The whisky world is changing – it’s time others caught up

Whisky commentator Colin Hampden-White takes issue with wine writer Andrew Jefford’s depiction of the whisky ‘magi’

Words by Colin Hampden-White

Man holding glass of Bowmore whisky
Photo by Martin Scott Powell

As someone who spends a good deal of time reading, writing, talking about – not to mention consuming – Scotch, I would probably be considered part of the whisky cognoscenti pinpointed by Andrew Jefford in his ‘tips for wine lovers whose heads are turned by whisky’, published here last month. In his counsel, Andrew accuses the whisky ‘magi’ of having ‘sanctified’ a certain type of Scotch for ‘whisky beatitude’ – single malt, ideally single-cask bottlings of ‘multitudinous finishes and aged rarities’. It’s an outdated view.

The proportions of my professional reference points are the inverse of Andrew’s. I am a professional whisky communicator, but also a huge wine lover. I chair the Circle of Wine Writers, and still write a great deal about wine; and I can tell Andrew that the days of whisky purists considering blends to be somehow lesser fare than single malts are well and truly over – particularly in the face of such vaunted blends as ChivasTribute to Honour (which sells for as much as $240,000) or Diageo’s £100,000 Diamond Jubilee. Further down the scale there is a plethora of premium blends, from Pernod Ricard’s Royal Salute to Johnnie Walker’s Blue Label. These expressions are enjoyed by single malt lovers as much as anyone, who appreciate the complexity of their creation.

Acclaimed blends include Chivas’ Tribute to Honour and Diageo’s £100,000 Diamond Jubilee

Rather than being elitist, the attitude of whisky purists has changed to encourage new enthusiasts of all types. The days of bartenders advocating strict ways to drink whisky and insisting upon the need to take single malt neat are over. I would never want a wine lover to be daunted by high-strength whisky, so I agree with Andrew that adding water is a good idea – and if you asked the “whisky Magi” today, they would likely say the same. Indeed I would advocate adding as much water as you wish, to suit your taste (though don’t forget that most single malt ranges, at 10 or 12 years old, come in at 40% ABV – so anyone who has enjoyed a good Martini will be very familiar with how they react to high-strength spirits).

Whisky in the 1980s was not a particularly popular drink. While many people still drank Scotch, it was is no way, shape or form trendy. All that changed in the late 1990s, when a new breed of whisky drinker emerged. This consumer sought rare single malts and even single cask offerings – something the industry duly noted and promoted accordingly.

Whisky barrel
Whisky may have a romantic, nostalgic image but it is attracting a more contemporary audience, says Hampden-White. Photo by Martin Scott Powell

It’s your whisky, drink it however you like

It became clear by the mid-2000s, however, that if whisky’s appeal was to grow further, it would have to be introduced to the mainstream market – and that by keeping whisky exclusive and elitist, this would never happen. From that point on, the whisky industry changed its tune, and the tartan, bagpipes and cask-strength whisky had to step aside. There was a new message to anyone keen to newcomers asking how the spirit should be drunk: “It’s your whisky, drink it however you like”.

The idea was for people to experiment, to try blends, single malts, in whatever format they liked. The whisky geeks were still there, and they still drank whisky the way they liked it, but they respected the position of new drinkers. They even enjoyed some of the ideas that came forward, with the likes of the Smokey Cokey – a blend of Lagavulin 16-year-old with cola – being born.

Glen Moray Cask filling
The author (centre, left) in front of the camera for The Three Drinkers at Glen Moray distillery

This change has accelerated in the last decade. Having presented many whisky shows and tastings, and edited a whisky magazine, I now make TV about whisky. The industry’s idolisation of single malts has utterly changed – and rightly so. Ninety per cent of the whisky sold around the world is blended whisky. The majority of whisky created goes into blended whisky. The distillers need blended whisky. Single malt is simply a complement to these whiskies.

This has all taken place as the industry tries to educate its staff, ambassadors and, in turn, the public in a more balanced way than back in the 1980s. At all levels, it is about teaching. This starts from the top, with the brands and their ambassadors, stories and advice, and thankfully filters down to the cognoscenti, who pick up the mantra and pass it on to new drinkers.

Where the industry is moving forward more slowly is in the arena of diversity. I’ve heard – and seen – many examples of sexism in the whisky world. I’ve been at drinks shows accompanied by female friends who are ignored by brand ambassadors and barmen. On the flipside, I’ve seen customers asking female bartenders whether they even like whisky. I believe these attitudes are changing. If the industry continues on its path of change, in marketing to a more diverse audience, one hopes these attitudes will also fade away and whisky can truly become a rich, diverse and inclusive community – and continue to prosper because of it.