As demand for whisky continues to grow apace in many countries worldwide, changing market forces are pushing a new, more modern breed of whisky to the forefront.
Increasing interest from millennial consumers – both male and female alike- has prompted some whisky producers to question the way in which whiskies are made, packaged and marketed. This new consumer demographic challenges the age-old perceptions of whisky being a ‘man’s’ drink, one where quality is defined by heritage, age statements or traditional distilling processes.
While the evolving whisky consumer is prompting a review of the category’s traditional values, premiumisation in other spirits categories is simultaneously challenging whisky’s stronghold at the higher end of the low-tempo occasion. Premium rums and tequilas, for example, are increasingly aligning with sippability cues, whether in high-profile cocktails or to be savoured on their own. This is giving the whisky drinker opportunities to expand into other categories that offer a similar drinking experience and are prompting whisky producers to diversify their offering in response.
Furthermore, for many whisky producers, increased demand from a growing middle class in markets like India and China is straining supplies of aged whiskies. This has been another factor in prompting producers to disrupt their traditional thinking and explore new ways of defining a whisky’s quality. Age statements give way to characteristics such as unique production methods, or to brand line extensions that focus on innovative packaging and brand values.
“Over the past few years, there has been a change in how some whisky distillers are bringing their product to market in order to make their whiskies more accessible and relevant to a younger LDA audience,” remarks Guy Wolfe, Strategic Insights Manager at IWSR. “Packaging, brand values and social responsibility cues are increasingly informing the purchasing decisions of a younger, more technologically savvy and adventurous drinker.”
“I think the old school ways of drinking whisky, like while sitting around a fire, is not as popular anymore,” says Sian Buchan, owner of Uno Mas in Edinburgh. “Whisky is being seen as an everyday drink… an acceptable drink to have with your friends… That stigma has gone and I think brands are more willing to have fun with it. Brands are going to have to think of more fun ways for people to interact with whisky.”
The evolution of whisky has seen some once fundamental aspects of the category begin to change. When Monkey Shoulder launched ahead of the curve in 2005, its mission statement was to ‘challenge convention and change the way people think about and drink Scotch’. It’s Lock In Live series incorporates video, music and home delivered cocktails designed to make drinking Monkey Shoulder a party-like experience.
Now, social media is informing branding strategies for whiskies that want to resonate with a younger LDA audience. Brands such as Compass Box, Few Spirits and Nikka Whisky take cues from less traditional design styles in their bottles and are therefore more likely to stand out on the back bar and in retail. With the rise in ecommerce both before and after Covid-19, when it comes to gifting and buying online, packaging and aesthetics play a large role for consumers when making their choice. Behind the bar, meanwhile, the label can be key: “the label is more important for emphasising uniqueness,” says Simo Simpson, owner of Milroy’s bars in London.
While this uniqueness can relate solely to a product’s branding, packaging and values, it can also be the result of innovation in the production process and flavour profile. Brands are increasingly experimenting with different cask types, ingredients and reduced aging. “One of the distinguishing features of this new breed of whisky brands is often a focus on image and values rather than the liquid itself. But when brands do focus on the liquid, it’s generally on how they do something slightly differently to the norm,” says Wolfe.
Scottish producer Kinivie Works for instance, which started making whisky in 2013, released its first three expressions – a single malt, a single grain and a blended whisky – in 2019, putting an emphasis on its use of unconventional processes. These included using a high percentage of malt, varying grist weight and researching the effect of aerating the spirit before putting it into cask.
Similarly, Egan’s Irish Whiskey was relaunched in 2013 and the brand has focused on changing its look and innovating with its liquid. “The innovation is really in the finishing, and the most success we have had so far is doing things that haven’t been done anywhere else,” says Colin Staunton, marketing director of Intrepid Spirits. Its Fortitude single malt has been aged exclusively in Pedro Ximinez, the first to do so in Ireland. “Our latest grain and malt blend is finished in XO cognac casks –they aren’t something traditionally used.”
Meanwhile, as other spirits categories encroach on whisky’s dominance in the sipping occasion, some whisky distillers are looking to expand the category’s relevance in mixed drinks. With bartenders increasingly using signature serves to introduce new drinkers to the whisky category, Benriach’s recent rebranding for instance came alongside a partnership with bars to show how its liquid works in cocktails. Additionally, the whisky highball, favoured most eminently in Japan, is now making its presence felt in the Western world. Simo Simpson, for example, champions the cocktail as whisky’s perfect serve, and has just launched whisky highball taps in his London bars.
A focus on brand ethos is also driving this evolution within the whisky category, with many younger LDA drinkers focused on the environment, social issues, inclusivity and diversity. Strong brand values also resonate with bartenders, who may take a brand’s ethos into account when choosing what to pour at the bar: “It can impact your enjoyment. I might have already decided I enjoy the flavour but if you take into consideration that a brand promotes women in the industry or is sustainable, that can really help,” says Alice Wakley, head bartender at Balthazar, London.
Grace O’Malley Irish whiskey leads with its focus on promoting female leadership, using social media and marketing to emphasise the work it does to promote women in the whisky industry. Meanwhile, Stauning, Denmark’s first whisky, puts a strong emphasis on the environment. “We fit right into the new Nordic way of thinking and that means a strong focus on local produce and being good to the environment, using local barley, rye, water, peat,” explains co-founder Hans Martin Hansgaard. Glyph whiskey, made by Endless West in San Fransisco, uses technology to identify the key notes found in whisky and sources the natural ingredients in order to achieve them without ageing, saving on wood and water.
Disruption in the traditional whisky category comes from all over the world – both Old World countries such as Scotland, the USA and Ireland, and emerging markets like Japan, Taiwan, Denmark and India. While Old World producers may have a stronger base on which to build the future of their whiskies, New World brands benefit from more flexible regulations and less weight of tradition, giving them the freedom to experiment. Kavalan whisky, for example, is produced in the countryside of Taiwan while Penderyn whiskies are made in South Wales. The one thing they all have in common, however, is their drive to make whisky a more democratised and accessible spirt.
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