The publication of a book last Autumn created a serious stir amongst the whisky community. In fact, it created a stir in the wider world with issues raised and tackled by the UK and global media.
The book in question was the 2016 edition of Jim Murray's Whisky Bible, an annual release that has become the world's best selling whisky publication. Murray samples around 4,000 whiskies each year and the book is a collection of his tasting notes and personal scores. Whisky fans wait to find out his top marks and these can make brands an instant success overnight. Murray is a powerful influencer and many consumers naturally follow his recommendations. So, why the fuss this year?
The Top 5 highest scores did not include a Scotch, traditionally the world powerhouse of whisky, for the first time. The winner was from Canada, two were from America, one from Ireland and one from Japan. The winner in the previous year was also from Japan.
This article is not a criticism of those choices. Quite the opposite - it is good to see long under rated brands such as Crown Royal and Yamazaki take some plaudits. However the results spawned a series of lazy or sensationalist journalism (in both whisky media and national newspapers alike) declaring the death of Scotch whisky.
Scotland is the largest producer of whisky in the world and has traditionally been held up as being the best for years. It produces, exports and sells more whisky than any other country. Has it suddenly become worse?
I don't think so but many do, pointing the finger at the move towards the historical return to 'no age statements' in Scotch whisky to help meet global demands. What seems to be conveniently forgotten is that many non-Scotch whiskies are also released with 'no age statement', as in the case of Murray's two most recent winning whiskies.
We seem to live in a time when it is fashionable to question or rebel against large brands or products and support the smaller, craft or more obscure ones - these are often seen as more fresh, innovative and modern.
Many a self-professed connoisseur or wannabe hipster will advocate the quality of a craft beer homebrewed under a London railway arch over a more well known brand. But is the end product necessarily any better? Naturally some are, some are not. It's the same with everything, whisky included. I have sampled some lovely craft or non-Scottish whiskies but also a larger number of very ordinary ones, some almost undrinkable. It is great to have so many new, innovative and pioneering products but this does not equate to instant superior quality.
For solace, the Scotch industry should look no further than the 1990s wine industry. Many were declaring that French wine was old fashioned, complacent and finished. New World wines from Australia, South Africa or the USA were destined to take over. Consumers followed the trend and lapped up heavily oaked Chardonnays and ballsy reds like they were going out of fashion.
Now the balance has been redressed. There is enough room for everyone's products on the shelves and traditional wine producing countries such as France, Italy and Spain are enjoying a renaissance. In fact, many New World producers are now planting Old World grape varieties and using more traditional techniques.
Some say that Scotch is suffering a similar fate right now. Personally, I'm not sure this is the case - Scotch is still seen by many consumers as the pinnacle of the whisky industry in terms of quality. Part of the perceived downfall can be attributed to the greater availability of non-Scotch whiskies on the market, the explosion of craft distilleries around the world and the outgoing nature of many of these new brands.
So, is Scotch whisky dead? Or dying? In my view - absolutely not. Neither is it in the view of most of the industry. Yes, Scotch whisky faces challenges from elsewhere that previously did not exist. Yes, influential individuals have selected non-Scotch products for their awards and this has become a fashionable fad. However many awards have not, especially those that use panels of industry experts as judges and sample everything blind, and these remain strong supporters of the quality of Scotch. I know which path of opinion I would rather follow.
People continue to enjoy Scotland's finest export in ever increasing numbers around the globe, especially in emerging markets where it is seen as a major status symbol, so it seems a little premature to be writing its obituary.
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