Opinion: Viewing whisky's recent flurry of news from the eye of the storm

Opinion: Viewing whisky's recent flurry of news from the eye of the storm

During a busy summer for the whisky world, Islay was (ironically) one of the best places to escape the noise of the announcements

Thoughts from... 11 Sep 2023 | Interviews | By Liza Weisstuch

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I started this column eight times and scrapped each attempt. There has been a lot of whisky news coming across the wires this summer, so no shortage of fodder for commentary. It’s an embarrassment of riches for a columnist, to be sure.

 

In July, the Kentucky Distillers’ Association announced that the Kentucky Bourbon Trail Craft Tour would be welcoming four new businesses to its map, a reminder of the never-ending growth of American boutique distilling and a signal of the health of the industry and, frankly, brute confidence of the entrepreneurs. How else to explain the chutzpah of opening your distillery in Kentucky, in the shadows of colossuses. I haven’t spent much time studying wine production, but from what I understand, there aren’t a lot of start-up wineries in Burgundy or Bordeaux.

 

Also in July, Bonafide Research released its Global Whisky Market Overview, 2023–28, which revealed that the category is projected to grow 6.34 per cent year on year, which will lead to sales of $88.85 billion by 2028. That means it’s time to talk about how the bubble that people murmur about is not poised to pop any time soon. July also delivered the news that single malt Welsh whisky was successfully (and, according to many, finally) registered under the United Kingdom Geographical Indication scheme, giving it the same level of protection of name and standards as Champagne, Cognac, Gouda cheese, and Parma ham. It is a tribute to its distinction and its heritage, which dates back to 1887. And so, there’s a peg for a reflection about how the further history gets away from us, the more it matters in our modern culture, and in business.

 

Speaking of business, lest I forget that little introduction of the largest duty increase on Scotch whisky in the UK in 40 years, which will increase the tax burden on an average-priced bottle of Scotch to 75 per cent from 70 per cent. Ruminations on the reaction are worth a column in its own right.

 

Like I said, no shortage of things to write about. But for a good part of July, I was in the eye of Scotch whisky industry’s proverbial storm and, ironically, none of that industry news even registered. I spent a few weeks on Islay in July, and despite iconic brands being produced there, it feels remarkably far removed from the business of the industry. Well, that’s once you get past the fact that every distillery has a rather extensive selection of souvenirs that extend far beyond distillery-exclusive bottlings – T-shirts, windbreakers, glasses, bar mats, coasters, keychains… Whether it’s a children’s museum or one of the world’s oldest distilleries, wherever visitors appear, there will be a gift shop through which they will exit.

 

But even with the merch, the intimate touch of Islay is apparent – a local factor emphasised by the fact that, say, the young staff can tell you about their school years on the island or a parent who worked at a distillery. Or that at the Bruichladdich Distillery store you can buy The Seasons with Cindy and Lucy – Old Farming Ways on Islay, a book by Mary McGregor, Bruichladdich’s private client manager and long-time store manager. It’s a memoir, of sorts, about growing up on an Islay crofting farm where Mary had (no joke) two little lambs.

 

All the news about economic trends, record-breaking sales, and epic tariffs, taxes, and duties becomes white noise when you’re at the source. The only sound there seems to be is the slapping of the waves and the islanders’ jaunty yarns. Those locals include Jim McEwan, now-retired master distiller of Bruichladdich, who lives beside the once-mothballed distillery he helped bring back to life in 2000. I visited with him and his wife, Barbara. They were just back from Edinburgh, where he was named a member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE). He is part of King Charles III’s first New Year’s Honours List and was decorated for contributions to the Scotch whisky industry and the community on Islay. I was delighted to see those two entities presented not just together, but on equal footing. They are so inextricably linked that one cannot operate without the other, despite the blockbuster size of one and comparatively pocket-sized scale of the latter. 

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