The Scotch strategy
Donald Colville, global Scotch whisky ambassador of Diageo, explains the finer nuances of single malts, blended Scotches, and busts a few myths
Mark Twain had famously said: “Give an Irishman lager for a month, and he’s a dead man. An Irishman’s stomach is lined with copper, and the beer corrodes it. But whiskey polishes the copper and is the saving of him.”
Over the centuries, whisky has travelled across the globe, from Scotland to the US, to Ireland, Japan and now Australia. Today, India too is a big whisky-drinking country. According to a 2015 report by Bank of America Merrill Lynch, Indians consumed 1.5 billion litres of whisky in 2014. In comparison, the figure for the US was only 462 million litres. In the first six months of 2016, India emerged as the third-biggest export market for Scotch, according to a September Reuters report. The average age of the whisky drinker too is coming down, says Donald Colville, global Scotch whisky ambassador for Diageo, who was in New Delhi recently for a promotional event. More young people are drinking whisky today, changing notions of the drink being a stodgy middle-aged person’s tipple of choice.
Whisky, which Colville describes as age- and gender-neutral, accounts for almost 60% of the IMFL (India made foreign liquor) market but much of what is produced locally is still far below global standards, according to Scottish Whisky Association, for reasons such as the use of molasses, neutral alcohol, limited maturation and the use of flavourings.
It remains difficult, however, to create awareness about good (and more expensive) whiskies. “The first challenge in most countries is to make the consumer aware of the brands, their history and legacy,” says Colville.
Colville, who was born in Campbeltown, once Scotland’s whisky capital, grew up hearing stories about whisky. His great-grandfather owned two distilleries in Campbeltown; and one of his blends, the Old Highland, was believed to have been the inspiration for the Johnnie Walker Blue Label blend. Scotland has about 120 active distilleries in five-six whisky-producing regions and whisky from each region has a different flavour profile, because the malts produced have a unique character owing to the terroir. The Speyside whiskies are complex, but with a sweeter note, while the ones from Islay are heavily peated and smoky.
“While India remains the whisky capital of the world, Scotch remains the world’s favourite whisky,” says Colville. “No matter where you go in the world, there will always be Scotch in some form in every bar.” An increasing number of brands are now holding consumer engagement programmes, tasting sessions, bartending competitions and other such events in metros.
“Using single malt in a long drink or a cocktail is another way to popularize the drink,” says Colville. The idea of using a Lagavulin, a Talisker or a Cardhu in a cocktail might sound incongruous to the whisky connoisseur but Colville says it can be a platform for creating a wonderful drink. “If you taste a Talisker Old Fashioned and a generic Old Fashioned, there is a marked difference, and that could be a start of a journey.”
Switching to single malts after tasting one in a cocktail is common in the West but Colville accepts that it isn’t yet a trend in India. The reason, he says, is that the bartending scene in the country is still in its infancy.
Colville believes, however, that the next big whisky trend will be closer to Scotland, somewhere in northern Europe. “There are some wonderful whiskies being made in Scandinavia, particularly in Sweden and Denmark, that will demand our attention very soon.”
Myth: Single malt is better than blended Scotch
There are some incredible single malts as well as blends out there. All good blended whiskies are made by blending single malts or other blends so they are often more difficult to make. “A good blended whisky is like listening to a good orchestra. A good single malt is like a solo violinist who can shine during the orchestra and sound equally good alone,” says Colville.
Unless there is something incredibly wrong with your refrigerator, most good whiskies won’t freeze. So it is perfectly fine to put the bottle in a freezer, especially when it’s really hot, and bring it out just before the start of the party.
Myth: There is only one way to drink Scotch or single malt
According to Colville, there is no right or wrong way to drink whisky. Although whisky is meant to be drunk neat or with just a dash of water, he agrees that in tropical climes like India, this is not pleasant. Adding one part ice to four parts whisky makes the drink far more refreshing. But one has to be careful not to dilute it too much. Whisky is best enjoyed at room temperature (between 16 and early 20 degrees Celsius). Too hot, and it will taste awful, but if it is too cold, the flavours and aromas will be muted.
Myth: Age is the most important element of a whisky
When whisky is matured in barrels (it legally requires at least three years in maturation to be called Scotch), some part of it evaporates every year. This is called the angel’s share. The longer a whisky matures, the larger the angel’s share. So a 25-year-old whisky is rarer and more expensive than a 12-year-old just because there is less of it left. However, the taste of the whisky doesn’t really depend on ageing. Some whiskies are best as four-year-olds, and would taste terrible if aged further.