Monday, January 9, 2017

Playing To Your Strengths

* This article originally appeared on the Huffington Post UK on 5/1/17.

The current buzzword in the Scotch whisky industry seems to be experimentation. This year we have seen major brands releasing whiskies that have been matured in funky wine casks, creating new recipes and collaborating with craft beer brewers.

Experimentation has generally been seen as the realm of the craft or artisan distiller, especially those new to the scene. The major players argue that they have always been experimenting throughout their history and that this is simply taking it to the next level.

So what are the big whisky brands trying to achieve from this experimentation? Is it to simply diversify their range? Is it to make their product more attractive to a wider audience or new drinkers? Or is it to be seen as a ‘craft’ product themselves?

The reality seems to be a combination of all three in most cases. The danger seems to be that these brands could potentially lose their distillery character and identity amongst the wealth of experiments and new flavours, or that their ranges become diluted by so many new expressions of whisky.

However, amidst all of this innovation is there still a place for the good traditional Scotch whisky styles? After all, this is what has made the drink so popular in the first place and sees sales continuing to grow in numerous markets.

A recent conversation with Dennis Malcolm, the legendary Master Distiller at the Glen Grant distillery in Speyside and a recent recipient of an OBE for his 50+ years of service to the whisky industry, made me think of this and the context of this current trend. One thing that he said particularly struck me.

“Everyone is striving to be unique, but we do not want to be like everyone else. We are good at what we do and want to celebrate that. We want to be the best in class.” 

In this modern age where experimentation seems to be occupying many brands, there is something quite refreshing about this approach that I like. Essentially - be great at what you do and then continue to do it to the best level that you can.

Malcolm’s and Glen Grant’s ethos seems to hold true – it continues to bear fruit as they recently picked up the award of Scotch Whisky of the Year, and second place in the overall Whisky of the Year category, for their new 18 years old expression in the 2017 edition of Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible.

Dennis Malcolm receiving his OBE at Buckingham Palace.

So is there a danger that people may forget just how good the traditional styles of whisky can be when they are made and matured well? That said, some of the experimental whiskies released recently have been impressive and very enjoyable.

However, it is the same predicament as people seemingly forgetting what a good beer tastes like amidst the swarm of over-hopped hipster craft ales. Are people fixated on new craft distilleries and experimental products from established brands over more traditional styles?

Glen Grant, and the few others across Scotland that continue to plough their traditional furrows, should be applauded and appreciated for what they are and what they are doing. The frenzy that greets every new experimental release is understandable and it is easy to get carried away.

But this excitement was not matched when someone like Glen Grant released their wonderful 18 year old earlier this year. It seemed to slip slightly under the radar. This seems a shame and we need to salute all of the excellent traditional whiskies that are available out there. Let us not lose sight of the styles that made Scotch great in the first place.

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