The debate over who actually invented whisky—the Scots or the neighbouring Irish—is likely never to be resolved. However, many people agree that the father of the golden liquid is none other than Saint Patrick, patron saint of Ireland, who, according to legend, brought the first still back with him from Egypt. The Gaelic name for whisky is uisce beatha (pronounced oosh-keh beh-ha), which literally means “water of life.” An appropriate term for something so essential to the economy!
It’s hard to believe that whisky, now an exalted spirit the world over, was once drunk only by the locals who produced it, and then only when the barley harvest was abundant enough to allow some of the crop to be used for distilling. Some estimates put global consumption at more than 200 litres per second, or 6.321 million litres per year. About 60,000 litres of whisky will be drunk by the time you finish this article! These astounding numbers have a lot to do with the Asian market, where whisky has become very popular among Chinese, Japanese and Indian drinkers, among others. There are consequences, however, to this popularity.
First among these is that the increased demand for whisky over the last 25 years has more or less depleted the inventory of older spirits, making traditional distilleries vulnerable to new producers in other countries. Scotland remains the leader in terms of production volume.
However, while the market has long been dominated by producers in Scotland and Ireland, we are now seeing a boom in production elsewhere. Distilleries are popping up around the world, in Taiwan, Japan, India, Sweden, and, closer to home, in the United States.
Scotland’s response to the arrival of excellent whiskies from new producers has been to market a growing number of NOS (no age statement) products. For example, The Macallan line emphasizes colour (Amber, Ruby, Sienna and Gold) rather than age. Technology has also provided some solutions. Recent developments have allowed for accelerated aging, the results have not proved terribly successful.
Another consequence of the strong increase in demand has been the emergence of some excellent new distilleries. Mackmyra (Sweden), Amrut (India), Kilchoman (Scotland) and Arran (Scotland) are good examples. In a very short time, these producers have carved a niche for themselves with surprisingly high-quality whiskies.
« The history of malt whisky lies shrouded in the mists of the celtic dawn. » – Sir Robert Bruce Lockhart
With the increase in the number of producers comes the opportunity to taste a wider variety of products. Japanese distilleries, for example, have introduced new flavours never before seen in Scottish products. The older distilleries are taking a bit of a beating, but are starting to be more innovative with their new competition. A fine example is Glenfiddich. The world’s largest whisky producer in terms of volume (more than 14 million litres per year), Glenfiddich has had a very conservative, conventional production philosophy. But no company is safe from change in the global market, and Glenfiddich has recently shown it is up to the challenge, coming up with a creative line called the Experimental Series. The three new whiskies—the IPA Experiment, aged in IPA beer barrels; Projet XX, a collaborative effort involving 20 industry experts; and Winter Storm, aged in icewine casks—are very interesting, and surprisingly quite good.
Serious change is most definitely afoot in the world of whisky, and whatever the challenges that lie ahead, we can expect more delightful surprises in the years to come. Talented malt masters will always find creative solutions, whether it be using technology to develop more effective aging methods, or bringing people from different backgrounds together to explore new ways to approach the production of this magnificent nectar.
It doesn’t matter whether you’re a fan of smoky, floral, salty or woodsy flavours; whether you prefer single malts, blends or bourbons; whether you favour whiskies from Scotland, Japan or Sweden. Whatever your preferences, the future holds plenty of promise!