The international whisky environment continues to mature and evolve – and, as Ian Buxton discovers, the category now has its own talking shop

In early February, delegates travelled to the Box Distillery in Bjärtrå, Sweden, a pioneer on the burgeoning Nordic distilling scene, for the first World Whisky Forum. They heard from speakers such as Ichiro Akuto (Chichibu, Japan); Matt Hofmann (Westland, US) and Steven Kersley (Brewdog Distilling, Scotland) representing the craft scene. But, more intriguingly, a number of larger companies were also represented, with William Grant & Sons sending two speakers and Kirin of Japan also presenting two delegates. It’s inconceivable even a year or two ago that the world whisky scene could have supported a dedicated conference, so I’ll watch with interest to see if this is a speculative one-off or if it’s going to be repeated.

It’s clear though that the big players are becoming increasingly interested in wider horizons, embracing new distilling countries and recognising the ability of the craft scene to excite consumers with innovative offerings. Diageo has invested in Australian and Danish whisky producers, and as I mentioned last issue, Remy Cointreau recently bought the French single malt distillery Domaine des Hautes Glaces. Even more recently though it acquired Westland of Seattle, so the presence of Matt Hofmann at the World Whisky Forum was even more significant than it first appeared.

Matt was speaking on whiskey and its sense of place, “outlining why a full understanding of the geography and culture of the people who make it can influence whiskey makers to make the most compelling product possible”. How the culture of the people will change under a more geographically distant corporate ethos remains an interesting challenge, as hitherto one might have imagined French and US management styles to be somewhat at odds.

Westland and others are not alone in relinquishing control in favour of what was presumably a handsome payday from the industry giants. Also in the US, Constellation Brands was in competition with Pernod Ricard to buy the controversial Utah producer High West. Primarily a wine maker, Constellation owns some spirit brands such as Serpent’s Bite Apple Cider Flavored Whisky (and no, since you ask, I’ve never tried it and I don’t believe I want to) and evidently see small batch and craft as a viable route into an expanding market. Industry sources report that this was a $160m acquisition for a 70,000 case company.

My spies tell me that, less publicly, that F.E.W. Spirits of Evanston, Chicago, which was something of a poster-boy for the US craft whiskey scene, is now majority-controlled by the low-profile investment group Samson and Surrey, who are building a portfolio of boutique brands.

The activity is not only confined to whisky. Campari has splashed a rumoured $70m on snapping up Bulldog Gin and, closer to home, Sipsmith, one of the pioneers of UK craft gin and vodka distilling, has sold to BeamSuntory. The price was not disclosed but The Guardian speculated on a £50m transaction for the eight-year-old business. On a more modest scale, Edinburgh Gin is now part of Ian MacLeod Distillers (who also own Glengoyne and Tamdhu single malts).

“Nothing’s going to change” is the constant refrain from the vendors – but, be honest, if you had banked a Lottery-win-sized cheque, would that be true? Can the entrepreneurial fire ever burn as brightly again? It’s far from unusual for the founders to depart within a year or two as the reality of corporate life hits home. With a seven-figure bank balance behind you there are ski slopes to conquer and six-monthly appraisals by a boss in a suit may lack the same appeal.

And how will drinkers react? The craft sector has made much of its independence and its ability to break the corporate mould. Consumers have flocked to innovative expressions and new styles. Fickle and demanding ‘millennials’ are said to value the heritage and authenticity of small-batch producers, so with literally thousands of new operations out there still in the hands of the founders, will the brands that have accepted the embrace of the industry giants still be sexy, or even credible?

Sounds like there’s enough there for several conferences!