In this week’s column, Ian Buxton looks back at how whisky has evolved throughout its history, examines some of today’s more outlandish innovations, and asks whether it’s wise or even possible to try to control experimentation in the category.
A long, long time ago – when I last had a proper job, since you ask, and thus a very long time ago – my then-MD warned me in portentous and grave tones that too much innovation would confuse the consumer and encourage promiscuous buying behaviour at the expense of brand loyalty.
‘Pompous git’, I thought, and went right ahead with what proved to be Scotland’s first branded, cask strength, single cask release – a blatant crib from the Scotch Malt Whisky Society, of course, but carrying a distillery name (oh alright, it was Glenmorangie) instead of an anonymous number. The late Michael Jackson loved it and devoted his entire column in The Independent to explaining the concept and singing its praises, a source of considerable pride, then and to this day. Shortly after I left the company (a long story) and shortly after that the product was discontinued. Moral: don’t disagree with your MD!
But, unremarkable as that whisky would be today, it was a definite innovation and one which aroused a certain amount of controversy at the time. Actually, innovation in whisky has generally attracted some controversy, perhaps because people really care deeply about the drams they drink.
The advent of blending from the late 1860s onwards didn’t go down well with the then-dominant Irish whiskey industry. The passionate opposition of the leading Dublin distillers to ‘sham whisky’ and ‘silent spirit’ (that’s grain whisky to you and me) proved to be a major nail in their collective coffin, albeit one that they hammered in very firmly all by themselves. Leading Scotch blenders such as Walker, Buchanan, Dewar’s and others gleefully seized this opportunity.
Malting technology has evolved considerably over the past hundred years and as for barley varieties, well, that’s an arms race. For much of the nineteenth century, Chevallier was utterly dominant, but displaced by Plumage Archer which, in turn, was toppled by Proctor and Maris Otter, only for these varieties to be replaced by Golden Promise. This was once widely used: The Macallan famously going so far as to describe it as one of the ‘Six Pillars’ of its brand, a claim which has since been quietly dropped (marketing messages have an even shorter lifespan than barley varieties). But today it’s long gone and the merry-go-round continues.
It’s all about money, of course. Poor old Chevallier produced around 300 litres of pure alcohol per ton of dry malt, where today the accountants, sorry ‘distillers’, are looking for 450 litres or more. Unless you’re Bruichladdich, of course, or Mark Reynier at Waterford, where the pursuit of terroir is what counts above all.
Or a ‘craft’ distiller in the USA. Leaving aside the vexed topic of what constitutes ‘craft’, there are now, I was mildly astonished to learn, approaching 2,000 small-scale distilleries in the USA., Unconstrained by the Scotch Whisky Regulations, innovation is absolutely the name of the game among our colonial cousins – for how else is a nascent distiller to stand out in such a congested and competitive market?
The rise of flavoured whiskies from major brands – think Jack Daniel’s Honey and its many imitators – opened the floodgates and small distillers have followed suit, embracing unusual grains, varying production methods and every kind of cask finish you can dream up (and some you’d rather not). Finishing, incidentally, is generally acknowledged as beginning, in a conscious and deliberate sense, with the 1982 launch of The Balvenie Classic. But little did Balvenie’s mild-mannered David Stewart MBE imagine what mischief popping some whisky into a sherry cask would unleash.
Ever since then, the sorcerer’s apprentices have been busy. The US craft distillers are taking their smoked whiskeys, whiskeys made with heritage corn, wheat, millet, oats or triticale (a rye-wheat hybrid which, full confession, I’d never heard of either) and putting them in brand new wood of every possible variety of oak, barrels made from old pieces of chestnut furniture, beer-aged casks, any former wine barrel known to man and, apparently, even a Japanese fruit liqueur cask.
And then I learned that the Virginia Distillery Co. imports single malt Scotch to blend with its own American single malt, and age the result in a cold brew coffee-soaked cask.
Oh, please! That’s enough! Innovation stops right here! Or am I now the pompous git? What say you? How far should (not can) innovation go?
Though he has neither a beard nor any visible tattoos or piercings, Ian Buxton is well-placed to write about drinks. A former Marketing Director of one of Scotland’s favourite single malts, his is a bitter-sweet love affair with Scotland’s national drink – not to mention gin and rum, or whatever the nearest PR is pouring. Once, apparently without noticing, he bought a derelict distillery. Follow his passionate, authentic hand-crafted artisanal journey on the Master of Malt blog. Or just buy his books. It’s what he really wants.