Not so long ago, your choice when ordering a whisky was between Scotch, Bourbon or Irish. Fancy pants might order something Japanese and wannabe Don Drapers a Canadian Club, but that was it for whisky-producing countries.
Today, however, you can buy good quality whiskies from Sweden, Australia, France, Holland, India, Taiwan, Wales and even England. In some ways this shouldn’t be surprising, it’s not like growing pinot noir, you can make whisky anywhere. All you need is cereal, barley in the case of single malt Scotch, and maize in the case of Bourbon but could also be wheat, oats, or rye. Then make a simple ale out of the cereal, distill and age the spirit in wood for a few years. Voila! Whisky. The basics haven’t changed for hundreds of years.
So why is it only recently that whisky has been made outside the non-traditional countries? I think there are a few reasons. Most countries have their own indigenous spirits such as aquavit in Sweden or gin in England and Holland. Making whisky requires lots of capital tied up in stock before you can make any money. But, also, throughout the 19th and 20th century, whisky, in particularly Scotch, became a heavily marketed and branded product which came to dominate the market. Why have Dave’s local whisky when you could have Johnnie Walker? The spirit business increasingly became the preserve of international conglomerates not noted for their risk taking. Furthermore, in countries such as Britain, Australia and Sweden with high duty on spirits, distilling is governed by draconian regulations. For example, it took Sipsmith, the gin distiller, two years of negotiations with HMRC to be granted a small-scale distillers licence.
The thing that has shaken whisky up first in the US and then around the world is craft beer. Many distillers come from a beer background. Once people started making their own beer they realised it was just a small step, albeit an expensive and potentially dangerous step, to making their own whisky. Adnams brewery in Suffolk now produce a range of spirits including gins, vodkas and whisky. At Starward whisky in Melbourne they bring a brewing mentality to their spirits. They use a barley variety called Baudin which they give a dark roast to.
Some of Scotch’s most important markets are now making their own product. India has a 150% tariff on imported whisky so the homegrown stuff is at a great advantage. But until recently most Indian ‘whiskies’ were made from molasses and therefore technically rums. This changed in 2004 with the launch of Amrut – the first Indian single malt. Over in Taiwan, Kavalan distillery has picked up numerous awards including in 2016 ‘World’s Best Single Cask Single Malt’ at the World Whiskies Awards for their Solist Amontillado whisky. Not bad for a company that only started distilling in 2006.
The Taiwanese, Indians and Australians have an advantage over the Scots and Irish (and indeed the English and the Welsh) in that their spirit matures much faster due to the hotter climates. Their other advantage over whisky’s old guard is that they have much greater freedom to experiment. Whereas the regulations from the Scottish Whisky Association run to a small book, the Australian rules are according to David Vitale, founder of Starward,’fermented grain mash, two years in wood and tastes like whisky.’ That’s it.
The key is to make something distinctive. Swedish distillery Mackmyra make a whisky with barley smoked over juniper. Starward age their whisky in Australian wine barrels that previously held apera (Australian sherry, but they’re not allowed to call it that any more) and shiraz to create a whisky with a distinctively Australian accent. As David Vitale puts it: ‘You can’t out Scotch the Scottish. We have to make our own traditions.’
Here are five to try on World Whisky Day (Saturday, May 20)…
Starward New World Malt Whisky (Australia) £50.55
Aged in retoasted and resized wine barrels for just under three years and then blended in solera. Smells of honey, tobacco and toffee and in the mouth there are warm spicy notes with orange blossom and leather. Tastes like a halfway house between single malt Scotch and bourbon.
Penderyn Myth (Wales) £32.25
Aged in Bourbon barrels, this is sweet and delicate, peppery with some apple-like fruity flavours. It’s a deceptive whisky in that it seems quite simple at first but will have you going back for sip after sip. This really lingers though it’s probably too delicate to mix.
Rampur Single Malt (India) £49.95
Distilled and aged in the heat of Uttar Pradesh by Radico Khaitan, one of India’s largest spirits companies. This is sweet with a creamy texture and rum-like notes of dried fruit, cinnamon and cloves.
English Whisky Co. Classic cask (England) £60.65
Distilled in Norfolk and bottled at cask strength. Very pale colour with vanilla and almonds on the nose. Light and fruity initially but big alcohol with flavours of pepper and chilli. Needs some water to bring out its subtle woody notes.
Kavalan Classic Single Malt (Taiwan) £59.45
The nose is fruity with a hint of sherry, very promising, but the taste is marvelous: floral, fragrant, spicy, and gently sweet with woody notes. Long, and complex, this is really very, very good. If I was a Japanese or Scottish distiller, I would be worried.
All whiskies available from The Whisky Exchange