Exploring whisky with Dominic Roskrow
Welcome to our new W Club feature. The idea is to go on a long journey in to the very heart of whisky and what it is.
Each week Dominic will pick explore whisky in depth and explain why it’s the way it is. There’s going to be no roadmap, so we could be heading off anywhere in any given week. A particular whisky style might be analysed this week, a particular Scottish region the next. Dominic might look closely at rye at one point, and look at the importance of fermentation to the whisky making process at another. If a particular subject dominates the whisky news, we’ll head right over to it and dissect it.
AndDominic’s more than happy to answer questions and deal with issues of specific interest to W Club visitors and members.
We’ll also start a week by week glossary of terms, and A-Z of all things whisky, and if we needs to spend six weeks on one particular letter, so be it.
To get the ball rolling, Dominic looks at why Scotch whisky is doing so well worldwide at the moment.
(intro) Scotch whisky is booming and at the forefront of the surge in demand from a number of emerging markets. But what trends are driving this success?
If you want a snapshot of what’s going on in Scotch whisky right now , then stake a look at the steady flow of premium drinks releases over the last few months
Here, among the glitzy rums, fancy vodkas and imperious Cognacs are a growing number of Scotch whiskies – and they represent an increasingly confident, stylish and impressive range of traditional Scotch given a makeover and all dressed up for a sparkling future.
Let’s start with blends. Yes, blends. Whatever you might think or have been told, blended whisky is Scotch’s future. More than 90 per cent of Scotch whisky sales are in the blended category and that isn’t going to change any time soon.
In fact blends are the driving force behind the considerable expansion plans of our leading drinks companies and the the reason’s simple – if you want to grow the whisky category you can’t do it with a single malts. No distillery makes enough malt to meet a world demand. Blends on the other hand, are another matter.
The significant sector here is at the premium end of the blended market. Often seen as single malt whisky’s poor relation, particularly in traditional market places such as the United Kingdom, blended whisky is thriving in emerging markets that have no preconceptions. In countries such as Brazil, Venezuela, Colombia and Brazil are not moving from Scotch blends to single malts but to better blends and blends with an age statement.
Closer to home, The Whisky Shop is now at the forefront of a move to offer its customers something genuinely different. In the last year whisky releases exclusive to the group have given customers the chance to try something new and exciting. Nor do you have to take out a mortgage to afford special whisky.
There are signs, too, that another distinctive trend in Scotch is towards unaged whiskies where the emphasis is on taste. Part of this is driven by economic necessity, because the demand worldwide means whisky shortages, so the younger a distillery can sell its whisky, the quicker it can respond to demand pressures.
And while some would argue that we’re seeing a ‘dumbing down’ of standards, the biggest and best suppliers argue that they wouldn’t risk their reputation by selling inferior whisky, and point to advancements in cask standards and a greater understanding of the whisky making process to support the view that great whisky doesn’t necessarily mean old whisky.
The evidence is already there to back this view up. Laphroaig Quarter Cask is a peaty treat and more fiery than Laphroaig 10 Year Old, but significantly younger. Compass Box has consistently released whiskies over the last decade that are outstanding but without an age on them.
Whisky in general is in a good place at the moment. Scotch particularly so. Expect some excitement, some surprises and an awful lot of great whisky in the future.
Ones to watch
Grain whisky is normally dismissed as malt whisky’s bigger but vastly inferior brother but this is a tad unfair. Grain whisky is the component of a blend which makes the drink smooth, sweet and soft, and it can’t boast the complexity or intensity of flavour of whisky made with malted barley.
Put it in a very good quality cask, however, and the results can be outstanding. The grain picks up all the flavours of the wood, making for some vibrant and colourful aged blends.
“It’s like painting with a blank canvas,” says Euan Shand of Duncan Taylor, which regularly markets award-winning aged grain whiskies.
“You can start with little and create works of art.”
Irish company Cooley has successfully launched a range of grains, and now it may well happen in Scotland. Not just at entry level either. Mahesh Patel, who stages the world’s richest whisky show, includes two grain in his range of four premium single cask whiskies. Whyte & Mackay is also thought to be planning a grain launch.
The other big advantage of grain is that it has the potential to attract 20 something year old drinkers because of its sweetness, and it has the potential to kickstart a wicked cocktail.
There’s nothing new about blended malt whisky. The old timers among us used to call the category ‘vatted malt whisky’ and it’s almost as old as Scotch itself, examples going back to the very earliest days of blending.
Blended malt whiskies are whiskies made using the spirit from various different distilleries. The category is different to blended whisky because there is no grain in the mix.
The category is important because it gives the whisky maker the chance to pursue unusual and exciting flavours and to present them to the customer in a modern, baggage-free way. Monkey Shoulder, for instance, is a mix of the malts from three different distilleries but its stylish packaging, unusual name and irreverent approach to marketing is miles away from the traditional image of malt whisky.
There have been several attempts in recent years to bring Scotch whisky to a new audience through the blended malt route, and Compass Box in particular has taken malt whisky in to new and exciting areas within the category. With more whiskies being released without an age statement and with a greater emphasis on flavor, many expect the blended malt whisky category to get a new lease of life.