Made On Earth
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Scotch whisky often seems shrouded in mystery to the uninitiated.
This image is part of what has made whisky so successful, but it is also a hindrance to the spirit.
“What I like to do,” says Blair Bowman, “is cut through the myths.” Bowman is a whisky consultant. Someone who, in his own words, is trying to convert people all over the world into whisky fans, one by one. But he has no patience for fusty ideas about how the spirit, which has been distilled since at least the 1400s, should be consumed. The purists’ cardinal rules over whether or not to add ice, what temperature is ideal and whether one category of whisky is superior to another – all can be dispensed with, he says.
“You should drink it however you want and not let anyone tell you otherwise,” says Bowman, with refreshing nonchalance. One of his own mixtures of choice, for instance, is whisky with ginger beer. A fantastic combination – but he still gets asked in bars now and again if it should be “allowed”.
Few beverages have cultivated the reverence that Scotch whisky has. For some, it’s the very essence of Scotland distilled, matured and poured into a glass. The drink is rich with history, craftsmanship and culture. There’s truth in that – Bowman happily agrees. But there’s another side to Scotch.
It’s also a booming export product that is taking certain foreign markets by storm. In 2018, Scotch whisky exports were worth £4.7bn in total, up nearly 8% on 2017. More than a billion bottles of Scotch were sent overseas that year. And these considerable sales made up 70% of Scotland’s food and drink exports, and 21% of the UK’s as a whole.
The dominance of the whisky trade in Scotland’s economy is an example of specialisation taken to a fine art. It runs two ways: Scotland’s food and drink industry specialises in the spirit, while whiskies themselves are differentiated depending on the particular region, method or distillery that produced them.
So far, this strategy has been successful for Scotch, but such a high degree of specialisation comes with its own risks. With increasing specialisation, there is also vulnerability. As new markets emerge and tastes evolve, whisky-makers that have crafted a spirit over decades are in a constant race to keep up with the demands of new palates.
Single malt whisky, which is produced entirely at one distillery, is especially prized for its tight connection to a particular place. Single malts make up a smaller share of the Scotch export market than the alternative, blended whisky, but its popularity is growing at a faster rate. The value of global single malt exports rose more than 11% in 2018. Blended whisky export sales also saw a rise, of about 3%.
For those in the industry, single malt represents a golden ticket. Scotch with a strong sense of identity has, it seems, special appeal. Sellers can play on associations with specific distilleries such as those on the western Isle of Islay, for example, where some of the most peated malts are made, giving them a distinct smoky flavour.
It’s no surprise that Scotch whisky-makers want consumers to feel that the drink sloshing around in their glass has an indelible association with a particular place. It’s considered good for business – the drinker might look to buy the same whisky again and again.
But the real interest lies in the differences between whiskies. Scotch whisky is genuinely diverse, ranging from rich and dense peat to smooth fruit – even light floweriness in some malts. Consequently, distilleries have found that their whisky may appeal to one emerging market over another, which can be extremely lucrative – if sales take off.
One distillery that has taken this approach is Tamdhu, between Aberdeen and Inverness. The facility was purchased by its present owners in 2012. Here was a brand of whisky, they thought, that had potential for rejuvenation. The sale included whisky already sitting in casks, the great oak barrels in which the spirit is aged. That meant that newly bottled whisky could be quickly sent out to shop shelves as distillation got back up and running.
Sandy McIntyre, distillery manager, says Tamdhu is “on the up”. And a big reason for that is a new sales strategy that turns toward Asia.
Tamdhu is in the Speyside region, which has traditionally been associated with fruity, sweet whiskies. Many of the whiskies distilled there are aged in sherry casks and such is the case at Tamdhu. The casks are initially filled with sherry and left to mature for 18 months to two years. That imparts a flavour to the oak itself so that when the casks are later filled with whisky, colour and flavour are in turn transferred into it. Whiskies aged in sherry-seasoned casks are extremely popular in Asia, which makes the region a perfect export target for Tamdhu.
“The palate over there seems to very much go for the fruitiness, the sultanas, the dates, the Christmas cake that comes through in any sherry-matured whisky,” says McIntyre.
Tamdhu has had particular success marketing its whiskies to Taiwan, Japan and South Korea.
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Matching a whisky to a particular export market is increasingly important for Scotland’s distilleries.
Rachel Barrie is master blender at the BenRiach Distillery Company and has nearly 30 years’ experience in the industry. She says that three of the whiskies she helps to produce fit the expectations of three distinct markets. The rich tone of BenRiach Peated, for instance, appeals to consumers in northern Europe. And one emerging market there is Poland. “It’s just starting to explode – that was not really a market before for malt whisky,” says Barrie.
Meanwhile, another of Barrie’s malts, the much sweeter Glendronach, is popular with consumers in Taiwan. Its producers noticed this back in 2009, when 400 cases of the whisky were sold to Taiwanese buyers in just 15 days.
Finally, Glenglassaugh, another fairly sweet whisky, has proved to be a hit in Australia.
But what is the origin of these distinct flavours that have such varied appeal in different countries? Barrie, whose background is in chemistry, says it has lots to do with cask-aging. Different substances in the wood, such as lignin or cellulose, get broken down gradually as the cask and whisky interact. This brings out specific compounds that impart aroma and flavour.
For example, BenRiach has an “apple orchard” flavour that comes from the compound ethyl caprylate. Lipids in the spirit, fats from the barley, degrade during maturation to release this compound over time. It occurs commonly in Speyside casks more than in the casks of other regions, but why that is remains a bit of a mystery.
“We know the compound, we know that happens in Speyside rather than anywhere else,” says Barrie. “But we don’t know why exactly.”
It could, for example, be something to do with microbes in this area that act on the chemicals in the casks or the spirit ageing within them. But either way there’s a bit of an enigma here – which is of course part of the attraction.
At Tamdhu, the whisky casks come exclusively from Spain. Oak from the north is transported south to Jerez, where the wood is made into barrels and then treated with sherry. Once properly seasoned, they’re shipped to Tamdhu in Scotland and filled with whisky.
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Scotland is far from the only home of whisky-making. Ireland, the US, Japan – all have long traditions of distilling the spirit. Plus, some countries you might not expect to make whisky are now producing case after case, including Denmark, Australia's Tasmania – which has a world-beating whisky – Wales and even England, which today has 14 distilleries.
But Scotch whisky can set itself apart, not just in image, but legally. It has special protections enshrined in a law that was introduced in the UK in 2009. The legislation includes the line, “A person must not manufacture any whisky in Scotland except Scotch Whisky” – exactly what makes a Scotch whisky is, mercifully, defined in detail. For example, it must be matured entirely in Scotland and have a minimum alcohol strength of 40%.
How Scottish is Scotch, though? Almost all of the things needed to make it are locally sourced, says Graeme Littlejohn, from the Scotch Whisky Association.
“About 97% of the inputs to Scotch whisky, if you like, come from the UK,” he explains. Water, barley, distillation equipment – much of it will come from a distillery’s local area. This is why the Scotch Whisky Association proudly proclaims that Scotch whisky is the UK’s best contributor to balance of trade. That means that those billions of pounds in exports are only offset by a small amount, a couple of hundred million, in imports that are needed to produce Scotch.
But there is one crucial element that often does arrive from further afield. Those are the hefty casks in which the spirit is matured. BenRiach’s Rachel Barrie says that the distilleries she manages house a bewildering array of casks from around the world. Some are treated with wine from France or South Africa. Others with bourbon in the US. Marsala in Sicily. Sherry in Spain.
“We have the most diverse range of casks in the industry in Speyside,” says Barrie.
This is the other global side of Scotch – it isn’t just a Scottish product hoping to appeal to world markets. It’s a Scottish product that relies on the world market for other beverages, not least the all-important casks that shape the spirit’s flavour.
When Blair Bowman does one of his tasting sessions, which he hosts all over the world, he likes to explain to people that there are all sorts of flavours waiting to be found in whisky. But there are also lots of different ways to discover those flavours. Take your whisky of choice and cradle it in a glass while you dream of the Scottish highlands – or, whack it in a cocktail. Mix it with ice cold green tea, even. Or try tasting it with chocolate. He’s no snob.
But he does say that some groups can be particularly interested in the backstory and heritage of individual whiskies. “Whenever I do a tasting for Chinese groups,” he says, “they want to absorb every nugget of information.”
This interest could be very much to the benefit of those in the whisky trade. China is seen as an enormous potential market for Scotch whisky. It’s the most populous nation on Earth and the largest spirits market in the world. But Scotch whisky only makes up 0.1% of the Chinese spirits market, according to Littlejohn. Breaking into a market like China's would be one way to bolster the spirit’s future.
Bowman, who insists there is a “whisky out there for everyone”, thinks Scotch is already enjoying a boom period. It’s good for distilleries – and good for him – but he says he always worries a bust may be around the corner.
Whisky booms and busts have happened before – notably around the turn of the last century and again in the 1980s. That’s part of the nature of any business. But for a product of such increasing importance to Scotland, a bust could wipe out the livelihoods of many. The effects would not be confined to Scotland, but would reach places like Jerez where casks for whisky are a staple of the local economy.
To secure a truly global market for Scotch, Bowman thinks the spirit needs to progress from a purely antiquated image and ideas about how you “should” drink it, which can be off-putting to people unfamiliar with traditional whisky culture. At the same time, denying its heritage won’t do Scotch whisky much good. The spirit’s strong links to place and producers, and the unique taste that comes from that, has been largely responsible for whisky’s success.
There is a balance to be struck between old traditions and fast-growing demand from countries new to whisky-drinking. Distillers who get the balance right won’t only reap the financial dividends, they’ll shore up the future of Scotch itself – and ensure we’ll still be talking about how it is evolving decades or centuries from now.
Image credits: Lion TV, Getty Images
Graphics sources: Scotch Whisky Association
The world’s trading routes have been crafted over centuries and yet remain in a constant state of flux. Made on Earth looks at eight everyday products – from bicycles to whisky, spices to semiconductors – and explores the people, countries and intricate global networks that go into making and bringing these goods to market.