Pushing the Boundaries

Pushing the Boundaries

Can the words 'innovation' and 'whisky' appear in the same sentence, and if so, how? Who's doing it, who's hindering it and how far will they go? Dominic Roskrow introduces a special report

Production | 29 Apr 2011 | Issue 95 | By Dominic Roskrow

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Read the following words about the recent launch of The Ginger Grouse – a mix of Famous Grouse blended Scotch with ginger beer: “Relative to much product-related innovation within the Scotch sector, it’s so far outside the box that the box isn’t even in shot any more. After all, this is the sector where it’s considered daring if you launch a 14 Year Old instead of a 12 Year Old, or finish your whisky off in a Burgundy barrel for six months. Steady now.

“In mature markets like (sic) the UK, blended Scotch in particular badly needs to come up with a reason for someone other than greying men in suits to buy the product. Young people. Women. People with a pulse. And this is where I can’t help feeling the extremely strict rules governing Scotch whisky production aren’t doing the industry any favours.”

These words were written recently by business writer Richard Woodard on the Just Drinks website under the heading ’Scotch – hoist by its own petard?’

My first reaction? Here we go again. It’s the old hoary debate about whether innovation and whisky are mutually exclusive, and whether the Scotch Whisky Association are sacrificing progress and evolution to maintain Scotch whisky’s admirably high standards.

And whether if Scotch doesn’t innovate and evolve to attract ‘people with a pulse’ then it will die.

Does Woodard have a point?

Let’s leave aside the fact that worldwide Scotch whisky – more than 90 per cent of which is blended – is in rude good health, and most whisky makers probably couldn’t give a flying fig if ‘mature markets’ such as the United Kingdom have lost interest as long as the BRIC, African, South American and Eastern European countries continue to soak up whatever the Scots throw at them.

Let’s also side step the comments about age statements and wood finishes, which are at best facetious and at worst, ignorant.

Instead let’s focus on the core questions at the heart of Woodard’s words: does whisky need to innovate, is whisky being held back by lack of it, are the rules governing whisky preventing it, and should the rules be changed to encourage innovation and foreward thinking?

Plenty would argue that Woodard is talking tosh. John Glaser, with blends such as The Double Single and products old and new taking blends and blended malts in to new territory, perhaps; Bill Lumsden and Rachel Barrie, creating Signet, Astar and Finealta; David Stewart, the man responsible for Monkey Shoulder, Balvenie’s bespoke whiskies; Brian Kinsman and Glenfiddich Snow Phoenix; Robert Hicks with his experiments with Teacher’s; heck Gordon Motion at Edrington. Forget Ginger Grouse, what about Black Grouse and Snow Grouse? The list goes on and on.

Some may even wonder what Woodard’s on about. He questions Scotch whisky’s ability to innovate in one breath, then talks of Ginger Grouse in the next, his argument seemingly being that Scotch whisky is unable to innovate because the rules do not allow it to embrace Ginger Grouse as a whisky (perhaps, because it isn’t). His gripe, then, is with labelling, and pedantic in the extreme.

Woodard does raise one important issue, though. He shines a spotlight on the issue of whisky-related category development. In this area, Ginger Grouse is just the latest molehill appearing on the closely cropped lawn that is whisky.

There are molehills popping up all over the place. In America hundreds of new distilleries are following in the footsteps of their beer brewing cousins and questioning every aspect of whiskey making, from barrel size and type to maturation times.

In Kentucky whiskey producers are experimenting with grains and wood, and adding flavours. In countries as diverse as Sweden, Japan and Australia they’re creating new flavours with native oak and peat. And if you want innovation then look no further than India and Amrut, and bottlings such as Fusion and Intermediate Sherry.

Next up? Never mind Woodard’s dig at the ‘daring’ launch of a 14 year old - the Australians and Taiwanese, with different heats and humidity to Scotland, are looking to dispense with age statements altogether, effectively declaring them irrelevant. Scotsman Dr Jim Swan would argue that technological advancements suggest they’re right.

There are plenty of moles within the United Kingdom, too. Just look at what the top mixologists are up to and what is happening in the country’s better bars.

Ten years ago you’d have struggled to find a bar with a whisky-based cocktail of any sort on the menu, and particularly not one made with Scotch.

Now whisky’s firmly on the agenda, and young innovators such as the team behind the Fluid Movement have moved it centre stage as they seek out new taste sensations. There are two major trends within the drinks industry – one for exciting new drink, and one for drinks with heritage and provenance. If you can bring them together, then you’ve hit pay dirt and can all but write your own check.

Change is definitely coming to the spirits industry. There is a growing demand for it. And the world of whisky undoubtedly offers the potential for such change.

So the big questions are whether it needs to change, how far it should be prepared to change, and how it can make changes without sacrificing integrity or destroying the very qualities which make it special.

Over the coming pages we talk to some of the people who are considered to be in the front line of innovation and ask where whisky across the world is going, how necessary whisky innovation is, whether the rule makers are holding the industry back, and will change happen anyway.

And we’ll try and answer that central question: has whisky – not just Scotch –been hoist by its own petard?
Or is it calmly steering a slow and steady path between the need to innovate and evolve on the one hand, and the desire to preserve its integrity and quality control on the other?
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