Comment - Spirits - Flavoured whisk(e)y: A Spirited Move
Our whisk(e)y specialist, Ian Buxton, has had his head turned this month by a glut of flavoured whiskies. Or, 'spirit drinks', if you're a European.
"The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak." That may just sum up the attitude of the Scotch whisky industry when confronted with the growing flood of flavoured whiskies or, to be correct, ‘spirit drinks’.
That, if you didn’t know, is what the EU and the whisky regulations would have us call them though, when you see brands such as Jim Beam Honey and Bushmills Irish Honey, you’d have to look twice to tell them apart from the parent brand. The bottle and label clearly reference the original and are designed to appeal to fans, albeit such products are destined mainly for the US.
European law is absolutely clear. Once you add flavourings to Scotch whisky, or indeed any whisky as defined in the EU Spirits Regulation, that product is no longer Scotch whisky or whisky; it is a new product based on Scotch whisky or whisky and must be described and labelled accordingly. And that, according to the romantics in Brussels is a ‘Spirit Drink’.
Sounds classy, doesn’t it?
But, that doesn’t appear to worry Diageo (Bushmills Irish Honey), Beam (Jim Beam Black Cherry and Jim Beam Honey) or Brown-Forman (Jack Daniels’ Tennessee Honey). Smaller producers such as Phillips Distilling (Revel Stoke Spiced Whisky from Canada) and even Spencerfield Spirits (Sheep Dip Amoroso Oloroso) are also getting in on the act. Clearly, they see a market opportunity, not a line extension too far that is going to damage their brand equity.
So, why are the Scots so coy? After all - although occasionally it does seem to be getting a little silly - this trend to flavour has also worked in rum and vodka.
The more extreme manifestations of the trend excepted, where’s the harm if consumers are looking for experimentation and innovation? And, if they don’t care for it, it can be quietly withdrawn and forgotten.
That was the fate, after all, of Edrington Group’s experiment with Jon, Mark & Robbo’s Easy Drinking Whisky Company and their Smooth Sweeter One, a blend of Cooley’s Irish malt and Bunnahabhain, whisky’s answer to the Titanic. But, although easy drinking turned to slowly sinking, you’ve got to give them credit for trying.
References to flavouring whiskies in Scotland, especially with spices and dried fruits, abound in the literature and could easily be resurrected if marketing demanded the requisite measure of authenticity. ‘Traditional practice’ has proved to be a flexible and accommodating criterion but the heritage lobby would surely be satisfied with a provenance that can be dated back to G. Smith’s recipe of 1725 for Fine Usquebaugh.
There’s no shortage of honey in Scotland and there seems little reason why what works for Bourbon and Irish whiskies couldn’t benefit Scotch. Could it be that the current boom in demand for whisky, with the price for new fillings soaring upwards, has made life a little too easy for Scotland?
We’ve seen Ginger Grouse served on tap and Compass Box have their Orangerie ‘whisky infusion’, but nothing yet capable of addressing the challenge and opportunity of the giant US market for whisky. Clearly Beam, Bushmills and Jack Daniels see an opportunity.
So, how long can Scotch producers ignore this apparent gap in the market? How long before we see a Chivas Regal Spiced or a J&B Honey?
Perhaps it’s time for the Scotch whisky industry to turn to its Bible. After all, as Sampson reminds us in the Book of Judges 14:14 “out of the strong came forth sweetness”,
Scotch is undoubtedly strong. Can it now show us its sweeter side?
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