People

That was the year that was

This month's round table looks back at the past year and looks forward to the year ahead
The Panel
Ian Buxton,
Whisky Magazine writer (IB)Chuck Cowdery,
Whisky Magazine American
correspondent (CKC)John Glaser,
Compassbox (JG)Annabel Meikle,
Scotch Malt Whisky Society (AM)Dave Robertson,
Easy Drinking Whisky Company (DR)Q. Which sectors have done best, which have struggled, and how has the sector compared to other drinks sectors?DR: Premium malts continue at pace with malt lovers desperate to try new stuff, new ages, ‘new’ distilleries offerings and a realisation that multi malts/vatted malts/pure malts are not inferior but can actually offer an even more interesting flavour style...Blends in are depressed as younger consumers reject the category as old, stuffy, not for me but my dad and much prefer imported premium spirits. The United States continues to seek out premium and super premium spirits and whisky is well positioned to take advantage of that need. Asian markets continue to grow and shows little sign of catching a cold yet !JG: If I can focus on Scotch whisky: I really think that we’re beginning to see a growing interest in all types, and more and more serious whisky drinkers are discovering new types. Of course single malts are maintaining the lion’s share of interest, but we’re seeing a lot of people
talking about and trying vatted malts and grain whisky, and even rediscovering or I should simply say, ‘discovering’ the malt and grain blend.CKC: Whisky as a category is not as volatile as some other sectors so it will never produce ‘hot’ brands in the way those sectors do, but rarely will it collapse like those sectors either. Trends are what matter. If volume and profitability arrows are pointing up, it was a good year. No
important trends seemed to change direction in 2004, so things are going generally well.Q. What have been the highlights this year?CKC: In American whiskey, what I call the affordable super-premiums segment really coalesced in 2004. These are brands such as Maker’s Mark, Woodford Reserve, Knob Creek and Evan Williams Single Barrel. Every producer now has a product in this segment, which has the potential to deliver both volume and profits.DR: Highlights are the take over of Glenmorangie by LVMH which I hope will lead to a firming up on the crazy discounting that happens at Christmas – and the job security that it will bring Johnnie Walker at last giving some real focus to their green label/pure malt/blend of malts product which I am sure will lead the category and help educate and energise whisky lovers the world over as the great taste from “mixed malts” Continued noise by John Glaser – a fellow whisky lover, zealot and maverick!JG: Thanks Dave. I’ll tell you the highlight of the year for me We did a really fun Compass Box whisky dinner in San Francisco in March. Over 50 people, real malt whisky enthusiasts from all over California and beyond. As people arrived, I served them what I called Compass Box ‘Aysla My Way’. Basically, it’s Asyla served with chilled bottled water, 60 per cent Asyla, 40 per cent chilled water, in a wine glass. Some of the more traditional whisky drinkers looked at me funny when I told them how much water we’d added. But you know what? At the end of the meal, as I went around talking to everyone, I had a load of people, many of them dyed-in-the-wool malt heads, saying, “you know, John, I never drink whisky with that much water, but it was absolutely delicious, and perfect as a before-dinner drink!” I think we opened peoples’ eyes to a new way to enjoy whisky – drink it before dinner with water. I know this may sound incredible to some people, but for many malt drinkers, it’s a totally new thing! AM: It was a huge achievement to open our beautiful new venue for our Society members in Queen Street – another great watering hole for lovers of whisky. Having just come back from Campbeltown it was really heartening to see Glen Gyle reopened and new life being breathed back into the town. And, of course, Whisky Live in Glasgow!IB: Yes and the reopening of Scapa was great news, as were plans for boutique distilleries on Islay, Barra and elsewhere are great news. We need more enthusiasts and visionaries who are passionate about what they are doing.Q. And the low points, if any?IB: Picking up on what Dave said, I think that the Glenmorangie sale and the loss of independence and Scottish control was the saddest moment. For all the public relations spin, Glenmorangie is controlled from France now and, having spent over £300 million on the purchase, sentiment won’t play very much of a part in LVMH’s future decisions.JG: The threat of tax stamps for the UK market is a low point. The UK government seems to feel compelled to continue its tradition of being the worst enemy of its native drink, Scotch whisky. Tax stamps would be just another barrier to entry that would keep new companies from coming
in, and keep small companies from being able to grow as fast.DR: The likely move via the SWA towards a vatted malt being called a “blend of malts” – how confusing is that! Does that suggest to consumers that these products are blended whiskies mixed with malt whiskies or that they are blends with a high malt content or that all blends are malts? I should know what it means and even I find it hard to get real clarity with this name change.CKC: The fakes scandal has to be a low point although if people come away from it a little less obsessed with ancient bottlings, that could be a silver lining. It didn’t affect that many people directly, but it wasn’t good for an industry that hangs so much on authenticity.Q. What should we be looking forward to or optimistic about in 2005?JG: More creativity! More blending. More compelling styles of vatted malts. And more whisky drinking before dinner (with a bit of water, please; don’t knock it until you’ve tried it!). DR: Much more real innovation rather than just new ages, new finishes and new packaging – customers love breakthrough stuff that can really push the envelope – we are hoping to bring out a new flavour style soon that draws inspiration from overseas....More clever use of whisky as a mixed drink as well as its great taste straight or simply served with ice or water – the move to wanting wine, beer and foods with real flavour can only be good for whisky. Blandness is fine when you are starting out but as we all get more experienced and our taste preferences mature we lean towards more not less flavour.CKC: I agree. Even though the whisky category is not as faddish as some others, it still needs news to keep people interested and involved, so I hope we see some interesting new products and imaginative ways of introducing them to the public. There also seems to be a real recognition that one advantage whisky has is an authenticity connected to real places, whether in Scotland or Kentucky. Tourism is a source of revenue but it also supports the image of the category. No one wants to visit a vodka distillery.Q. What are the biggest concerns?CKC: The concern is always the same, that the industry will over-promise and under-deliver, disrespecting the consumer. The long ageing cycle of whiskey always will be a metaphor for the category itself. You have to think long-term.JG: I’m getting the feeling from talking to whisky drinkers (and from what I’ve tasted) that there are too many wine flavoured whiskies out there in the form of cask finishes. Some are brilliant, others (I’ve found) are disjointed and strange. I think the real risk here is that whisky drinkers begin to feel that the producers are taking advantage of whisky consumers’ natural and healthy inclination to be promiscuous and try new things. If the offerings are not worth the money charged, there will be a backlash to this proliferation of products as drinkers become more and more educated and aware. They will see them as gimmicks.Q. Finally, 2004 – good, bad or indifferent?JG: Good for Compass BoxDR: Report card... Great year from JMR’s point of view – top of the class for effort. A. Good year from Malts perspective – solid, hard working year – shows great potential for the future. B.Could do better from blends – must work harder, think before doing and needs to concentrate more. C.CKC: More good than bad.AM: Very good – busy members’ rooms of all sorts of people enjoying whisky is always good.IB: Good, but hardly a classic vintage!