Victor Brierley argues Scotch whisky faces a threat from spirits that can be made anywhere

THE figures and facts are there for us all to see. Scotch whisky is a £5 billion industry and is responsible for 78% of ALL Scotland's Food and Drink exports.

Looking at these two facts alone, it would seem that the Uisge Industry is in the rudest of health, the last decade has seen amazing growth and there are a number of new distilleries either recently-opened, or in the planning. So, it’s all brilliant. ‘Amazeballs’, as the kids would say.

Wrong. Sadly, Scotchy Scotch Scotch, a drink that can only be made here in Scotland, is facing a number of challenges. Even the most casual of industry admirers would look towards Scotch and see the Far East threatening. There is (and has been for several decades) a jolly decent Japanese whisky industry. There’s a journalist called Jim Murray, who writes a book called ‘The Whisky Bible’ and he, rather uncomfortably has been naming drams from Japan and USA as his ‘best whisky in the world’. Rick Stein has recently been on the tellybox with his foodie stuff, in The Antipodes. He’s been suggesting Tasmanian Whisky is the best, as it was the recipient of one of the many ‘spirits’ Awards, which seem to be sprinkled regularly over the industry. Lots of magazines, books and suppliers run them. The latest of them announced Kavalan, a Taiwanese Whisky, to be ‘Top Dog’.

Our nearest neighbour England used to make excellent whisky (over 100 years ago a distillery in Liverpool made more Whisky then, than Glenmorangie makes now) and The Lakes Distillery in Cumbria is building on this legacy, and The English Whisky Company in Norfolk has been gaining plaudits.

So what? People are always going to drink Scotch, you might reckon and with Johnnie Walker, Diageo’s flagship-selling almost 19 million 9 litre cases, in over 200 Countries, you might think the position of Scotland’s national drink is strong, unshakable even.

Here’s a wee fly in the dram for you though. Economics. Imagine, if Diageo, the leading spirits player on the planet decided that they were getting a wee bit fed up of sourcing expensive, wooden (they have to be oak) casks and keeping spirits kicking about for three years in Scotland, before it can be called Scotch Whisky. Scotch is probably the most complex spirit drink in the World. It takes a long time to make and it’s expensive.

 

Liam Hughes and Ian McDougall from The Glasgow Distillery Co. Picture: HeMedia

Liam Hughes and Ian McDougall from The Glasgow Distillery Co. Picture: HeMedia

Would it not be easier if they moved into other areas and spend a few quid here, say in making and promoting White rum, beer or maybe Cider, or even Pimms, all of which can be made anywhere. They can also be sold immediately. Technically, in a matter of a few days, not a number of years.

Well, the fact is, they have just announced 7 new products last week,  that are going down this exact route. Summer drinks, fashionable drinks, drinks with no legal need to be made in any one particular country. So, if ANY of other large players were to start moving spend away from their Scotch Whisky portfolio (lots of Scotch is owned by overseas firms), where would this leave Scotch Whisky?

At the moment, the majors producers are spending several million pounds on promotion, mainly on a few celebrity endorsers of our national drink. People like outspoken Chef Anthony Bourdain (Balvenie), and ex footballers David Beckham (Haig Club) and Michael Owen (Spey, no I don’t get why they’re are using him either). The trouble is, rappers, actors, singers and sportspeople are also promoting Rum, Vodka, Brandy, Gin and, Tequila.

And it’s the latter that I think is the REAL threat to Scotch Whisky.

Mexico. There are some parallels between Tequila and Scotch, in drinky poos terms. They both can only be made in one country. There it sort of ends. 150 million people can work towards making Tequila, in sunshine, it’s next door to USA, Scotch Whisky’s biggest market. It’s got history, heritage, Government Ambassadors, and a burgeoning tourism infrastructure being built around around it. There’s even The Tequila Express. A bespoke, branded train that will take you round distilleries. Scotch is being left behind here.

Incredibly in 1824, the year Mexico became a federal republic, it had roughly the same population as Scotland. This was the year the Wash Act was introduced in Scotland, effectively legalising the production of Whisky in Scotland. So, we had a big start.

So while Scotch looks at the other runners and riders in whiskey/whisky and we’re still ahead by a few lengths, coming up fast, quite literally ‘on the rails’ is Mexico. There are several people who are predicting that it will be Tequila which will become the biggest spirit drink in the World. Time for Scotch to do something radical!

About The Author

Victor Brierley

The Godfather of Scotch, Independent Whisky Writer and Consultant.

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