I can’t remember the chain of events that led to me drinking my first Bourbon. I know it was at University and I know it will have been in my 3rd or 4th year, as I spent my first two years loudly proclaiming that Whisky made outside of Scotland wasn’t worthy of the name, despite staunchly avoiding actually trying any. I also know that it will have been from a bottle I bought – at that stage I didn’t know any specialist whisky places, drank cocktails when at cocktail bars and believed (as I still do) that drinking anything that isn’t a pint, wine or in extreme circumstances a gin and tonic at a pub is basically peacocking. What possessed me to buy the bottle completely escapes me, though it will almost certainly have been the packaging. The point is that, for whatever reason, I bought that bottle of Woodford Reserve, poured myself a glass, tasted it and in doing so altered the course of my Whisky journey, fell in love with American Whiskey and possibly ensured that my father and uncle would never look at me in the same way again. Because, to use the technical term, it was sodding delicious.
My prejudices didn’t leave me overnight. Indeed I remember for a time opining that whilst I had enjoyed Woodford Reserve all the other American whiskeys were probably rubbish, and it was just some freak of chance that had led me to pick the only good one. But ever so gradually the walls of my stubbornness eroded, the list of countries whose product I had sampled grew and last year, for the first time in my life, I reckon the number of Whiskies I had that had been made outside of Scotland as near as makes no difference equalled my Scotch total. More importantly the number of disappointments I endured at the hands of World Whisky was significantly smaller than the number of dud Scotches finding their way into my beleaguered glass. The winds of change had blown and swept my cloak of ignorance into the ether. And good riddance.
So. To business. All these wonderful whiskies from all over the world. Are we better off with them than we are with Scotland? Well, before I stick my head completely over the parapet I’m going to say straight away that my answer is tailored to and focussed on a UK audience. For example I don’t know how much whiskies X, Y and Z might cost in an American or Chinese market or how hard they are to find for the average consumer there. Which, since my blog is primarily aimed at people just beginning their Whisky journey and with incomes within touching distance of my own, are factors of primary importance to this debate. If you happen to be a price-no-object millionaire or a well-versed expert, then as you were – I’m sure you’ll do fine without any help from me! What this isn’t going to be is a big list of whiskies that I think are good and whiskies that I think are bad. What it will hopefully do is make your bottle purchasing a bit less of a gamble, and better still consign any prejudices you might harbour to the same dustbin in which mine now fester. Right. Disclaimer over, let’s crack on.
I’ve lost count of the number of times in the last year I have told people that if they’re spending less than £40 on a bottle (which my friends almost invariably are) they’re more often than not best off buying American. Yes there are exceptions and we’ll cover some of those in the next article, but for my money if you’re in front of a bank of whiskies in that price bracket and you don’t know anything about any of them you’re more likely to get a whisky of a higher objective quality if you look at the options from the wrong side of the pond. Because, simply put, they are more reliable. For starters every Bourbon on every shelf in every supermarket or specialist shop has been matured in new oak casks. If it hasn’t (e.g Angel’s Envy, and we’re getting into niche territory there) it will have to clearly say so on the label. There is therefore no chance that your bourbon has been in a cask treated with a sulphur candle, or which has become tired from former use. Secondly Bourbon avoids the all-too-prevalent Scotch trick of hoodwinking you with colour. US legislation prohibits the addition of colouring or flavouring to your Bourbon through any means other than the casks in which it is matured. So under no circumstances will your darkly coloured whiskey be simply a caramel-fabricated lie. (Dalmore and Jura please take note.)
But appearances are all very well – what about the product? Again, certainly so far as the stuff we import to the UK goes, reliability is the watchword. Forget South of £40 – for under £25 you can get Buffalo Trace, Maker’s Mark, Knob Creek, Bulleit, Wild Turkey 81 and depending on where you look even Woodford Reserve. And forget just Scotland – there’s no Whisk(e)y we import to or make in the UK that offers anywhere near the same quality for that money. And I think it’s that ruling on oak that makes the difference. Apart from the naturally ‘cleaner’ aspect of virgin oak when compared to reused casks the bottom line is that new charred oak barrels combined with the warmer temperatures of Kentucky (or wherever else in the US Bourbon is made) mean that Whiskey extracts flavour and colour from the wood at a much faster rate than it does in the second (or third) hand barrels in Scotland’s chillier climes. Considering the importance of oak to a Whisk(e)y’s flavour the ability to take on more in a shorter space of time is always going to be an advantage when it comes to producing whisky quickly and in bulk. In short – for the lower priced end of the market. And if we increase that £25 to £40 the number of extraordinary Bourbons, Ryes and other American Whiskeys that become available is mind boggling. Two of my own favourites this year have been Rittenhouse 100 proof Rye and Four Roses Single Barrel, but the list is simply endless. And whilst naturally some will be harder to find (supermarkets rarely cross the £30 mark on Bourbon) or better quality than others the bottom line is that the average standard is – in this drinker’s opinion – some way ahead of Scotland’s in this price category. And that’s without even considering the premium and super premium options available to those with deeper purses. (Buffalo Trace’s Antique Collection is always astonishing, and like every other Bourbon lover the whisky I covet trying most is Pappy Van Winkle 23yo. Well, a man can dream…)
So that’s America – what about the others? Well, Japan’s juice has permeated popular consciousness pretty effectively over the last few years, spurred chiefly on by Jim Murray’s selection of the stunning Yamazaki 12 year old Sherry Matured as his ‘World’s Finest Whisky’ in the 2015 Whisky Bible. It’s worth noting that the Taketsuru 17yo also won blended whisky of the year in the World Whisky Awards that year but, and I’m going to go out on a limb here, I suspect that the increased number of Japanese Whisky related questions I’ve fielded from friends and bottles I’ve seen on shelves recently is more due to Mr Murray. The point is that the no-expense-spared approach of the Japanese distilleries is clearly paying dividends when it comes to the average quality of their distillate and casks, and as with most American Distilleries they have the natural advantage over the Scots of a slightly warmer climate meaning that the oak impresses itself on the spirit more quickly so in theory their supply should be more able to keep up with demand without compromising on character.
Elsewhere the trend continues; the Kavalan Solist of the King Car Distillery in Taiwan and the French Oak Cask of Sullivan’s Cove in Tasmania have both taken the World Whisky Award’s ‘Best in the World’ at the expense of the Scottish. And when we look at countries whose efforts have merited inclusion in Jim Murray’s Top Five in the last two years we have Japan, the US, Ireland, Canada and (doubtless the biggest slap in the face) the Auld Enemy ourselves, England. In fact of the 10 entrants that make up the fives from the last two years the USA has four and Japan and Ireland have two each. Furthermore, whilst the Scotch Whisky industry has spent the last couple of years in decline, competitors (notably Ireland) have grown both in share of world whiskey and in overall exports at a staggering rate. On a personal note I have given 6 friends on separate occasions blind drams of a Scotch Whisky next to a Whisky from elsewhere in the world of the same or similar price, and in every case the non-Scotch has emerged as the favourite – an assessment with which on five of the six instances I agreed.
So m’lud, I put it to you that in the categories of value, quality and growth percentage Scotch is defeated by its rivals at every point. It is our contention that the consumer in the UK is unquestionably better off looking elsewhere, that the Scotch Whisky industry is a dinosaur, a ruin of its former self and a tawdry also-ran in the current race of World Whisky. I rest my case.
Except for the fact that that’s a load of absolute bollocks.
Since when can an industry – any industry – be defined solely by its single finest exponent? The suggestion that, for example, Canadian Whisky is inherently better than Scotch because Crown Royal’s Rye was one man’s top dram of the year is like saying that Argentina are automatically the World’s finest footballing nation because Lionel Messi just won the Ballon d’Or. (OK, so they’re ranked Second as it is, but you get the point.) Let’s consider a couple of those rival industries as a whole. Both of the Japanese entrants in the last two top fives have come from the same distillery – Yamazaki. Both of the Irish entrants have been products of Midleton. Of the four from America three are out of Buffalo Trace. Three unquestionably superb distilleries – not representative of general world whisk(e)y. And if you are going to lean solely on Jim Murray for your Whisk(e)y advice then consider this – he acknowledges both Japan and Ireland to suffer from the same problems of sulphur casks and caramel as Scotland, and he admits that he was planning to demote Canada from having its own category on the basis of the overall quality of its output which includes several products labelled as whisky which contain in some cases up to 9.09% of liquid which is not Canadian whisky (sometimes not even any sort of whisky) at all.
Furthermore you UK whisk(e)y drinkers on that £40 or less budget – good luck finding much variety over here. At present, if you look on the Whisky Exchange, the world’s largest online Whisky Retailer, you have seven (admittedly delicious) options for Japanese Whisky in that price category and none of those are Single Malts (not that that necessarily matters.) You have four options from England, four from Wales, two from India and fourteen from Canada. There’s a decent range from Ireland, but that’s largely because of our relative proximity. As for Taiwan and Australia – forget about it. Increase your budget or look elsewhere I’m afraid. It’s also worth noting that although I’d always advise them to do so, most people don’t look at the Whisky Exchange or Master of Malt – they look at Supermarket shelves, where (at present) you’d be lucky to find two Japanese Whiskies, two Canadian and one from Taiwan.
And even those Whisky Exchange options – stellar though many of them are, do not represent the whiskies that are earning top gongs. My colleague actually asked me this morning what the average price of the award winners was. I hadn’t really considered it before, but doing some research made it clear that with the exception of the Crown Royal (which I can’t find in the UK anyway, so basically irrelevant) his top Whisky had only come under £50 twice. And in both cases that whisky’s country of origin was Scotland.
In terms of total production of whisky the only country in the world which comes close to Scotland is India, which with over 120 million cases sold last year actually makes considerably more! It ought to be mentioned however that the overwhelming majority of this is distilled from molasses, not grain, has a load of colouring added and isn’t matured at all. The two distilleries of serious international clout are Amrut and Paul John, which despite making seriously good stuff are, again, not cheap and relatively few and far between. No, so far as the UK consumer (and indeed the average consumer from outside the UK) is concerned, Scotch is still number one for availability.
But whilst availability is all very well, to many of us it is a secondary consideration to quality. Glenn’s Vodka and Archers are available; quality they ain’t. So are we stuck on a tiny island surrounded by a vast lake of mediocre plonk? I’ve already said that I usually point people to American kit for reliable quality from bottle to bottle, so where does that leave Scotch? Is it still the most worth buying, or is it simply what happens to be made and put on the shelves? That’s the question that the next and final part will attempt to answer.