Dave Broom, drinks guru (DB)
Paul Godfrey, group marketing manager for malts, William Grant & Sons (PG)
Bill Lumsden, Global brands ambassador/ master distiller, Glenmorangie (BL)
Arthur Motley, Royal Mile Whiskies (AM)
Keir Sword, Royal Mile Whiskies (KS)This issue’s question: Are special finishes good for the whisky industry because they
attract new customers?Q: Are wood finishes a good thing or a bad thing, and why?AM: A good thing. They provoke people’s interest, are useful in tastings and provide a point of reference for wine lovers.BL: Yes they’re a good thing for the Scotch whisky industry and the consumer, because they have offered a wide range of new flavour experiences, while still maintaining traditional values. They’ve also helped generate some much-needed interest in the category.DB: Of course they are a good thing. In principle. They keep interest in the category, they are a good way for distillers to extend their portfolio – something which is particularly relevant to those producers with a small number of distilleries – they offer a new way of looking at, and enjoying whisky. They engender debate. They open up the possibilities of new flavours. Yes, overall they are a good idea.PG: Finishes per se are not a bad thing but I would qualify it. Where finishes become questionable is when they stop complementing the character of a whisky and instead overpower it and mask its true characteristics – this has been the case with some recent finishes. The rule of finishes should be as Kennedy would have phrased it: ‘ask not what the whisky can do for the finish, but what the finish can do for the whisky’ – if it does not amplify / complement the true character (or characteristics) of the whisky, then do not do it.Q: Is it fair to say that for every good and well-planned finish there are three gimmicky ones?BL: In my opinion, no. While there are clearly one or two ‘rogue’ finishes, particularly ones which are not of a high quality in terms of taste, the vast majority are worthy of being brought to market. DB: There are some excellent finishes on the market but there are many which, for me, don’t work for a whole number of reasons. Sadly I would say that for my palate at least there are more of the latter than the former, but don’t try and pin me down to numbers or ratios!KS: That’s right. There are good finishes and there are bad finishes, I do not know the ratio between them. Q: In the search for something new, are we in danger of marrying whisky with more and more ludicrous partners?PG: Yes I think there is a danger of that. We have already seen some examples which start to stretch the imagination. Consumers are not stupid and, I believe, they will see through these, they will not sell, and the trade’s confidence in our industry could be damaged as a resultBL: I don’t agree it will happen. The SWA has issued clear guidelines on what is and what is not acceptable, so this should reduce the incidences of ‘unsuitable’ partners being chosen. These guidelines stipulate that companies should only use casks which would have traditionally been used for whisky transportation or maturation.DB: It is a rule of business that any new category will eventually teeter on the brink of contrivance as rival firms frantically try to occupy smaller and smaller niches. What I believe we’ve seen with finishes is that the ethos behind it has become wholly marketing driven – not will this work in terms of flavour, but will this make us steal a march on our rivals, no matter what it tastes like. Actually, I think we’ve already passed this point and things are settling down again.KS: This is interesting. Everyone’s perception of what is and isn’t ludicrous differs. I have an idea for a finish that I have been thinking about for at least five years, which I know most people would think was ludicrous yet would probably love to try. Had I done it five years ago, people would have thought it innovative. If I do it now, I will be accused of jumping on the wood finishing band-wagon. But the idea is no better or worse than it was back then.Q: Do more and more wood finishes offer more choice or simply confuse the potential customer?PG: Consumer confusion has been one of the major barriers to our industry. Forcing poorly thought through finishes into the market will alienate consumers and runs the risk of making whisky consumption more elitist. DB: But ask yourself, is there such a thing as a finish category? I don’t believe there is. Is there a finish consumer? I don’t think so. Do newcomers to malt start with finishes? I doubt it. That’s not to say finishes have failed (or are finished), but they are a niche and will remain a niche. Confusion? Of course there is – but that could be said for the whole whisky category.BL: They clearly offer more choice, but as long as the key message is understood, i.e. the basic technique and raison d’etre for finishing, they shouldn’t cause confusion. We invest a lot of time in helping consumers understand what makes malt whisky special, and talking about wood finishing is a natural part of that.Q: In your view what works and what doesn’t work?AM: I think port is easily the most successful, and others have a few very good examples and lots of mediocre and poor. Successful marriages should be bottled, those that don’t should be vatted away BL: Yes most fortified wines and a lot of table wines have worked well, but anything which has a danger of overwhelming the original flavour should be avoided. DB: Finishes are like remixing a record. You take a tune and tweak it slightly into a new shape. It is however still recognisable as the original tune. A successful finish adds complexity. It doesn’t work when 1) the whisky hasn’t changed noticeably, 2) the finish dominates the drink, 3) the flavours in the finish clash with the whisky. Clashing flavours is where contrivance rears its head. Beer finish? I’d rather have my nip and a half pint separately. Malts finished in another whisky cask? The whisky finished whisky is a neat postmodern idea but vatting malts is a more effective way of doing this. Cognac and/or French oak? Tricky. The bottom line is that there’s more to this game than just decanting a whisky into another cask and hoping for the best. There’s an art to it, a skill. It is about balance, about a deep understanding of the character of the original whisky and accepting that only some finishes will be appropriate.Q: Broadly speaking do you agree with the original statement ?BL: Yes. Not only do finishes attract new drinkers into the brand but they also encourage existing drinkers to choose to have a malt on additional occasions. Without finishing, the whisky industry would run the risk of lagging behind other drinks categories, where it is much easier to innovate and attract new customers.PG: Yes on balance, I am in favour of finishes providing they are carefully conceived and developed and respect the true characteristics of the whisky. KS: Me too – broadly speaking. Because I am an eternal optimist.AM: Yes, they have just about been good for the industry, but let’s hope the company budgets haven’t all been spent on Chateau Gimmique casks. DB: I think when managed properly finishes are a good idea, but I don’t think they bring in new consumers. They do keep consumers interested in one particular brand and are therefore a useful weapon for a distiller to have in its armoury.