Americans seems to be ignoring claims that the world’s best whisky isn’t Scotch.
A handful of new Scotch whiskies is hitting liquor shelves ahead of the holiday season, with some at exceptionally high prices. The new liquors are coming to market at a time when Americans are consuming more brown spirits — lingo for American bourbon and other whiskeys.
Scotch whisky (spelled differently than American whiskey) in particular is having its moment stateside. Sales of the priciest Scottish whiskies climbed 128% between 2008 and 2013, according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States. That growth exceeded the gains reported for pricey vodkas, tequilas, and American whiskeys.
And while recent headlines suggest Scotch could be losing some of its luster (not one Scotch made the top five of the influential Whisky Bible 2015), Scotch experts say the whisky has established broad appeal in recent years. The drink is gaining ground with the influential Millennial crowd and Hispanics while courting more women than ever in the U.S.
“There is a whisky for everyone, and I happen to believe that Scotland produces some of the best whisky in the world and has done so for hundreds of years,” said Richard Varga, master of Scotch at Pernod Ricard, a well-known maker of Scotch whiskies.
Still, liquor executives say that Millennials are moving away from vodka-based martinis and cosmopolitans and instead are favoring brown spirits, and much of that trend has favored American whiskeys — bourbon and Tennessee whiskey, in particular. But Scotch is also riding along that wave.
“Five to ten years ago, the Scotch consumer was predominantly male, somewhere between the ages of 35 and 55, and Single Malt was kind of a ‘status’ that meant something in their lives,” said Stephanie Ridgway, a brand manager for Highland Park Scotch. Single Malt, one of five categories of Scotch, is a whisky distilled at a single distillery
While that core consumer — a man that would order a Scotch with a steak dinner, or on a golf course — still exists, there are new customers interesting in premium-priced Scotch. That new Scotch customer — mostly late twenty and early thirty-somethings who crave quality and specific flavors — doesn’t always rely on a drink’s vintage to say which whisky has the best taste.
One of the biggest challenges that Scotch makers and their brand marketers still face is the fact that many Americans remain confused about what Scotch is. For the record, it’s a distilled spirit made in Scotland from cereals, water and yeast, according to the Scotch Whisky Association. Regulations set in 2009 define five Scotch categories, including “Single Malt” and “Blended Scotch.”
“There is still a fair way to go with Scotch [education], but it is going in the right direction,” said Naren Young, a mixologist at New York City eatery Bacchanal. “Cocktails have opened the door for Scotch in a big way. Some great old school cocktails are coming back, and that’s helping the category.”
Here’s a look at six new Scotch whiskies (note: Some are widely available, while others are exceptionally hard to find).
Glenlivet 50, $25,000
This 50-year-old single malt Scotch has matured in a cask since 1964, several years before the first man walked on the Moon. The aging process gives it complex flavors, including hints of dry fruits, plum, molasses and licorice. The decades-old whisky was selected by the great-grandson of Glenlivet’s founder, George Smith. The Smith family is no longer involved with the distillery and hasn’t been for decades. So this Scotch retains some of its historical roots. Only 100 bottles will go on sale. Glenlivet had never released a 50-year Scotch before, although the company says the “Vintage 1964” will be the first in a biennial series. “We plan to launch a vintage ’66, ’68, and ’70,” said Pernod Ricard’s Varga. “There is some affinity to owning a Scotch that was made the same year [a person] was born.”
Macallan Rare Cask, $300
The Macallan Rare Cask has vintage, as the whisky is pulled from different casks at various ages to obtain a certain flavor, color and profile that whisky maker Bob Dalgarno wants to achieve. “What Bob is looking for here is quintessential Macallan,” said Paul Ross, chief executive of Edrington Americas, the owner of The Macallan and other spirits brands. Ross said interest in The Macallan Rare Cask, which first became available in October, has moved beyond the traditional single malt whisky crowd and is winning some traction with Hispanics. “It is being consumed in a more social environment, with a broader reach even though it is higher priced,” Ross said.
Dewar's 15, $50
Dewar’s 15 year aged blended whisky is a limited edition Scotch that hit shelves in October, and will be available only until the end of January. It is the first time Dewar’s is selling a 15-year-old Scotch, and the company claims it is one of the few blended whiskies in the U.S. with that vintage. “It is a nice treat to explore what Dewar’s blends are capable of,” said Gabriel Cardarella, national brand ambassador. “For the 15 year, you get coconut, pineapple, more exotic fruit and more full-bodied than the 12 year.” He said the whisky is for the Scotch aficionado looking for “a story to tell” and, as a limited edition, it is mostly meant for gift-giving or for saving for a special occasion.
Haig Club, $70
Haig Club will reach store shelves in early December in the U.S. The Single Grain Scotch, made by Diageo and developed with former soccer star David Beckham and entrepreneur Simon Fuller, comes in a blue glass bottle that Diageo said was inspired by a tradition of blenders using blue tasting glasses so the spirit can be judged on aroma and taste alone. The whisky, which has a butterscotch tropical fruit flavor as well as some spicy notes, is meant to appeal to people who are just starting to try their first whisky as well as those who have loved the spirit for some time.
Mortlach 25, $1,000
After decades of Mortlach’s production being used almost exclusively for blended Scotch, its owner, Diageo, is pivoting by bringing three new blends to the market that will give the whisky made at the distillery a chance to shine. Previously, Diageo had only sold a very limited quantity of Mortlach Single Malt Whisky but that’s changing this year with the launch of the 25 year, by far the priciest, and two others. The 25-year Scotch mixes roasting spices with dense layers of sweetness, Diageo says.
Highland Park Dark Origins, $80
Edrington CEO Ross insists, not surprisingly, that the price his company set for Dark Origins is “reasonable for someone looking to have a few high quality single malts in their liquor cabinet.” The whisky was aged in twice as many sherry oak casks than the traditional Highland Park 12, a method that gives the whisky a darker color and a richer flavor. The color is also 100% natural, Ross said, avoiding a “chill filter” method used for many whiskies that is purely used for cosmetic reasons.