World whiskies are rewriting the rules of this storied spirit
Whisky may be one of the fastest growing spirits categories, but with innovation rife and new producers appearing across the world, it’s also one of the most exciting.
A reforging of whisky categorisation is occurring, as new regions birth new global styles, led by innovation from craft producers.
Meanwhile the world’s major drinks makers have been fusing regional liquids, or experimenting with barrels from across the world, to create a new sub-category of hybrid liquids with global roots.
Both adhering to, and subverting whisky producing traditions, these new whiskies are attracting growing interest from a new generation of consumers looking for a fresh take on a traditional category, that has historically felt exclusionary.
A new wave of consumers is tuning into products that meet their desire to drink less but better, explore new experiences, and gain easy to understand knowledge from brands that subvert and avoid the barriers previously associated with the category; namely high price points, lack of clarity on expected taste profiles, traditional packaging, male-orientated marketing, and a product that didn’t seem to match their lifestyles.
Exciting, diverse, and fresh, the new whiskies being produced feel decidedly more inclusive. It’s this new momentum that’s driving growth. In fact, over the past few years, whiskies have been among the fastest-growing sub-categories of spirits. Though volumes took a dip in 2020, falling by -10.7% according to the IWSR, it is forecast to recover in 2021, bolstered by sales in the US and India especially. Sales of whisky worldwide are expected to nearly double by 2031, reaching US$108 billion by 2031, according to market research firm Fact MR.
But where are these new whiskies from?
Whereas once whisky production was confined to long-established producing nations, such as Scotland, Ireland and the US, in recent years, new launches have emerged from nations such as Mexico, New Zealand, Australia, Bolivia, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Iceland, France, Belgium, Germany, Italy, Israel, India, South Africa, and Russia. And while Japan has now well and truly established itself as a whisky category of its own, nations with once extinct whisky traditions such as Wales and England, have begun reviving them in earnest.
New releases include the first whisky from Aber Falls, North Wales’ first whisky distillery in over 100 years. Meanwhile Berry Bros & Rudd’s has launched The Nordic Casks range, showcasing Nordic whisky distillers from Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Denmark.
The novelty of newness and geography isn’t the only intriguing factor of new world whiskies. From alternative casks (including different woods and seasonings), customised yeasts, to the use of a plethora of different grains, new producers are free to experiment with production techniques, free from the confines of minimum aging, specific barrel, and other specifications.
Though single malts still dominate launches, base grains from corn in Mexico, to rye in eastern and northern Europe, are emerging. Diageo India has recently launched United’s Epitome Reserve, a 100% rice whisky made from rice sourced from the Punjab, and aged in cherry wood and PX sherry casks. And Israel’s first whisky distillery, M&H, launched four limited editions, aged in experimental casks, including M&H Apex Cognac Cask (aged in bourbon, STR wine casks, and finished in Limousin oak, ex-Cognac casks), Apex Pomegranate Wine Cask (ex-bourbon casks, and fortified pomegranate wine casks), and Apex Rum Cask (aged in Cuban and Jamaican rum casks).
An additional and emerging subcategory within world whisky, are liquids that combine global influences. These hybrid liquids either blend whiskies from across the world, finish liquids in casks from across the world, or see the addition of regionally-specific ingredients.
The much publicised shortage of Japanese whisky stocks has birthed a number of these hybrids in recent years, as demand for Japanese whisky increases, and age-statements dwindle.
In 2019, Suntory launched World Whisky Ao, which contained liquids from from five of the world’s biggest whisky producing countries; Scotland, Japan, Ireland, Canada, and the US. Ao means blue in Japanese, and refers to the oceans that separate these regions.
Also from Beam, Legent Bourbon, is a Kentucky-style whiskey, that uses the “high art” of Japanese blending, and is a collaboration between Jim Beam master distiller Fred Noe, and House of Suntory chief blender Shinji Fukuyo. It’s aged initially in charred virgin white oak. Portions are then finished in California red wine casks and sherry casks, before being blended back together.
More recently, Diageo has launched a new variant of its Irish whiskey brand, Roe & Co has that has been finished in rare Japanese Sugi wood. Roe & Co Japanese Sugi. The highly active porous nature of the wood is said to impart “a tangible spice and toasted sandalwood notes throughout”.
Perhaps even more experimental is Pernod Ricard’s latest launch, the evocatively titled Horse With No Name. The bourbon is a collaboration between Firestone and Robertson Distillery in Texas and The Horses Spirit Company, founded in Germany’s Black Forest in 2020 by Alexander Stein, creator of Monkey 47 gin.
Using Firestone and Robertson’s proprietary mash bill, the bourbon is made with yellow dent Texas corn, soft red winter wheat, six-row distiller´s malt and a proprietary yeast strain derived from a Texas pecan, then aged for at least two years in charred oak barrels.
This is combined with a habanero distillate, made in Germany by the Horses Spirit Company. The habaneros are milled and macerated in molasses-based neutral alcohol for ten days, distilled, diluted with spring water, and mellowed in earthenware tanks for months.
As imbibers continue to seek out new experiences, products that combine craft with accessibility will win out, bringing new consumers into world whisky.