Size isn't everything

Like many people there was a time when I had not developed an interest in whisky.  There was a time when my interest was more wine related.  At the time this made a lot of sense.  I am no longer a young man but when I was the world of wine was very different.  There was less known about it and a little knowledge could go a long way in the status stakes.  I remember finding a bottle of Fitou in a local wine shop and thinking I had struck gold, no one knew about Fitou and I think that there was only one merchant importing it into the UK – this made it easy as it meant that there was only the one Fitou and I could get to know it in its direct singular form.  Wine labels were very readable and had so much information that enabled you to identify which vineyard it came from whilst your knowledge filled in other aspects such as grape type.  This sounded good but most people I knew didn’t know the grape varieties anyway.  As the market opened up and spread, it moved from knowing a few French wines and a handful of Italian, Spanish and German wines to including American, Australian, South African, many European countries and even English.  The mystery and romance declined as supermarket own labels became more common, the labels became cruder and the names started to be that of the grape not the vineyard.  There became too many for the average bod to be expert in and the reward for the effort was less - due to the accessibility of it.  Whilst the product may have improved the experience lessened – it just was not as special.

 

Whisky, on the other hand was emerging from a quiet time.  The blends were there but the single malt market was on the increase, and as the political climate changed and Cooley’s gave it a boost, the Irish whiskey range started to return to English shores.  Here we had a quality product with tradition, history and craftsmanship.  It was big enough to encompass the whisky lover yet small enough to be accessible.  One had the sense that the average bod could get a decent understanding of the whole market, it wasn’t easy but the effort was worth it and within reach.  As time went by things happened, other markets emerged – Scotland, Ireland, USA and Canada spread out and others either started or become known.  Japan, France, India, Australia, Spain, New Zealand in fact all round the world countries started to produce whisky in a variety of forms.  Variations in mash bill, water, climate, yeast and wood – not to mention one of the most important ingredients – people, all had an effect in producing different whiskies.  But this is not all – something else was happening and that was experimenting, finishing – or additional cask enhancements, as well as a variety of wood based experiments, which include char types, additional cask staves, replacing cask heads and even using casks made from specific parts of the tree.  This has led to an almost endless variety of different whisky types from around the world and from a wide range of ages.  Special editions, single cask bottlings, variations on filtering and a variety of abv’s are just the starting points.  The presentation of the bottle has involved similar treatment ranging from one of gem encrusted crystal decanters to Tesco’s own ‘Everyday Value Whisky’ at £11.50 per bottle – and yes it does say ‘Everyday’ on the label which makes one think that their motto should be ‘Good food at good prices and you’re mmy frriennnd you are, nno rreally you are, commme on letsh haf a little more…..’.

The point is I think there is a risk that the industry can end up giving too much choice.  Research about consumer choice indicates that people like choice but there is a cut off point when people have a lot of choice, buy better products but feel less satisfaction for it.  The problem is like this – if you just want a good bottle for your money you can get one but will wonder if the others were better.  You may also panic at the vastness of choice – it becomes too much to take in so you don’t and you get something else that you know is safe.  If you are a whisky lover and enjoy the study and chat that goes with it you will eventually find that you have to race to keep up or increasingly fall behind, whilst ‘experts’ find it harder to identify through taste or keep an honest ability to report on the whole market. The whisky lover has to taste more and that in turn requires more speed and less depth.  At the same time the demand for whisky may initially increase in line with an increased market, casks become more pressured and the global market is forced to find ways of competing with each other.  Marketing will only go so far with this, and there have been some moves that in the past would have been seen as being strange, such as selling highish end whisky in a black bottle without any details of the whisky inside other than its abv.

If you doubt what I am saying try thinking about this – what would happen if you took a year out from tasting, reading or following whisky then returned with the idea of catching up on all new releases and unknown bottlings.

Choice is a good thing.  The ability for whisky makers to be able to experiment and develop is a great thing.  The spread of whisky as a global phenomena is a good thing – but with problems.  I do worry about the loss of local and traditional spirits as whisky takes over.  I also worry that the industry will reach the point when it gets too big, when the product is unmanageable and the world around it becomes overbearing.  Someone once said ‘you don’t have to get a bigger slice of the pie – you make the pie bigger and that way everyone can have more pie.’ The problem is what happens when the pie gets so big that it just doesn’t look like the same pie, when what was a handmade individual pie becomes a whole lorry load of different pies, some handmade and some not with many that you just don’t know about.  When I first joined twitter and facebook I relished the views of other whisky lovers and I loved reading about the subject and tasting the new releases.  I still do but am becoming increasingly aware that keeping up is a full time job and if I were to open up facebook and twitter to all whisky lovers I would not be able to take in a fraction of the constant stream of tasting notes, adverts, events and photo’s.  In turn the sense of community can start to crumble – maybe subgroups will form and the need to stick to a type will happen? Or maybe the time will come when the market shifts and the consumer finds that other thing that can be unique, that they can learn and they can find a manageable community in.

 

I am not saying this is going to happen – or if it does that it will be soon – however, when I recently visited a country fair there were quite a lot of exhibitors selling and showing their alcoholic wares.  Quite a few were beer or cider, there were about 3 – 4 vodka outlets, 5 – 6 that did Gin –some others that did gin and vodka and only 2 that did whisky, and here is the thing – Could there be a risk that the cheaper to make Gin, that can be altered in a variety of ways, and it’s association of being used in a variety of ways whilst also holding a craft status, and can be seen as both traditional and young open a market to those swamped by the ever increasing and increasingly complex whisky market? – Or does the whisky industry need to do something to prevent this?

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