Monday, June 24, 2024

Lightly Peated

Whisky, Blabber 'n' Smoke

Distillery Visits

Tastes Change

In the middle of the current boom where distilleries are working to capacity it is easy to forget that the industry has always been cyclical. Whisky goes up and down in fashion, legislation and political or economic circumstances. The cycle might be long but it is nevertheless a cycle. At the moment there might be pressure on stocks and investment in new distilleries  but thirty years ago there was overcapacity and mothballing. But not only are there trends in the overall demand for the spirt there are fashions for particular types of taste.

At the moment smokey whiskies seem to have cachet and Islay is booming. Is this a consolidated change, with a long-term appreciation of single malts and love of peat, or is it something that waxes and wanes? Ian Buxton certainly has his doubts. In ‘101 Whiskies to try before you die’ he mentions his concern about Ardbeg.

“But, being old enough to remember when this style of whisky could hardly be given away, I do have a wider concern. Ardbeg and Port Ellen weren’t closed , and other Islay distilleries put on reduced working, on a whim – blenders found that a little goes a long way and those single malt drinkers that were around at the time felt much the same. There is an element of fashion in the current wave of enthusiasm for very highly peat whiskies and, if the enthusiasts were ever to move on, there could be embarrassing quantities of next-to-unusable whisky lying in Scotland’s warehouses.”

The question then is whether there has been a consolidated long-term shift in taste, which means there will always be a high demand for the peat smoke. If this is the case though it leads to the interesting question of why  tastes change. In this particular case why at a time when our tastebuds are getting sweeter and you find sugar in almost all foods do we increasingly like the flintier, more mineral malts? It might be a question without a clear answer but it is nevertheless worth asking.

Any assertions I make based on my own experiences are liable to be very limited in understanding as I know little about societies in Africa or Asia (and many places in between) and whisky is a global business. However I can look around and notice that one of the trends over the past thirty years or so has been the way individuals increasingly define themselves by their consumption choices (e.g. The branding and wearing of designer clothes). This could mean that the increasing demand for Islay whiskies is a mixture of in-the-mouth taste and a long-term brand association. You want to be seen as distinct by choosing something distinctive and Islay whiskies are nothing if not distinctive. The trend to single malts (even if they are still a small percentage of total whisky consumption) is of a piece with this. Blends are about consistency, single malt are about differentiation, especially with the trend towards experimentation with wood and a range of finishes.

This is speculation but an interesting phrase in the Buxton quote is “those single malt drinkers that were around” At the time of last whisky lake in the 80s/90s the appreciation of single malts was very much smaller and its growth has been a steady long term trend. This makes a difference for future prospects. I think more people wanting to show their individuality and discernment is a permanent and I think it might well insulate Ardbeg from falling back into the sorry state of thirty years ago.

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