They say that if America sneezes then Europe catches a cold. If that applies in the world of whisky prepare yourself for a heavy dose of flu in the coming months.
You could make a very strong argument as to why America is currently the most exciting and dynamic whisky market right now. In fact, you could make about 500 of them. That’s the estimated number of craft distillers which have emerged in recent years and are turning the conventional world of whiskey on its head. They’re using unusual grains and woods, fiddling with distilling and maturation techniques, reassessing and reappraising American drink styles such as corn moonshine and rye whiskey, and are inventing completely new drinks.
Let’s not get too carried away here – much of the new whiskey is young, flabby, badly made and sappy – so much so that there are plenty in America who fear what damage the new guys are inflicting on the nation’s love of whisky. Much of the new whiskey can’t legally bare the name of whiskey in Europe due to the three year maturation laws.
But at the top end there is some very fine new spirit emerging, and the major drinks companies are watching and taking note. William Grant & Sons has already placed its cards on the table by investing in New York’s Tuthilltown. It’s only a matter of time before many more join the international ranks and start targeting Europe for sales – whether with a drink known as whiskey or with something bearing some other new name.
What we’re talking about here is whiskey, Jim, but not as we know it. And you don’t have to wait for the crafting boom to reach our shores for a new wave of Americana to kick in, and for two very good reasons. First, though, a bit of context.
The biggest American whiskey – indeed, world whiskey – is Jack Daniel’s but because it goes through a process known as charcoal filtering it cannot be classed as a bourbon. Most bourbon is produced in Kentucky, though there’s no legal reason stating that it has to be. And right now Kentucky is a building site as the leading players expand to take advantage of the world boom for quality whisk(e)y. Not only that, but the craft distillers have given the big boys a proverbial kick up the backside and suddenly the giants are innovating.
Not that you’d know it here. Although The Whisky Shop offers a good range of bourbons, America hasn’t targeted Britain greatly in recent years, preferring to concentrate instead on neighbouring markets such as Canada or vibrant and expanding markets such as Australia and China.
That might be set to change, though how quickly is anyone’s guess – and the fresh assault on Britain may come from two separate and diametrically opposed sources – one aimed at the serious whisky drinker, the other at entry level.
The first is the emergence of premium bourbons enriched by special wood finishes. The best of these is Maker’s Mark 46, which receives additional maturation in casks containing staves that have been toasted to a specific level, Woodford Reserve Double Oaked, which does a similar thing using both charred and toasted staves, and Jim Beam Devil’s Cut, which uses a water agitation process to ‘sweat out’ the bourbon absorbed in to the wood of the barrel.
Meanwhile bourbon is reaching out to younger drinkers and perhaps the cocktail market, with a range of flavoured spirits drinks, which can’t be described as flavoured whiskeys but as one industry person put it, that’s how they’re referred to by bar staff. Very sweet and easy drinking, this range includes Wild Turkey American Honey, Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Honey, Jim Beam Spiced and Jim Beam Red Stag, which is flavoured with black cherries.
I’m not a big fan of the sweeter spirits drinks but horses for courses – and given what’s happening elsewhere, these drinks have the potential to be huge. Jack Daniel’s spent an absolute fortune launching Tennessee Honey in Australia recently.
Are we next? Well watch this space.
But be sure of one thing: one way or another, the Americans are coming.