Styles of Whisky
From the discussions above, we learned that the process of making whisky is relatively straightforward. And that one way we classify whisky is by the type of grain or grains used in its manufacture. Another way to classify whisky is by style. However, determining a whisky’s style is more subjective and often a case of semantics. I have elected to classify a whisky’s style based on its country of origin and the laws established by those countries to govern its manufacture, marketing, distribution, and sale.
The latter half of the twentieth century had been tough on the whisky industry. But, the industry began a slow comeback in the mid to late nineties partly due to shrewd marketing but also to a growing interest in single malt Scotch. This shift was significant since Blended Scotch has dominated the world market since the late 1800s.
However, as the millennium drew to a close, consumer tastes changed rapidly. Consumers began to place greater emphasis on product quality. But equally important was the interest in a product’s backstory. How was it made, where was it made, by whom was it made? While this was evident across the board, it had a profound impact on the food and beverage industries. The early 2000s witnessed the rise of the “foodie,” and also the rise of the whisky enthusiast. And the whisky industry is riding that wave, experiencing unprecedented growth.
Historically, Ireland, Scotland, America, and Canada, were the principal countries producing whisky for exportation as well as home consumption. While the big four have remained dominant, new players are rapidly coming on the scene. Japan burst upon the scene in the early 2000s and is now producing some of the world’s finest whiskies. In recent years, Australia, New Zealand, India, and South Africa have gained serious attention, and there is little doubt they will become major players within the decade. And with the proliferation of craft distilleries worldwide, it is estimated that as many as 35-40 other countries are also trying to establish a foothold in the whisky industry. (The dark areas on the map above represent the major whisky producing nations around the world.)
And they are gaining a very strong foothold In some markets. In Asia, for instance, Japanese whisky sales are growing twice as fast as American, Canadian, Irish, or Scotch whiskies. This competition is having a profound effect on the consumer’s perception of whisky. And some distillers are pushing the envelope and experimenting with radical new approaches to making whisky. While traditionalists may abhor this development, younger generations, many of whom are experiencing whisky for the first time, are focusing more on quality than pedigree.
DEGREE OF REGULATION
As a result, these are exciting times for the whisky enthusiast, but we must proceed with caution. Historically, the whisky industry has been a tightly regulated industry. The industry has also been vigilant in policing itself. The Scotch Whisky Association, in particular, has gone to great lengths to protect the integrity of its product.
However, the degree of regulation, legal or self-imposed varies widely around the globe. Japan, for instance, does not have a legal definition for whisky. And Japanese distillers, as well as distillers in other countries, often use whisky imported from Scotland, Ireland, the United States, and Canada when blending their whisky. The same holds for New Zealand where whisky regulations are quite lax. And India, one of the major whisky markets, has only recently turned their attention to regulating the whisky industry.
Consequently, the buyer should beware when purchasing whiskies from the emerging global market. Unfortunately, this may require more effort than simply reading the label. Quite often, the information on the label may not clearly define the product therein. Fortunately, marketing laws in the United States and the UK are stringent and offer some consumer protection.
So, before venturing into the global market for your next dram, do a little research to gain a clear understanding of what you are buying. Nowadays, distillers are producing excellent whiskies in all corners of the world. If recent industry awards are a reliable indicator, these new players at the table are, in fact, creating some of the best whiskies in the world.