A brave new world of whiskies

20 October, 2016

It’s like a dream. Five years ago we didn’t have a whisky. Now we’re pouring to enthusiastic drinkers at the whisky show in London. It’s hard to believe we’re here.

If David Vitale, chief executive and founder of Australian whisky Starward, is feeling happy with life, he has every reason. His two single malts are not only holding their own next to the world’s finest, they’re going down a storm on the stand and doing brisk business in the shop.

They’re not the only ones either. There were whiskies from new distilleries in India and Taiwan, single malts from American distilleries such as Westland and Balcones, and from the likes of Box and Spirit of Hven in Sweden. Malts from the English Whisky Company and French distillery Distillerie Warenghem are right at home next to the finest single malts from renowned whisky makers such as Diageo, Pernod Ricard and Beam Suntory. What’s more, this is the tip of an iceberg – scores of new distillers from the US are eyeing Europe. The masses of Alpine whisky producers aren’t here yet but rest assured, they will be soon.

So why’s this happening now? The answer is that the new producers are taking advantage of a perfect storm. There’s huge global interest in whisky in general and in craft and microdistilling in particular, and whisky drinkers seeking new and exciting experiences are in the ascendancy. For their part, the new distillers are attracting funding, are not afraid of innovation and have, in the past couple of years, upped their game significantly.

And established producers have made it easy for them. Not only are they accommodating and helpful to the newbies, welcoming them to the whisky family, but the industry move to removing age statements from whisky labels has suited the new guys perfectly.

“Every time a new no-age statement whisky is launched from an established producing country, my job gets a little bit easier,” says one. “I no longer have to justify the age or explain about the cask. People get it. We’ve moved on.”

There’s something else, too. Many of the New World distillers are producing spirit in countries where maturation is accelerated due to temperature, climate and humidity, and at young ages have an advantage over their Scottish cousins.

Most exciting of all, though, is the fact that the new whiskies don’t taste like single malts from elsewhere, and don’t want to. They’re adopting regional and national characteristics of their own, and their makers are turning to unusual woods, peats and drying methods to give many their own twist. In the case of the US, expect to see a distinct American single malt whiskey category emerging, with fresh white oak and youthful spirit giving the new malts honeyed, bourbon-lite and uncloying fresh barley notes.

It’s all exciting stuff, but are the established whisky makers worried? Not at all. The Scots, Irish and big bourbon boys still make the best whiskies in the world, and I’m not going to lie – I headed off for a cheeky Japanese whisky as my penultimate dram, and visited the west coast of Scotland before they poured us out of Old Billingsgate at the end of a marvellous day, humming ‘what a wonderful world’ happily to myself as I went.

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