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Malts make the mix

Published:  23 July, 2008

Blended Scotch accounts for around 90% of total Scotch whisky sales, which sounds great, but blends have been experiencing a gentle, sustained decline in the UK. There's a particular lack of understanding and appreciation among younger consumers, who are focused on vodka and its amazing mixability.

With malts capable of achieving such high prices, there is of course an established collector's market, catered for by an increasing number of specialist, limited-edition releases.

While collectors are typically decried by whisky drinkers on the basis that malt whisky should be enjoyed on the palate, rather than displayed in a cabinet, collectors are actually a perfect match for brand owners. That's because collectors tend to buy two or even three bottles of each release, enabling them to enjoy one bottle in the conventional sense, by actually tasting the malt, while the additional one or two bottles can be kept for the collection, and possibly sold or swapped further down the line. However, the price of a rare malt whisky can rise or fall (sometimes a rush of bottles coming onto the re-sale market after a release has sold out results in supply exceeding demand).

While limited editions have a natural appeal for collectors, silent' distilleries (ie those that are no longer operational) can have a supreme appeal. Port Ellen, for example, a distillery on Islay which has been silent since 1983, is highly sought after, with a small amount of the remaining stock (which is of course limited) released annually.

It's amazing how much progress malts have made within a relatively short space of time. After all, it was only at the beginning of the 1980s that a few malts, including Glenfiddich, Glenmorangie and The Glenlivet, began to be more widely available and more active in the marketplace.

As interest began to evolve, initially among connoisseurs, more malts appeared during the late 1980s and early 1990s, when the category also began to innovate and specialise. Malts are now exerting a far more comprehensive appeal, whether it's younger urban professionals or more mature consumers, who see malts as the real deal'.

While these fans have got the message, and know how to enjoy whisky, many potential younger consumers are excluding themselves from the whisky community on the basis of a misundersanding. They think they know the rules' that apply to Scotch, for example that blends can only be served neat or with water, and don't realise how much more versatile they can be.

So, to generate a greater understanding, various blends are being promoted together with an appropriate mixer in the form of a long drink. As consumers are naturally more experimental when ordering a mixed drink, and far more likely to try something they're unfamiliar with, this is a valuable way of recruiting newcomers to the category.

Moreover, there's been a gradual growth in the number of Scotch whisky cocktails offered, notably in style bars', where knowledgeable staff can talk customers through the options. A related development is that the traditional view in the trade, that it's okay to mix blends but not malts, is changing, as malts are also being used in cocktails.

With the UK in the midst of a cocktail era, the number of cocktail bars opening throughout the country means that wherever you live the journey to a cocktail bar is getting shorter, so consumers will inevitably become more familiar with the concept of mixing Scotch whisky. The question is, how many consumers will this reach and how long will it take?

Purists may think that promoting mixability is a serious compromise for a category such as Scotch whisky, but if it's going to attract newcomers who may then graduate to enjoying whisky neat or with water, it could serve a significant purpose. Moreover, for some consumers, drinking Scotch in a mixed format may be the only way they will enjoy it.

Cocktails are all about trends and the latest cocktail manifesto is to enhance the character of the main spirit being mixed, whereas until recently it was more a case of minimising' the character of the main spirit so that the resulting cocktail was as easy drinking' as possible. Consequently, consumers can now discover the actual character of a Scotch whisky through a cocktail.

A growing number of dedicated whisky bars around the UK are also providing an ideal opportunity for consumers to learn more. A practical benefit is making use of bartender knowledge, as well as being able to sample unknown whiskies by the glass (rather than paying for an entire bottle, as when choosing a whisky in a retail outlet).

Meanwhile, a growing number of specialist retailers are helping fans and collectors to make their whisky dreams come true. In fact, being a malt whisky fan is now more of a lifestyle opportunity. Scotland is a prime destination, with fans able to visit their favourite distilleries and various visitor centres.

Not that there's any need to leave home to indulge in such a passion, with numerous books and a dedicated publication, Whisky Magazine, as well as endless websites and chat rooms in which to exchange opinions. There are various malt whisky societies, and a growing calendar of events, including whisky fairs in Europe, Scandinavia, the US, Canada, Japan and South Africa.

An annual highlight in the UK is Whisky Live London, which this year takes place on Friday 2 and Saturday 3 March at London's Royal Horticultural Halls (for tickets log onto Whisky Live in Glasgow will be held on Friday 2 and Saturday 3 November.

Whisky Live London will have between 40 and 50 exhibitors, and include Scotch, Irish, Bourbon and Japanese whiskies. It's a great opportunity to meet producers and taste whiskies from their range. There's also a programme of masterclasses, with tutored tastings by leading figures in the industry. As a major gathering of like-minded people, it provides an ideal oppportuity to discuss a favourite subject in detail, and at length.