At this year’s Whisky Live Paris, the marble salons of the Hotel Salomon de Rothschild echoed to the contended murmur of malt lovers, the hot autumn air scented by oak and grain. A high-class event as ever, but down in the basement, something was stirring. In that huge concrete space were producers of Cognac, Armagnac, Calvados, rum, absinthe, vodka, gin, tequila and bartenders mixing cocktails. It was a different world.
Every time I descended, I’d bump into some whisky brand ambassador trying guiltily to hide a cocktail behind their kilt. “I was just.. er .. seeing what was down here,” would be the response. That’s exactly what they should have been doing. It struck me that whisky has elevated itself to the upper floors of the spirits mansion in terms of price, rarity, prestige and image, but in doing so has created a disconnect between it and the spirits in the lower floors.
Scotch whisky finds itself at an interesting point in its continuing evolution. Shipments are booming, new markets are maintaining their remarkable momentum, creating a boom unlike anything seen since the late 19th century. Asia and Latin America are the new areas of focus, places where twentysomethings are loving the flavours of blends or malts. Scotch, whisky in all its guises, is trendy, is cool. The gaze of the majors has shifted inexorably to the southwest and to the east where new fortunes are to be made. Europe and the US are being left behind.
Yes, premium Scotch is growing in America, and malt’s rise and Glenlivet’s overtaking of J&B as the US’s 5th largest whisky brand is evidence of this, but whisky continues to underperform compared to vodka. Same thing in the UK.
Why? Is the ‘I don’t like whisky’ mindset seen for so many decades in mature markets still in force? I’m not so sure. After all, malts are growing, so are Irish whiskey and Bourbon. There’s less of a blanket refusal to try whisky these days. New (i.e. young) drinkers are more willing to try it, even love it. The issue isn’t a negative consumer image, maybe it lies in how whisky (especially Scotch) presents itself.
I think back to Paris and the symbolism of how whisky was set apart from the other spirits, not just physically but emotionally, in the ways in which the whisky firms presented their products compared to those in the basement.
I think back to Tales of the Cocktail in New Orleans and the lack of participation by Scotch in the largest celebration of the bartender’s art in the world; of how the same goes for the Berlin barshow. Scotch simply is not engaging with the opinion formers who, ironically, want to learn about it.
Years of doing this gig means that I’m tuned in to mentions of whisky. Over this summer it was hard to escape them: it was mentioned regularly by presenters and musicians at Glastonbury, it was there in the rolling blog on the Mercury awards [“I’d rather have a Caol Ila than a red wine” went the line], it’s there is Mad Men, it’s there in Boardwalk Empire both of which, while being set in the past, holds mirrors up to contemporary life. My first column for this mag 90-odd issues ago was about how whisky in British soaps was a signifier either for bad behaviour or depression. That has changed, a major semiotic shift.
Malt drinkers see whisky as the product of the land, yet it is also urban. It is not, however, urbane. Whisky is at its weakest when it becomes a comfortable drink because comfort breeds complacency. Niceness doesn’t sell cases. Edginess does. Pleasantness is bland. Big flavour however is .. cool.
Whisky can talk the talk in Asia and Latin America or with Latino drinkers in the US. Why can’t it do the same with the rest of us? All the signs are that consumers are willing to accept that whisky has got its edge back, but whisky itself, in those old markets, doesn’t appear to be picking up on this. Instead it stands on the upper floors and looks east, ignoring the cries from the basement.