By Christopher Coates

Opinion: Whisky’s future is now in the hands of the next generation

The inheritors of whisky's legacy have a lot to do and little time left to do it
There is a palpable shift occurring internally at the most long-established distillers, blenders and bottlers. A new generation of whisky makers and marketers is slowly but surely taking the reins, while many of the people who exist as living links to a previous era of the industry, the great post-war boom, pass on.

Defining a ‘generation’ is famously difficult, and even accepted terms like ‘baby boomers’, ‘millennials’ and ‘gen z/zoomers’ are somewhat loose around the edges. Nevertheless, just as people born within those time periods tend to share common values and goals, we can observe the same generational shift, and its ramifications, playing out in all areas of the world of whisky. Regardless of country and whisky-making style, there appear to be common themes linking members of the new guard, many of whom are ‘masters in waiting’ in their 20s and early 30s (though I’d also count those slightly older makers, managers and agenda-setters who’ve stepped into the top jobs in the past five to 10 years in this group, too).

Change is apparent in all areas of the business, but especially so on the ground at distilleries. For example, almost all moving into production-management positions today (and even many operators) come from STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) backgrounds. This is not to say there haven’t been honed scientific minds working in whisky for decades – distillery labs and chemical engineering specialists have been key to honing malt, grain, bourbon and other whiskies throughout the 20th century – but this academic-first approach has now permeated to the grassroots level.

A distinct break from the past is in progress, as the classic systems of hiring locally and ‘working up each rung from the bottom’, which often saw many generations of the same family follow in their ancestors’ footsteps, are replaced. Although there is undoubtedly a shared reverence for the ‘old ways of doing things’, changes in areas like efficiency, hygiene, health and safety, sustainability, and corporate culture mean that many distilleries which have remained largely unchanged since the 1970s, early 80s or even earlier are soon to be operationally and culturally unrecognisable.

By and large, these changes are for the better, and there is always a danger of viewing the past through rose-tinted spectacles. However, as is true of any period of change and progress, there are pitfalls to be avoided. For example, some companies are running into problems where those with experience are retiring or passing away quicker than apprentices can be fully trained. Masters who spent a decade or two working as understudies before taking charge are now having to impart the sum total of their knowledge in half or a quarter of that time. Ask anyone working in whisky, old guard or new, and they will tell you that book smarts are not a substitute for years spent nosing and making (or, indeed, marketing and selling) whisky, just as experience of doing without full theoretical understanding has inherent drawbacks, too.

What’s clear is that we’re at a turning point, and a mass loss of institutional knowledge is one of the greatest risks facing the whisky world today. Whether it be oral histories of distillery and whisky-community culture, tales of the great ‘characters’, production know-how or deep-rooted understanding of the core values and emotional drivers that make someone choose to pick up a glass of whisky, everything possible should be done to record, preserve and pass on as much as possible.

A recent flurry of activity around the creation or expansion of formal company archives shows that, in some quarters, this fact is being acknowledged. However, these projects tend to focus on historic objects and papers, missing the key human element of ‘living history’. Meanwhile, in drinks communications and media, focus is mostly on bottled products, distillery openings and expansions, ‘innovations’, and partnerships. Of course, these stories are worthy of celebration. However, though more whisky content is being created than ever before, much of it doesn’t address the most pressing need to record recent history first-hand, from those who lived it. And time, as always, is working against us.