Why single malt Scotch must ignore its core consumer - Comment

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Despite drawing criticism from certain quarters, the single malt Scotch whisky category must continue to strive for greater inspiration and innovation if it is to maintain its current trajectory, argues Neil Ridley.

The Glenlivet cocktail capsules caused uproar among single malts purists

The Glenlivet cocktail capsules caused uproar among single malt's purists

If you're partial to a cocktail - I know I am - the news surrounding Chivas Brothers' recent incursion into the world of mixed drinks will have caused you some excitement. Earlier this month, the Pernod Ricard unit's powerhouse single malt brand, The Glenlivet, revealed it has partnered with Tayer + Elementary, a new London bar helmed by internationally-renowned bartending couple Alex Kratena and Monica Berg. The duo have created something quite unexpected and out of the ordinary, in time for the annual London Cocktail Week: a series of three limited-edition edible 'cocktail capsules' using The Glenlivet Founder's Reserve as the base spirit, each one drawing on different flavour aspects found in the whisky. According to Kratena: 'The cocktail capsules are unique and push the boundaries of how drinks can be served. This is something we always look to do at Tayer + Elementary and so it felt like a natural fit."

What was also striking about the partnership is that it focuses on the wider concept of sustainable packaging for the future, working in tandem with Notpla, a start-up company specialising in creating packaging made from seaweed that is 100% biodegradable.

As a limited edition premise, the project clearly ticks all the right boxes, despite my slight misgivings about the size of the capsules - 2.3cl, which although being smaller than the standard British single measure of 2.5cl, is still quite a lot of liquid to hold in the mouth.

What I didn't expect was the almost unequivocally-negative response the capsules generated across the wider global whisky community of commentators, social media users, bloggers and consumers. As the tweets rained down (the chatter lurching from how the project was "sacrilegious" to Scotch, through to the ridiculous notion that they encouraged underage drinking and the downright absurd premise that drinkers might instead insert the capsules into different orifices other than the mouth), I started to wonder where the project had gone wrong.

In their newspaper column, a well-known wine expert continued the online bashing, pointing out how the innovative serve jarred with "the slow enjoyment of good whisky". The commentator fundamentally missed the point of the project, which focuses on the slow flavour evolution of the cocktail in the mouth, as the capsule breaks down. When a reporter for US news outlet ABC picked up the story and expressed their outrage - even bizarrely calling on Scottish Parliamentarian Nicola Sturgeon to step in - I realised just how absurdly and potentially irreparably rooted in archaic tradition the single malt category is.

Was it Chivas' provocative mention of "breaking tradition", whilst also talking about the "death of the whisky tumbler"? That probably didn't help, but still, the vitriol was entirely disproportionate.

It seems to me that when one dares suggest that single malt can be treated the same way as other dark spirits, the instant knee jerk reaction is to recoil in horror. Were this to have been a rum, a Bourbon or, even closer to home, a blended Scotch (maybe a no-age-statement whisky in Chivas' portfolio), no one would have batted an eyelid and the whole thing would have been accepted in good faith for what it is: a highly engaging, fun and flavoursome way to consume alcohol. 

The lack of acceptance in treating single malt by the same rules that apply to other dark spirits perplexes me. Instead of being viewed as an attempt to move the category forward, mixability in single malt is viewed as being disrespectful to some pompous 'high art of whisky' and the people who make it.

Single Malt? More like Single-Minded.

This is fundamentally wrong. Sit down with a great many of the master blenders and Scotch makers and they'll most likely tell you that what they distill and mature is there to create moments of enjoyment, not to underscore judgemental attitudes.

I'm reminded of the absurdity of a phrase oft uttered by an unflinching few: "The only thing that should be mixed with a whisky is another whisky." This was firmly consigned to the bin at the very start of an Old Fashioned cocktail tasting I hosted a month ago, which highlighted the versatility of Bardinet's Glen Moray range of entry level single malts. Despite rearing its ugly head by one of the attendees, the consensus was that it's patently absurd in this day and age that single malt should be treated any differently to other spirits.

Despite all this, and the regulatory structure which safeguards its creation and maturation, single malt Scotch has had its moments of great innovation. Like the case of The Glenlivet above, it's these attempts that the industry must nourish in spite of the criticism, to demonstrate just how versatile a flavour profile the spirit has, thus accepting that it is a drink for all occasions: both for contemplative times by a fireside and as something that pushes gastronomic boundaries.

This month also sees the tenth anniversary of Moet Hennessy's Glenmorangie Signet, a single malt that given the hysteria displayed recently, would have probably been thrown to the wolves in the public domain of social media had it been released today. At its heart, the whisky uses 'chocolate malt', a heavily-toasted barley, the first use of its kind in Scotch, giving a deeply chocolatey note to the finished product. 

I can still hear the anguished cries from the naysayers as they sharpened their pitchforks: "Chocolate whisky? This madness must end now!"

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