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How Scotch whisky can flash its innovation credentials - Comment

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The Scotch whisky sector has long had an awkward relationship with the research & development department. Category commentator Neil Ridley, however, believes the two sides have plenty in common - and much more than we'd realise.

William Grant & Sons launched the Glenfiddich Experimental series in September last year

William Grant & Sons launched the Glenfiddich Experimental series in September last year

Whenever I hear the word 'innovation', a small part of my mind is momentarily transported off to a gleaming white, unidentified building somewhere in the Mojave desert. The facility is flanked with security fences and armed guards, whilst lab-coated men and women hurriedly dart around inside, a look of utter disbelief etched on their Harvard-educated faces, as a life-changing 'thing' of the future is conceived. 

This fairly vivid, probably non-existent location sounds fanciful, and a million miles away from the beautiful Highlands of Scotland, yet the principle and spirit of innovation is currently at the heart of a heated discussion into the future of this very traditional spirit.

As new markets continue to welcome Scotch - particularly the news this month that China will halve the import duty levied on Scotch from 10% to 5% - the innovation departments of major Scotch brand owners are, quite rightly, looking at new ways to bring the spirit to a legion of non-Scotch drinkers, most of them from the Millennial demographic.

However, a few producers have hinted at the stifling effect that regulations have had on creativity - particularly when it comes to innovation in new product development. The battle faced by smaller companies, such as Compass Box, to document its recipes - particularly the hilariously-ironic labelling of its Three Year Old Deluxe Blended Malt (a whisky containing less than 1% malt of the age statement on the front, whilst the other, far, far older component parts went unlisted, as per the regulations) perhaps serves to highlight how out-of-kilter Scotch regulation is with the current trend towards transparency, something that will become ever-more-important when communicating with the consumers of the future.

Scotch is potentially in danger of unravelling any goodwill it may be garnering with new drinkers if it continues to shroud itself in secrecy

Whilst Scotch prides itself on preserving its centuries of tradition, it is potentially in danger of unravelling any goodwill it may be garnering with new drinkers if it continues to shroud itself in secrecy, preferring a high-handed, overly reverential approach to labelling. 

However, when it comes to innovation in flavour, I'm not so sure Scotch needs to employ the services of the Mojave scientists just yet.

As a category, the current regulations give whisky makers plenty of room to play, despite a lack of clarity in many respects. Consider the recent Glenfiddich Experimental series from William Grant & Sons, which expands on the already-vast flavour profile of Scotch by introducing new, untapped cask types (such as IPA beer and Canadian Ice Wine) to extra mature its whisky. From a regulatory perspective, this is a particularly grey area and the Scotch Whisky Association outlines that "the onus would be on [the whisky maker] to establish that that type of cask had been traditionally used in the industry and to provide evidence to that effect". The trade association goes on to say that "if, as a result of that maturation, the spirit ceases to have the taste and aroma and colour generally found in Scotch whisky, it will no longer qualify as Scotch whisky". To translate: Make your whisky bright pink or red and tasting of apples and it will cease to be Scotch whisky.

Fair enough, right?

It's all too easy to dismiss the regulations that cover flavour as being unnecessarily tight

Whilst we're unlikely to see bright green, cannabis-flavoured Scotch whiskies anytime soon (hey, it's a 'burning' issue right now), I can't help but think there's still so much to explore here from a flavour perspective, and that it's all too easy to dismiss the regulations that cover flavour as being unnecessarily tight. In any given industry, those who are the true innovators will always operate right up to the letter of the law and still flourish. Without a regulatory framework - and rum is a particularly good example here - producers and consumers will find themselves in the middle of a murky, weirdly-flavoured and deeply-inconsistent Wild West.

What Scotch can - and must - do is work on its innovation in reaching consumers with the products it already has. Last week, I inadvertently started a - shall we say - 'hotly-contested' debate concerning Whisky.Me, a new company that delivers whisky samples from a range of producers in handy pouches, direct to the consumer through their letterbox. The reaction has been terrific from non-industry media and influencers, hailing its fresh approach to attracting new whisky converts. Not so from the traditionalists, though, who believe the modern packaging mocks centuries of brand heritage. 

Given its infancy, I hope we see more support for this sort of endeavour. Did the innovative Kindle kill the paperback? No, it just made publishers create more desirable, beautiful books. The same goes for online streaming services in the music business, which are currently thriving, with traditional vinyl sales ironically at a 23-year high.  

Chinese Wine Cask Matured Macallan, anyone?


Sectors: Spirits

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