Spotlight on Scotch

Dominating the Whisky World

Scotch is no longer reserved for old men in smoking jackets; it has increased in popularity beyond prediction and has become the preferred spirit for many people. Scotch brands now have to cope with meeting market demand when the warehouses no longer have the depth of old barrels they used to have. Consumed neat or on the rocks, cleverly being used in cocktails, and challenged by other nations that are competing for market share with their own scotch-style spirits, the game has now become quite interesting.

To be a Scotch whisky, it must be produced in Scotland from a mash of malted barley and other cereal grains, and aged in oak casks in an approved warehouse in Scotland for a minimum of three years. Although there are multiple categories of Scotch, people are most often referring to “single malt”, considered to be a premium spirit from one distillery, distilled by batch distillation in a pot still and solely made with water and malted barley−no other grains.

If a spirit does not require maturation, it is relatively easy to meet market demand by simply producing more spirit, yet if you produce a spirit, which you won’t be selling for many years, it forces you to predict the future, sometimes ten to thirty years in advance. I should clarify that age and maturation, although intertwined are not synonymous. Much like people, spirit maturity is not necessarily based on age, but is determined by chemical composition and environmental influence. We have become accustomed to Scotch being labeled with age statements, 12-year, 18-year, etc., which must always reflect the age of the youngest component. Some producers have stopped placing an age statement on the bottle and others are in transition to do so, because they no longer have the depth of old barrels to maintain consistent flavour profiles. By removing the age, they can draw from many more barrels in the warehouses to achieve what many people want anyways−a consistent, reliable dram, hardly differing from one bottle to the next. The Macallan was the pioneer of removing age statements, and they are completely aware that some of their loyal fans disagree with the decision, but let’s face it, they are protecting the consumer by keeping their products affordable and consistent−the same way they built a loyal following.

The flavour diversity of single malt Scotch is staggering, especially when we consider that it is simply made from water and malted barley in a pot still and aged in an oak barrel. The diversity has been key in bringing new fans to the category, because if you introduced a novice taster to incredibly peat-smoked Islay malt, you may turn them off of Scotch forever. However, if you introduce someone to Scotch by taking them through the sweeter, softer, gentle styles, you may eventually get them to enjoy the most intense malts.  Alternatively, a cocktail can be the perfect vehicle to bring the unique flavour profiles of single malts to more palates. It used to be sacrilege to ever mix with single malt, but a bold Australian bartender named Sam Ross, who moved to New York, decided in 2005 that the world was ready for peaty Islay malt to be the feature spirit in his now famous “Penicillin” cocktail. Combining the peat smoke with honey, lemon and ginger, the cocktail became an almost instant classic and has opened the door to single malts being used in cocktails far more often than they ever have before.

I think we can all agree that Scotch has dominated the whisky world for a long time, and because of its influence, we now have many countries producing their own single malts. Japan has been making single malts for over 100 years, and more recently India, Taiwan, and Canada have gotten into the game. Thankfully, the BC government has loosened the distillation laws, allowing more people to make spirits. It’s exciting to see a bunch of malts now being produced on the west coast. Although I feel that the new Canadian West Coast malts are a little too new to compete on an international stage, I taste potential in these juvenile drams and look forward to following their development. After all, there are areas of the coast that have very similar climates to Scotland, we produce excellent grains and have great water. All that we need is time.