The Evolution Of Whisky: How An Old Spirit Became Cool Again

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The Evolution Of Whisky: How An Old Spirit Became Cool Again

Words by Ms Anna Sulan Masing

27 March 2020

Whisky – or whiskey, if that’s your tipple –  is steeped in history. From the bourbon of the American South, to single malt of Scotland and Ireland’s smooth drams that once dominated the world. But this notion of tradition has led to a rather stuffy image for the spirit (think: male-dominated whisky bars and outdated messaging), while other spirits diversified – flavoured gin, anyone?  But in recent years, whisky has experienced a resurgence.

In Scotland, there were just 96 working distilleries in 2000; that  number is expected to reach 140 in the next few years. In the 1800s, 60 per cent of global sales of the spirit were from Ireland; that figure dropped to just one per cent by the late 20th century. But it is back with a vengeance – the demand for high-end premium Irish whiskeys jumped more than 1,000 per cent from 2002 to 2018, fuelled predominantly by the US market. And American whiskey is holding its own, too – with bourbon production increasing 150 per cent over the past 15 years. Non-traditional countries are also now making whisky, from India to Belgium, and with the range of climates and grains these countries grow, the flavour profile is expanding.

The new resurgence in whisky is being led by increasingly discerning drinkers. Palates have become more sophisticated as a result of a burgeoning gin market, which introduced us to a variety of flavours and botanicals. The whisky bar world is becoming more accessible, too, in how they advertise their bottles and engage with their customers.

Ms Mia Johansson, of award-wining bar Swift in London, believes that cocktails have played a key role in whisky’s rebirth. “The neater-styled drinks such as [whiskey-led]Manhattans have become very prominent as the quality of the spirits have increased and people know what they want and how they want it to taste.” Ms Lisa Parker, European correspondent of US drinks magazine Neat Pour, agrees. “I have a theory that, particularly, the ‘new classic’ cocktail Penicillin, with its smoky whisky finish, has done a lot for whisky,” she says.

Mr Greg Perez, owner of Monkey’s Tail bar in Houston, echoes the popularity of whiskey drinks: “Our old-fashioned, How About Them Apples, is our second most popular drink.” Portland whiskey bar Scotch Lodge, which opened in 2019, also has a hit with their twist on the classic – its Four Grain Old Fashioned uses four American whiskeys made from barley, rye, wheat and corn.

“Right now, the industry is calling it the golden era of whiskey,” says Mr Perez. “Certain brands are fetching five times the retail price on the secondary market.” Mr Tommy Klus, owner of Scotch Lodge, echoes this. “More people are getting into collecting whisky, making our job of stocking whisky a bit more of a challenge.”

“More people are getting into collecting whisky, making our job of stocking whisky a bit more of a challenge”

Many of the new whiskeys entering this space are meant to be drunk immediately rather than stored, focusing on flavour through expression of the raw materials. “Interesting things are happening around non-traditional grains,” Mr Perez says. “Koval [Distillery in Chicago] is producing millet and oat whiskey and the single-malt category [in the US], such as Westward Whiskey in Oregon, is growing.”

Westward Whiskey is a prime example of the increased innovation we are seeing in the production of whiskey – whether it be ferment experimentations or interesting cask finishes. Mr Miles Munroe, head distiller and blender at Westward Whiskey, says, “Westward is designed to be a young whiskey, it becomes about maturity rather than age. Our ‘minimalist distilling’ approach focuses on our region’s barley and careful fermentation techniques, building flavour and showcasing provenance. [We are] creating a new style of single malt, which is bold, robust and lush.” 

The climate of Oregon – with wet, cool winters and short hot summers – adds to the flavour, but so does the collaborative nature of the state. The company has built up a relationship with beer brewers and wine makers in the region, ageing its whiskeys in stout and pinot noir barrels. “It wouldn't have made sense for us to purchase sherry or port casks for finishing, whereas pinot noir reflects a sense of terroir that we share,” Mr Munroe ssays. Westward Whiskey’s pinot noir finish is due out this summer. But one of the distillery’s more unique collaborations is with Mr Ken Forkish, a James Beard award-winning baker in Portland. Westward Whiskey is using Mr Forkish’s French levain to make a sourdough whiskey.

It isn’t just the makers who are approaching whisky in interesting ways. In Singapore, chef-owner of Michelin starred restaurant Nouri, Mr Ivan Brehm, is experimenting with pairing whiskies with food. “We recommend for our guests to ‘kiss’ the beverage,” he says. “Take small sips and allow it to mellow out on the palate.”

Mr Brehm notes an immense demand for boutique distillers, and that Japanese whisky in particular is making an impact in South East Asia. Bars are getting in on the distillery act, too. In New York, Dead Rabbit, ranked 22nd on The World’s 50 Best Bars list, boasts the largest selection of Irish whiskeys in North America and is now making its own, from Irish malt and grain.

Both Ms Parker of Neat Pour and Mr Klus of Scotch Lodge think Ireland is leading the way in the world of new whiskey making. The country has seen an influx of new distilleries being built there, the produce of which the world is yet to see. Take the example of Blackwater Distillery, which opened in 2018 – its  first whiskey will be ready for drinking in 2022.

New things are happening in London, too. Founded in 1964, whisky specialist Milroy’s of Soho opened its second location at the end of 2019, in East London – a four-storey location with tasting rooms, cocktail bar and members’ club. The Pine Bar in the new Biltmore Hotel in Mayfair will launch a whisky trolley next month as an engaging way to enjoy whisky, and the bar Black Rock opened a whisky-focused hotel this year with bottles being displayed separately by flavour: smoke, fruit, balance, fragrant, spice and sweet.

“Whisky is for everyone, which has not been the messaging before,” says Mr Matthew Hasting,  Black Rock’s operations manager, echoing a sentiment felt across the industry. “We want to create a great place, that happens to have a lot of whisky.” We’ll drink to that.

Dram right