The world’s new whisky frontiers
First published in Prestige Magazine (February 2012 edition).
Five years ago I happened upon a bottle of Armorik, a Breton whisky, whilst travelling about in France. My paternal line hails from Brittany so I bought it for my father on a lark. It was a bit young, but very promising. Three years later acting on a cue from whisky reviewer Jim Murray I bought the delicious Amrut Fusion. I’d always regarded Indian ‘whisky’ as a bit of joke, but this gave me cause for pause. I’ve since meandered my way (I feel compelled to add: at a responsible pace) through half-a-dozen Japanese, a Tasmanian, a few Swedish, and, of course, some of the local fare, and in the process it has gradually become apparent to me that whisky – or more specifically good whisky – is no longer an exclusive preserve.
Whisky was created by the Irish, who called it “uisgebeatha”, meaning ‘the water of life’ in the Gaelic of that era. From there it migrated to Scotland first, and then to North America. These places to me represent the ‘big three’ of whisky, the areas from whence it became known to and loved by the world. The Irish and Americans (with a few exceptions) called their product whiskey whilst the Scots and Canadians stayed with the original spelling. This is just semantics but it is nonetheless symbolic; as the craft evolved in its various homes, each place added its own expression to contribute to the evolution of a spirit that is in my opinion unparalleled in variety and complexity.
Today this conclusion holds true on a multitude of new frontiers. Whisky has captivated the world’s imagination – exports of Scotch whisky alone have increased almost six fold in volume since 1969 – and this in part has inspired the new genesis. As Mark Twain once said “too much of anything is bad, but too much good whiskey is barely enough”. It’s a popular consensus in which consumption is only part of the story. Increasingly whisky is being produced in territories with which it has little or no traditional connections. Brittany and Wales might claim a common Celtic heritage and England, India, South Africa and Australia retain the loose bonds of a shared colonial past, but the phenomenon is bigger and wider. Whisky is being distilled to acclaim in Japan, in Taiwan, and all over Europe.
In Germany the Höhler distillery, which makes whisky in various styles, has added to whisky’s etymological individualism, labelling its product “whesskey” as a nod to Hesse, the region in which it is located. I see it as something of a standard bearer for these emerging producers, but then again I’m a nit-picking fanatic when it comes to the details of language. More importantly, along with new spelling, the new territories have also introduced exciting new flavours and interesting new customs to the world of whisky. Japan, which is at the forefront of the charge, and which has made an enormous impact, is a striking example. Whilst the climate, the types of barley and yeast, the water, and the nuances of their crafting process all support the uniqueness of Japanese whisky, it is the employment of Japanese oak, imparting an intense aromatic influence, which is their most tangible contribution to the lexicon. Culturally they also ushered in the mizuwari, a drink in which ice and water is mixed with a very precise thirteen and half stirs – simple but the bastion upon which their whisky-drinking ethos is built. I recently had the privilege of enjoying a Nikka from the Barrel mizuwari with ice-balls…perhaps a subject for another time.
A decade or so ago any whisky that wasn’t Scotch, Irish or North American was a novelty, a peculiarity, even a bit of an aberration. The entrenched whisky drinker of my parents’ generation wouldn’t give it any serious consideration. But these perceptions are changing exponentially. The quality of these new whiskies is being universally acknowledged. The names Yamazaki, Yoichi (both Japanese) and Kavalan (Taiwanese) to name but a few are being spoken with the same respect as the most premium of the traditional marques, and are winning awards and topping blind tastings with metronomic regularity. Distribution in South Africa is sketchy but, for motivated whisky lovers, many of these brands are already intermittently available, and there’s no doubt that they’ll become ever more readily available in the future. This may be the first time you’ve heard about whesskey but I’ll wager it won’t be the last. May the dram be with you!