The biggest flavour change in the whisky world in the last ten years has been a move away from smooth whisky, and a move toward whisky with character.
To start, there is really nothing smooth about whisky. At 40% ABV or more, whisky is a rough drink that needs care and attention. Like spice, it’ll burn until your palate acclimates. The biggest complaint against whisky by non-whisky drinkers is that burn.
In its infancy, what we now know as whisky was a rough drink. The spirit was aged by incident when it was transported and stored in barrels, a common practice at the time for many products. Today’s whisky is aged with purpose.
Vodka's Affect on Whisky Styles
Marketing 101 tells us to take the negative, and turn it to a positive. This became especially true with the popularity of vodka. Eddie Russell, Wild Turkey’s Co-Master Distiller, mirrored this sentiment in an interview whsky.buzz did with him last month: “In the 60s and early 70s when vodka came around, people tried competing with vodkas. They started taking out the ryes out of the mashes.. made it lighter. They started making it younger. I can remember when they went from 100 (proof) to 96, then 90, then 86, and finally 80.”
Today, though, vodka is out. Meanwhile whisky makers are getting back to basics with higher-proof whiskies, and they’re getting better at making more flavour-forward whiskies.
The growth in the luxury whisky market is primarily focused on whisky with character, higher ABV, more flavour, and more peat (for the peated whiskies). Bourbons are big and oaky, and Canadian whisky is focused on oaky and high-rye notes, while Islay scotch continues to push the peat factor. Distilleries in Scotland are ‘finishing’ their scotch in all sorts of barrels, from port to wine to anything else to punch our taste buds with more flavour.
When I run whisky tastings, there’s often a group of people that are new to the whisky world. I encourage them to drink their whisky straight, without water or ice, to get a flavour for what whisky tastes like on its own.
An interesting thing happens when new whisky drinkers have their whisky straight. Those cheaper products taste about the same as they remember them—one note, not entirely fun to drink. The more expensive sipping whiskies are not without harshness, they often contain even more alcohol by volume, but there’s flavour there to reward the tastebuds.
Palates are adjusting. With the enjoyment of higher proof and flavour-forward whiskies comes the appreciation of what’s inside the glass.
Flavoured Whisky Is The New Beginner Whisky
It used to be that we would recommend Basil Hayden and Balvenie DoubleWood to first time whisky drinkers. At a lower alcohol percentage, they have popular notes that newcomer to the whisky world enjoy. It seems, though, that today’s gateway whisky are flavoured whiskies. These are the whiskies that are attracting non-whisky drinkers.
Are they smooth? Well, maybe. They’re really sweet, certainly. The point being, they offer all the social benefits of drinking whisky without any of the harshness. While Fireball is clearly the winner in this category, there is a premium market setting up with products such as Knob Creek Smoked Maple Bourbon. It’s sweet, certainly, but there is bite to it at 45% ABV.
While the super-premium whisky market is showing promise, American flavoured whiskies have seen the most growth. It’s to the point where Scotland is looking to get in on the game.
So What About Smooth Whisky?
I have no doubt that smooth whisky will continue to sell well, but the premium market is being led by whisky with character. Calling a whisky smooth is giving it that pat on the head, saying “You tried there buddy! Good for you!” But when it comes to sipping whisky, give me something that perks the palate up and has an opinion on what whisky should taste like.