Distilleries test Scotch whisky's limits

Distilleries test Scotch whisky's limits

Demand for more variety in Scotch whisky from fast-growing emerging markets and the request for lower alcohol varieties among health-conscious drinkers are challenging a closely guarded centuries-old tradition.

Drinks giant Diageo, producers of market leader Johnnie Walker, sent shock waves through the industry earlier this year when a "highly confidential" document, leaked to the Wall Street Journal, revealed potential innovations such as flavoured infusions, low-alcohol variants and whisky finished in tequila casks.

But it is operating within very tight restrictions as British law states Scotch must be at least 40% alcohol -- which means distillers cannot reach out to health-conscious millennials or tap into the lucrative West Asian market with lower or zero alcohol Scotch.

"There is a lot of interest in lower alcohol spirit drinks across the spirit sector to do with things like the Dry January craze and minimum pricing of alcohol," Matthew Pauley, an assistant professor at Heriot-Watt University's International Centre for Brewing and Distilling, said.

"A few people have been experimenting throughout the sector with lower alcohol spirits, and no alcohol spirit variants. Not all of them have been well received."

Pauley's shelves are packed with herbs, spices and flavourings used in experiments with gin -- but they are kept well away from the whisky stills.

The law restricts Scotch ingredients to barley, water and yeast aged in oak casks, meaning flavoured infusions and tequila-cask finishes are also likely to attract the attention of the litigious Scotch Whisky Association (SWA). "Johnnie Walker can't suddenly make strawberry whisky and send it off to China," said Pauley.

"The SWA spends a lot of money sending people around the world collecting samples of things like random bottles of brown liquid with tartan on it, and there is a whole legal team who go and shut that person down."

He also has bagfuls of an extra-roasted barley called "chocolate malt" which has proved controversial.

French-owned giant Glenmorangie markets a single malt Scotch called Signet which uses a hint of chocolate malt -- but the Eden Mill craft distillery in St Andrews abandoned its own chocolate malt product when the SWA warned it not to stray too far from the traditional Scotch flavour.

"It's the extra flavours that the chocolate malt will add that the distillers are looking for and that the SWA have issue with," said Pauley.

"The different roasts will potentially add different flavours so that is what is being investigated, researched and has come into some controversy.

"Some of the easy wins have been won, so people naturally start to look at some of the more left-field suggestions and line extensions, and we get back to the issue of how you make a line extension without harming the core brand."

A spokesman for the SWA said there is no bar to producing new products based on Scotch whisky but "the marketing of such products must not confuse consumers in any way -- in particular they must not suggest the product is Scotch whisky when it is not".

The SWA said flavoured whiskies are already marketed as liqueurs but must not be labelled Scotch, which has a similar geographical protection to Champagne.

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