By Dave Broom

The Bigger Picture

Are we talking about the real issue of whisky?
In the way of these things, I've just been asked about grain 'trending'.

It's a sensible enough question - there's a frisson of interest about grain whisky these days - and a subject worth discussing, but at the same time I can't help but wondering whether grain sales are really the most important thing happening within whisky. I don't see the category making a sudden impact on the latest IWSR figures. In fact, I don't expect them to ever make a mark. It doesn't mean it's not interesting - hell, I'm as big a fan of grain whisky as anyone - but is this just another area which is distracting us from the big issues of whisky?

The same goes for flavoured whiskies, which are making an impact on the figures. The most sensible approach, I believe, is not to complain about them and then ignore their existence, but try to bring flavoured products within the Scotch Whisky regs. Unless some form of control is exerted - only Scotch whisky and natural flavourings can be used, for example - we will end up with hideous concoctions named after Scotch brands based on neutral spirit and additives. A proactive stance is needed. Again though, is it the biggest issue? No.

Equally, take the debate around white whisky. I'm fascinated by new make, but whisky is an aged grain-based product.

You need to make money quickly? Make gin, or vodka. Just don't call your white stuff whisky because it ain't and never will be. Again though, a side issue.

There are people who are getting very aerated about No Age whiskies, but are all whisky drinkers and potential whisky drinkers all that interested, or is it just the chattering classes who are getting their knickers in a twist about something which is both necessary - stock issues; and sensible - creative freedom, and a break from the tyranny of older is better?

All of the above excite us - as do the debates on caramel and sulphur (don't get me started on that) because as readers of this journal we are all inside the whisky tent. Yes, we should discuss them, but not to the extent where they obscure what is needed.

As many of these things do, these thoughts started in New Orleans during my annual pilgrimage to Tales of the Cocktail. This time, it was remarkable how many Scots were about. Great for me, maybe scary for others - especially when karaoke was involved. It wasn't just Scottish bartenders who were more in evidence, but distillers.

The shift towards whisky at this, the world's largest celebration of bartending, has been noticeable.

Bourbon built on its foothold, Irish Distillers planted their flag with a phenomenal afternoon pop-up run by New York's bar du jour Dead Rabbit, and Scotch's presence was more significant in classes, debates and minievents.

There was talk of mixing and cocktails, history and Highballs. The discussions weren't about NAS, or caramel, or sulphur, or grain, or white whisky. They revolved around the flavours of whisky, its use and the opportunity. The big picture in other words, rather than the niggly minutiae which over-energises we tent dwellers.

Bartenders (again) have got it right.

How do we get the spirit they have fallen in love with into people's hands?

It is time to ask the simple questions, think about the basics. These earnest debates won't shift public opinion.

Glasses in hands will.

There is clear evidence that the bartenders at the top end are looking at whisky, Scotch and Irish especially, seriously. The notion that it cannot and shouldn't be mixed has gone. Now is the time therefore to confound expectations, challenge preconceptions and have fun. That necessitates writers, bartenders and, most importantly, producers embracing it and being bold.

The opinions of the few who shout the loudest are less relevant than the massive job - and opportunity - which exists in bars globally. Whisky's ability to regain its footing in the US, the UK and other mature markets where it remains sluggish demands nothing less than a recalibration of the way in which drinks are put into those new hands.

That means looking at new combinations, occasions and serves.

There is, I feel, real potential at last.

Let's not be distracted by the chatter and get on with the big conversation.