By Dave Broom

January's blue eyes

Davetakes a look at the United Kingdom market and finds himself wondering if the glass ishalf full or half empty
The middle of January, when this is being hacked out, is apparently the most depressing time of the year. While at no point wishing to conform to stereotypical behaviour patterns, I can see why. The bills are coming, the ground is sodden with endless rain, the days are still reluctant to lengthen, resolutions have been broken. As I write, the stock market is plummeting and economists have switched from debating whether there will be a recession to how bad it will be, something which might temper some of the more hysterical predictions of future sales of Scotch.I can almost imagine the hedge fund managers cradling a Scotch as their worlds collapse. As my friend Matthew says, whisky is one of those drinks which seems to taste better when you feel bitter. It’s something about the sting of alcohol being in tune with the melancholy of the soul.You want me to paint a picture? Go out and buy Frank Sinatra’s No One Cares which is about as perfect a title for a January album as you could possibly wish. Look at the cover.It shows Frank sitting at a bar cradling a whisky. What else could it be? A Martini wouldn’t have had the same look, brandy would be just wrong, Champagne also, beer would be too lacking in impact. Ye gods, the man’s down.He’s gazing into a half-empty glass (it would never be half-full, would it?) when around him are couples laughing. He’s walked through rainslicked night streets and can’t even be bothered to remove his hat and buttoned-up trench-coat.The party-goers, in sharp suits, evening dresses and fur stoles, only have eyes for each other.Frank gazes blankly into his glass, into his mind.What a swell party this ain’t.A glance at United Kingdom supermarket shelves last Christmas was almost sufficient to put me in a similar state. Once again, prices of single malt were slashed by up to £10 a bottle, leading blends were on commodity-style deals.I’m not depressed by this though, simply weary.I’ve been writing about the issue for 20 years and nothing has changed, why should I bother if distillers and supermarkets collude to devalue an ostensibly premium (sorry, luxury) market?As a hack I get the press releases and slick marketing presentations full of talk of reformulation, rebranding and repositioning, but at the back of the mind there’s a voice saying, “aye, just wait until Christmas it’ll be back to normal and your protestations about now being part of the luxe gang will be nothing more than hollow words.” I’m not worried about the Christmas behaviour, but I bet there’s folks from production teams heading over to Frank’s bar wondering why their colleagues in marketing have suckered them once again.But, as I said, I’m actually not that concerned. There’s enough in the world of whisky to be getting excited about in 2008. Take the continuing international rise of Japanese whisky, or the renaissance of the Irish category. Maybe this might be the year in which drinkers in the UK might finally begin to appreciate bourbon; while in markets where premium actually means what it says, Scotch continues to grow.Maybe showing too much concern about the state of the UK market is missing the point completely. Scotch has always been a global drink, its success has always been based on exports and exports are growing.But you know what? I’m lying. Though I appreciate the importance of export, take on board the big picture, I am still embarassed when visitors come to my country and find a place where bars, restaurants and hotels don’t seem to care about the native spirit, where supermarkets devalue the local (even if it has international reach) and distillers appear to have been so worn down by discounting that they’re simply happy to maintain volumes, accept lower profits and look for richer pickings elsewhere.Budge up Frank, there’s another joining you.