2021, which amounts to US$331 million in sales. Non-alcoholic beer and cider sales increased by 31.7 per cent. Even more eye-popping, sales of non-alcoholic spirits grew 113.4 per cent.
Judging by that quick index, it would seem that this isn’t quite whisky’s boom time. And yet, just a few nights earlier, the bar world’s best and brightest gathered in London for World’s 50 Best Bars, giving the impression that creative, influential bartenders deem Covid a stumbling block, not a boulder blocking-progress. (London’s Connaught took home top prize.) The week before, the American Craft Spirits Association held its annual conference in person in Louisville. Social media was flooded with photos of joyous reunions and happy distillers brandishing prizes and new releases.
What’s more, during the few weeks I spent in Scotland two months ago, I spoke to distillery workers who said they couldn’t age whisky fast enough. Since the pandemic started, I’ve spoken with store owners, distillers and bar managers who all said the same thing: there’s nary a private barrel to be bought, so desperate are distillers to stow away any and all spirit that trickles off their stills. Demand, it appears, is indeed brisk. In even better news, at the end of October, the EU and US announced an agreement to lift the 25 per cent tariffs on American whiskey, which had been in place since 2018 as a retaliatory measure against the Trump administration’s tariffs on aluminium and steel.
I haven’t even called out any of the exceptional whiskies introduced in 2021 that I tried, like those from Keeper’s Heart – produced in Minneapolis in the classic triple-distillation style of Ireland because it’s made by Brian Nation, formerly of Irish Distillers – and some choice expressions from New Riff Distillery in Northern Kentucky, which is always known for its forward thinking.
As for the second part of the song, I’ll help myself to some poetic license and ask: what should be? I could certainly do with fewer celebrity brands in 2022, as I prefer to choose my whisky based on how and by whom it’s made, not by who endorses it. All signs point to the continued upward trajectory of canned cocktails, experimental whiskey releases, products distilled from heritage grains, and big, burly cask-strength whiskeys.
But I’m merely a trend-watcher. I’ve no control, which explains the other melody lodged in my brain at this time of year: Doris Day chirping “Que Sera Sera.” The future’s not ours to see.