I was at a social gathering recently and found myself among a circle of acquaintances I’d been introduced to only five minutes earlier. In the course of our social dialogue and etiquette-driven pleasantries (hmmm…this is sounding like a Jane Austen novel), the fact that I was an avid whisky enthusiast and involved in its industry came up. “Oh, what’s your favourite whisky?” was the question immediately thrown at me. I’ve been asked that more times than I can possibly remember, and I have a standard answer at the ready, but I reflected on the way home later that evening that it’s an increasingly irrelevant question. As are its variants: “What’s your favourite distillery?” and “What’s the best whisky?”
Ask yourself that same question and try and answer it honestly: What is your favourite whisky? I’m willing to bet that the first response that came into your head is “It depends!”. Or you’ll pick out a dram that was bottled or discontinued years ago and is no longer available.
I posit that it’s an outdated proposition. Until a few decades ago, the question had relevancy because both (i) there was a significantly smaller range of options to choose from, and (ii) brand loyalty was a much stronger notion for the demographic and consumers of those times. We’ve all heard the stories about the uncle who “only drank Talisker” or the grandfather who would “only pour himself a Dewars”. These weren’t cute stereotypes; they were common truths! Until the 1990s, Scotch whisky continually shot itself in the foot by marketing to – I’m sorry to say – an older, male generation, and it’s no accident or coincidence that Scotch had the reputation of being an old man’s drink.
I remember walking into the best-stocked off-licences in Australia in the early 1990s, and the retail outlets with the biggest ranges, might have had a mere 10 different single malts to select from. Three or four of these were excellent whiskies; six or seven of them were…well…nice without being exceptional. In those times and with such limited choice, it was a plausible notion to have a favourite whisky. Compare that to today – even the most humble supermarket outlet here has a decent selection of malts and, of course, the bigger or specialty stores will stock more than 100 different malts…and plenty of them are excellent. It’s led to us all having “many favourites”.
One of the biggest catalysts and drivers of Scotch whisky’s current boom and popularity is that it is being sold and marketed differently, and it has appeal, currency, and patronage among a much younger generation. Yes, the gen Y/millennials. And this is a generation that advocates and espouses diversity and a multi-experiential lifestyle: why commit to or limit yourself to one whisky when there are hundreds of others to try and enjoy? This same philosophy drives a demand for the “new”. In the world of whisky bottlings and releases, nothing stays static or constant for too long. No blend or distillery with its own single malt brand survives these days with only a 12-year-old being the sole and constant expression in the portfolio. Instead, all of the major brands and distilleries regularly bring out new expressions and limited releases. They change their packaging frequently, they expand their core range – all to fulfil the current market’s insatiable thirst for something new and different. Your favourite whisky this month may not be your favourite next month.
Ironically, it was this quest and discovery of diversity that was a contributing factor in the founding of the Society. The uniqueness and diversity of the single cask taught a new cohort of whisky drinkers that there was variability and a broader spectrum beyond a distillery’s house style. In the days when a particular distillery may have had just one, single demonstrated flavour profile, a contrasting release by the Society went a long way to breaking down the misconception that a distillery’s character was monochrome. (For example, the then-universally known oloroso sherry-casked house style of Macallan was set in contrast when the Society would release bourbon cask-matured bottlings of Macallan). This new-found diversity led to some amusing dialogues between members and SMWS HQ. For example, there was the member who had a monogamous love affair with distillery 4 – despite the fact that the SMWS releases were wildly varied in their style. Some were heavily peated, some only slightly peated. Some were oozing sherry and European oak, others were shining bourbon, vanilla, and American oak. How can you claim constancy and a favourite distillery when no two releases are alike?
For my own personal journey, the Society was instrumental in teaching me that you can have many favourites – a favourite distillery for peated whisky; a favourite distillery for sherried casks; a favourite distillery amongst the floral, fruity Speysiders and so on. Or you might have a favourite Flavour Profile to turn to on a hot summer’s day, and a favourite cask-type or Flavour Profile for when you’ve come home at the end of a long day and need a pick-me-up. Yes, I do have a favourite distillery, but it’s as much to do with its individual history, its story, the people who run it and their philosophy as it is to do with how much I adore the whisky they produce. But you can’t give that complex answer in five seconds at your next social gathering. So what’s my favourite whisky? Whichever one you’re buying me.
Andrew Derbidge is director and cellarmaster for the SMWS in Australia