By Dave Broom

The chips are down for whisky

Dave Broom considers the case for clear, characterless, grappa-like whisky...
My three and a half year old won’t eat chicken... or pasta. To be honest, she won’t eat lots of things. “I don’t like it,” she says, to which we reply “but if you’ve never tried it how do you know?”This argument carries no clout. She turns up her nose, pushes the plate away and asks for chips. Whisky is faced with the same problem.The quasi-mythical ‘new consumer’ won’t touch it because of a perceived flavour barrier. They may have tried a shot once when they were young and it gave them a hangover they’ve never forgotten. Most, however, simply believe they won’t like the taste and making that jump from irrational aversion to conversion is a big one to take. We all know that whisky has the greatest range of flavours of any spirit, but convincing people of that is the toughest job of all.Whisky is hardly alone in this. I’m writing this in Cognac, where another ‘brown spirits’ industry is going to considerable lengths to use innovation to revitalise a sluggish market. Some have worked. Alize (a mix of cognac and passion fruit), and Hypnotiq (cognac and vodka) spring to mind. Many haven’t. Hennessy’s white cognac for example.Is whisky embarking on the same route? Strangely, the person who is hailed as the great innovator, John Glaser, isn’t as radical as his counterparts in Cognac (Orangerie apart). All he has done is put a 21st century spin on vatting and blending. He’s succeeded however because he’s given new drinkers liquids which make them re-evaluate what ‘whisky’ is.Whisky has always looked for ways to make its flavour more appealing. It took a quantum leap in the 19th century when commerically-oriented men (wine merchants, grocers, publicans, brokers) worked out what the consumer’s palate would like and gave them new drinks which delivered precisely that. That’s innovation.That’s also the word being applied to J&B’s new brand, –6°C. The name alone suggests that this is a whisky you should put in the freezer, treat like vodka.It’s almost colourless and, flavour-wise, is miles away from ‘traditional’ whisky. In fact, hardened whisky drinkers will wonder if it is whisky at all. But it isn’t meant for them.-6°C needs to be mixed and does work well with tonic, but trying to make people drink whisky and tonic is embarking on the same route as that which the Cognacais trod for a decade.It didn’t work. Despite it being a good drink, the only place where you find people mixing Cognac and tonic is... cognac. -6°C may drag in some bored gin and tonic or vodka and tonic drinkers, but will they be converted to the brand, or to whisky?Innovation is about building bridges. It should bring people into whisky while at the same time taking whisky into new areas. Go too far and you are exposed, you end up in no-man’s land, in a world of contrivance (see finishes).The bottom line is that the liquid has to deliver. No matter how far you tweak things it has to be appealing, drinkable, and say that it is whisky too.These bridges to new consumers can be built with softer whiskies, sweeter ones, lighter (but not neutral) ones. Ones which use American oak rather than European; mature, grain-high blends. Drinks which not only surprise people but which bring them into whisky.Successful innovation is about flavour. Without product delivery, innovation is nothing more than tricksy marketing and while that may help with profit margins and shareholders’ returns in the short term, it helps no-one in the long term.Right enough, what do I know? I just heard that Morgan’s Spiced is closing in on Bacardi as Scotland’s top on-trade spirit. Some people just refuse anything but chips and junk food for their while lives.