What is nectar on the palate, can be enjoyed with or without ice, as part of a cocktail, with soda or another mixer, yet just as easily transform a hot toddy or cup of coffee? “Whisky,” you may well chorus. Close but wrong; the answer in this case is whisky liqueur.
OK, you may not often drink one yourself (although more of that later), but it’s pretty certain you know someone who does like a tipple, even if it is only at Christmas. So what better time to catch up on what’s happening in a market that’s interesting not least because it spreads far beyond the traditional whisky boundaries.All liqueurs are sweet, spirit-based drinks where flavourings from such things as herbs, flowers or seeds are introduced by re-distillation, infusion or maceration. In the case of whisky ones, heather-flavoured honey figures large, but each brand trumpets a secret recipe usually spiced up with a romantic tale concerning its genesis.If you had to name just one whisky liqueur, most of us would probably respond with Drambuie, the heart of the Rusty Nail cocktail and a cause of many a youthful regret the morning after. One of the reasons why Drambuie has such a big profile is the wholehearted way it has embraced event sponsorship; the dynamic images of glacier skiing or powerboating reflect the contemporary image the company and its product now project. Drambuie is shouting loud and clear: this is a drink for happening people.Image is a problem whisky liqueurs have struggled with for sometime, although it is a battle the major players believe they are winning. Liqueurs are often lumped together with whisk(e)y cream liqueurs, something that does neither drink a favour. With whisky liqueurs the emphasis is on the whiskey and with creams ... well you get the drift. However they do share some aspects in relation to drinker profiles and habits. Both tend to be bought at Christmas and the New Year, with a half-full bottle staying in the cupboard for long after. Both men and women pretty much in equal measure drink whisky liqueurs, while far more women drink creams. However both groups until recently have tended to be the over-40s who prefer their indulgences to be sweet and soft. In other words we are talking about a part of the whisky world that has been small, reliable but not especially dynamic nor sophisticated either in terms of sales or image. Now that is all changing. The versatility of liqueurs, indicated at the start of this feature, chimes nicely with the changes in how we live our lives. Just as contemporary lifestyles are flexible and varied, so there is no one prescribed way about the way you should drink a liqueur. Our tastes are changing too. While we may consume more sugar overall, we prefer less sweet alcoholic drinks. Equally as important are the seismic changes in our eating habits. We are much more open to different foods and flavour combinations. And whisky liqueurs are just as likely to appear in desserts, ice creams and even in main courses as they are in the glass after dinner. Drambuie, whose core customers are 35-plus males, has recently staged a huge push to broaden its appeal, building on its international reputation for tradition and quality but also reinventing the drink as Drambuie on the rocks for the modern palate. While the blend of whisky, heather honey and herbs has not changed, it is appealing to the 20 or 30-somethings. This is the group which likes the idea of a relaxing post-prandial liqueur or to order cocktails in a minimalist bar followed by a plate of cosmopolitan titbits for dinner. But there is also recognition of the growing importance of eating as a leisure activity, hence Drambuie’s sponsorship of the Scottish Chefs’ Association and the London Restaurant Week coming up in March. And the liqueur is now used in a wide range of Scotland’s finest culinary products from haggis and cooked hams to ice creams and jams.Glayva, another major whisky liqueur, also goes for the blend of traditional and contemporary and has recruited Sky presenter and social butterfly Tania Bryer as its Glayva girl this year. This is an outright bid to appeal to wicked young women on a wild night out. The worldwide popularity of Irish bars has meant a dividend for that other grand old fixture of the whisky liqueur scene, Irish Mist. Irish bars are opening up everywhere, especially in the US. Another bonus has been the trend in America for more lavish entertaining. Irish Mist does well at cigar dinners, where a group of diners enjoy a meal with all the traditional accompaniments, followed by liqueurs and excellent cigars.Perhaps the strongest indication that whisky liqueurs are finding a new generation of drinkers is the fact that several new brands have appeared in the last few years. Some of these companies are more associated with malt whisky than with liqueur drinks.Glenfiddich Malt Whisky Liqueur, launched in October 1998, has been an effective vehicle in encouraging non-whisky drinkers to try the Glenfiddich range. Trial tastings revealed that people who avoided liqueurs for being too sweet, liked this because it was less so. It appealed to women particularly who found it smooth and subtle. Glenfiddich believes that this is the kind of drink couples will buy. So when the husband pours a whisky for himself , he will also pour a liqueur for his wife.Inver House Distillers, makers of Old Pulteney 12 Year Old single malt whisky, expanded their range in October with the introduction of Old Pulteney Liqueur. They too have been concentrating on the whisky element, seeking a drier, more subtle drink targeted at women. The decision to produce the liqueur was an easy one according to Inver House’s Margaret Mary Timpson. “We had positive feedback from the consumer testing and we produce the liqueur on site,” she added. “It’s brought us new customers and been a great introduction to the rest of our products.”Wallace, the new-ish (1995) whisky liqueur from Burn Stewart distillers, unashamedly capitalised on the popularity of the film Braveheart, starring Mel Gibson as the legendary 13th century Guardian of Scotland, Sir William Wallace. The liqueur is less sweet and has found a market in the 35-plus male who may well drink malt whisky as well.
As you might expect from the name, the producers of Cock o’ the North are pretty confident about the broad-based appeal of their product. Company director is Alistair, the Earl of Aboyne, and it is his father, the Marquis of Huntly, who is the current Cock o’ the North, a title given to all chiefs of the Clan Gordon.“This is a new drink based on a genuine, historical recipe handed down through my family,” declares Lord Aboyne. “We’ve found it appeals to both whisky and non-whisky drinkers who appreciate its clean taste. Both men and women like it, there are no hard and fast rules.” And that just about sums up the state of whisky liqueurs today, free spirits indeed. They may not have made it into the front row of the malt lovers’ drinks cabinet, but they’re happening almost everywhere else. Maybe it’s time for the purists to wise up.