When the firstrecorded incidence of Scotch whisky was documented back in 1494, it was highly unlikely that the man behind the production of the spirit, a certain Friar John Cor, had any idea of just how much of a global phenomenon it would become—or indeed its influence on popular culture. Fast-forward more than 500 years, and whisky is more popular than ever, drunk by an increasing group of younger, more aspirational consumers in a multitude of different serves, each mirroring the truly international appreciation of the spirit.
Sales of whisky have been on a steady incline for the past decade, with newer markets in the Far East, the Baltic states and South America helping to play a major role in reclaiming whisky from the domain of the snobs, or, indeed, the traditional image of the inebriated octogenarian sitting propping up the bar, nursing a tumbler of his favourite blend. Thanks to the huge popularity of TV series such as Mad Men and Boardwalk Empire, which feature a host of classic whisky cocktails (as well as some superbly sharp suits), mixing up a Whisky Sour or an Old Fashioned has helped the drink attract a more culturally aware audience, that is looking for a greater complexity of flavour in its favourite tipples.
“The perception of whisky around the world has so many different views that the list is almost endless,” highlights George Grant, director of sales at the Glenfarclas distillery. “In Scotland, it is the national drink, whereas in India, it is almost a right or a ‘must have’ entitlement. In the USA, it is seen as something elusive, and the drink that signifies that yes…you have ‘made it’,” he continues. “But generally, whisky around the world is seen as something to aspire to.
The image of it as a drink my father used to drink has almost gone.”
Over in Japan, sales of both single malt and blended whiskies
have seen a sharp increase partly due to the “Highball” revolution—drinking blended whisky diluted with chilled, sparkling mineral water and served in pint glasses, sometimes with a twist of lemon zest. This popular way of enjoying the spirit developed first in the 1950s, when whisky found favour as a perfect sociable accompaniment to meal times, providing a counterpoint to the spicy Japanese cuisine, shared among a group of friends.
“For the past few years, the popularity of the Highball is continuing to contribute to the expansion of the whisky market by a large amount,” explains Kazuyuki Takayama, Suntory Whiskies UK’s marketing manager. “Because the drinker gets the whisky flavour, as well as refreshment from the soda and zest, it is often enjoyed as a first drink instead of beer in Japan. It is not only a way for previous whisky drinkers to renew their love for the drink, it also allows newcomers such as young people and women to have their first experience of drinking whisky.”
But the world’s love affair with whisky doesn’t only stem from its ability to adapt to its surroundings or indeed glassware. One can argue that the artisanal origins of the spirit are hugely attractive to the more discerning drinker and that the continued perception of “provenance” that Scotch whisky exhibits help to further ignite passions. Despite their huge stature in the whisky industry, brands such as Glenlivet are focusing heavily on the home-grown aspect of their whisky and the time-honoured traditions that have been rigorously followed since George Smith first established the distillery back in 1824. Through the Guardians programme, the distillery has developed a like-minded group of some 65,000 drinkers, keen on developing its knowledge of the intricacies of what makes single malt whisky such a unique drink.
Sales of whisky have been on a steady incline for the past decade, with newer markets in the Far East, the Baltic States and South America helping to play a major role in reclaiming whisky from the domain of the snobs. Getty Images
Over on the Isle of Islay, which lies just off the west coast of mainland Scotland, Laphroaig has a similar strategy, where the Friends of Laphroaig scheme grants every member access to their very own square foot of distillery land, where they are encouraged to visit and place their national flag. Seeing a peaty field covered in hundreds of tiny paper flags from destinations as diverse as the Seychelles to Switzerland shows just how far whisky has travelled.
“What’s exciting in the digital age is just how excited younger people are becoming about the provenance of whisky,” says Glenfarclas’ Grant. “The fact that people can research the heritage of a whisky on their phones, whilst they’re in a shop, shows that they do want that extra level of knowledge and not just the obvious choices, which is great for independent distilleries like Glenfarclas.”
So whether it’s the rediscovery of a long lost cocktail or the simple but flavoursome pleasures of a traditionally made single malt, whisky continues to fuel conversation, settle scores and influence future decades of cultures across the globe. It seems that you can’t keep a good dram down.
Neil Ridley is a well-known whisky writer in the UK and co-founder of the website Caskstrength.net