The Takeaway: 2015 Trends From This Year's Trip
It’s funny how life works sometimes. As a store, K&L has spent the last ten years focusing on single malt whisky as a category; telling our customers that the quality of the individual whiskies themselves is often better and more exciting than what you what find in a standard blend. We’ve achieved incredible success by almost completely eliminating blended whisky as a category we even carry. Yet, as we made our first stop of the 2015 tour at Compass Box headquarters outside of central London, we went with the intention of going right back to a category we’ve shunned for the better part of a decade. We wanted the help of John and his team to create a better mousetrap—a modern version of a blend, maybe even a blended single malt (without the grain whisky)—and ultimately return to where we came from; albeit with a new forward-thinking approach. You see, ideas in any industry can only remain fresh and cutting edge for so long. Eventually they’re discovered, copied, marketed, corporatized, and played out until every last drop of originality and quality can be squeezed from their life blood. Single malt whisky is hot again? You don’t say? All of a sudden the number of single malt whiskies at most boutique retailers out-numbers the blends by 100 to 1. If you needed more proof to find out just how long this gravy train is getting, look at the number of new single malt brands being cleared for release by distilleries normally reserved for blending purposes. Cragellachie, Royal Brackla, and Mortlach are now suddenly brands with their own unique portfolios, overcrowding an already-overcrowded category, thoroughly confusing and confounding those drinkers who thought they had the category mastered.
According to Glen Moore from the Glasgow Distillery group, Scotland also currently has zoning plans in the works for twenty-seven new single malt distilleries, not counting the ones we already know about. Whether they'll all be built is another story, but it does show you that there's still faith in continual growth. The revival of the category is just getting started—at least from the global corporate perspective. So how do you stay ahead of the single malt industry when the game is being inundated by more and more players? You work smaller, you move faster, you update a catchy blog every day with new information, you work directly with top consumers, and you hope that your relationships and your access help you stay one step in front of everyone else. Of course, why would you want to fight, scratch, and claw to stay ahead of the game when you can just coast, copy, and cash in on the trends that other industry professionals create? Because we care, dammit. Because we’re interested in what’s next. Because this is our life. We live to make progress, and seeing that I work in the booze industry (and I don’t see myself getting out any time soon) I’m looking to the past to make the future of booze a better place. It’s an exciting time, actually. What was once old is quickly becoming fresh, hip, and new once again. It’s all being reinvented, over and over, just like fashion in any other industry.
We’re supposed to prefer single malts over blends because we love the bolder, richer, more satisfying flavor that pure malt whisky can offer; an intensely gratifying palate beyond the capabilities of any other spirit I know of. No other distillate of any kind can achieve that level complexity and depth, with the variety of character and the versatility of style deriving from more than a decade in wood—continuing to improve year after year. However, while wandering the duty free shops at Heathrow today, looking at the 300+ bottles of single malt brands on the shelves (none of them independently-bottled, mind you), I was struck by how boring, shallow, and lacking in both character and versatility the airport game has become. It feels like a bunch of brands selling you their leftovers with fancy-packaging under the guise of exclusivity, more than it does a selection of interesting and inspiring bottles to bring back from abroad. The single cask game was once the source (and often times still is) of inspiration because you could find something untampered, unique, and in small of enough quantities that few people would bother doing anything with it. What brand is going to want 200 bottles of 41 year old Teaninich? We do, but Diageo doesn’t—it’s just not worth their time (that’s why they call it a “niche” market).
That being said, the availability of quality single barrels from independent bottlers is getting slimmer and slimmer as brands begin circling the wagons around their available stocks, while still more and more people want in on the action. It’s at the point now where some labels are willing to bottle single barrel whisky just for the sake of it. Don’t get me wrong: I think this year’s K&L crop of casks is going to be just fine, but the most exciting malt whisky we'll bring home in 2015 won’t be from a single cask. It will be a single malt blend, and it will comprise a couple of spectacular whiskies that taste 100% better when you mix them together in specific and calculated amounts. In the olden days of Scotch whisky, the skilled blending of the best tasters was seen as an art—something that separated your brand of whisky from the other would-be competitors. Today, ironically enough, many think it portrays a lack of taste. However, if flavor is what matters to you—if you’re truly all about the flavor, and not the proof, or the score, or the brand, or the label, or the box, or the rarity, or the collectibility, or the resale value, or the status that certain said bottles bring to those who run in certain circles, then you’re going to want to pay attention to what’s happening with Compass Box and other houses we’re working directly with like Michel Courvreur. Trends die when they become formulaic and played out, but everything eventually comes back around again later; hopefully better, more finely-tuned, and with a slightly modern edge. See teeny-bopper boy bands, high-waisted pants, Doc Martin boots, and deviled eggs as current examples.
All trends have their ebbs and flows, their ups and downs, their yins and yangs. When as a culture we become stodgy and conservative, a new generation of brash, loud, and unapologetic youth will always rise to counter that rigidness. When modernity goes too far and suddenly we lose our manners in the face of a touch screen, we experience a nostalgic fondness for the old ways—you know, back when people had respect and class. Look at the cocktail movement that’s been happening for the last eight years as an example. The industry was full of TGIFridays-style bars, serving bland rum with hyper-sweetened fruit juice, putting schnapps and chocolate ice cream in a blender, and looking for any way we could to make drinking fun—but at the expense of the alcohol itself. When things got too out of control, a new movement of pre-Prohibitionists vowed to get serious again about making drinks—doing things the old-fashioned way, back when people appreciated the stiffness and the inherent flavor of strong drink.
But, of course, these revolutions can also go too far. The twirly mustaches, adorned pocket watches, and fashion of the Belle Epoque are a fun gag for the moment, but they too have become passé; they’ve become the calling cards of super trendy behavior. My generation’s tramp stamp tattoo is this generation’s cursive handwriting on the forearm. The hipster sitting at the counter telling you about his Stitzel-Weller collection, once seen as cultured and educated, is soon a caricature of ridiculous pedantry. He’s just following the rules like everyone else; using a list he read on the internet to treat his perceived knowledge like some form of social currency. But that currency only lasts for so long before people lose interest and move on, and these guys are left sitting there like Uncle Rico, talking about past glories and the good old days—when they could throw a bottle of Pappy over them there mountains. Why am I bringing all this up? Because it’s all a pattern; a schematic that you can read all over the cosmopolitan landscape like Neo following the code in the Matrix. The past can and will continue to inspire us, but it will only create quality when we use that inspiration to make things better. You want better quality in your drinking? You need to ignore today’s derivative cultural barometer and look at where we’re heading. Rather than look at another version of the same old whisky, just with a higher price and without an age statement, you need to look at what people are actually doing to make things better. We visited numerous bars in Glasgow and London that were making classically-tailored cocktails without the pretense. It's becoming a necessity for any good bar to have an understanding of pre-Prohibition recipes. But it's where you take that foundation from there that matters.
So who's out there making better products? Let’s define terms here though, shall we? When I say “better”, I don’t just mean that age old dream: higher quality spirits at lower prices. That type of undercutting doesn’t necessarily equate to long-term or sustainable improvement, nor is it realistic. When I say “better”, I mean it as in: the current version was no longer getting the job done, so someone made an adjustment. Let’s look at some of the examples I saw on our most recent trip. Hine Cognac is an example of a larger brandy house realizing that the same old blends are simply not what the up and coming generation of spirits drinkers wants. Big brand Cognac is deader than dead with today’s younger generation of savvy drinkers, unless you’re ordering Hennessy at the club while gettin’ your dance on. Hine, however, has realized that they will need to adjust to this unavoidable modernity movement. It’s no longer just about making the smoothest Cognac on the market. It’s about history, authenticity, localization, information, and quality, but while looking at where the market is headed. That’s why Hine is digging through their vast stocks to being releasing single barrel Cognacs, single estate Cognacs, and single vintage Cognacs—all concepts that wouldn’t have gone over well ten years ago, but today are becoming standard fare. They’re doing multi-vintage blends as well, keeping the flavors consistent and classic, all while giving discerning enthusiasts the detailed and deeper experience they’re looking for.
And the Cognacs taste better! They’re more interesting, purer in flavor, and they vary wildly in character. I was very excited after our meeting where we tasted several single cask possibilities. What I like most of all, however, is that they’re not putting these brandies into old-timey, handwritten labels that look like they were created 100 years ago. Hine as a company was created more than 250 years ago, so history is already on their side. They have the authenticity already. I personally love their sleek and modern packaging, firmly rooting them among the more forward-thinking producers in a conservative region not known for its elasticity or creativity. Just because you’re modern doesn’t mean you’re not also classic. There’s always a black leather jacket in every major designer’s Fall fashion collection. It keeps getting reinvented, but it never loses its classic cool.
Better doesn’t just mean more options or authentic and transparent marketing. It might also mean giving spirits fans something they’re sorely lacking. While the Bay Area is noted for its superb urban distilleries—St. George and Anchor, for example—distillation has long been associated with the countryside, farming, or remote locations where zoning laws and property taxes were far more beneficial for doing business. The problem with putting a distillery in the middle of nowhere, however, is that it’s difficult for consumers to both visit and learn more about the product. Putting a great brewery or distillery in the middle of a metropolis is like giving it a major sports franchise—it’s a symbol for the community to rally around and be proud of. It’s also much more easy to visit! The number one question I get asked about visiting distilleries in Scotland usually goes something like this: Hey David, I’m going to be in Edinburgh next week for business. What whisky distillery should I visit? Uhhhhh…..are you going to have a car? Because there ain’t no whisky distilleries in Edinburgh. There aren’t any in downtown Glasgow either. With the exception of a few Lowland standouts, the vast majority of Scotland’s whisky distilleries are nowhere near its metropolitan center.
Yet, as we’re learning about today’s next generation of urban youngsters, they’re not running off to live in the suburbs like previous generations did. Rents are higher than ever, property is completely out of reach, and money is scare for many of them, but they’re adapting and changing their lifestyles as a result. They’re not having kids. They’re not putting their money into 401Ks. They’re instead spending that money on local foods and interesting booze, rather than a twelve pack and a Domino’s pizza. Going out isn't so much a luxury for this group as it is a necessity! So urban centers are growing. Many alcoholic businesses cringe at the overhead required to build a modern urban dwelling, but ask the San Francisco Giants how that’s working out for them. They took the feel of an old-time baseball park and transposed it into an architecturally-modern facility that is today considered the pinnacle of its type. I see the same type of transformation happening in Glasgow with the Morrison’s new Glasgow Distillery. They’re planning to take an historic property along the Clyde River and build a striking facade from steel and glass right next to it—juxtaposing the new and sleek with the traditions of old. It will be a distillery, a museum, a retail shop, and a convention center. It will be the new center of Scotch whisky to those hundreds of thousands of tourists who don’t have time to frolic up to the Highlands or brave the ferry to Islay. I was very, very impressed with the plans I saw for the site and the concepts that are currently being laid out. Like AT&T Park and the new Anchor facility going in soon right next to it, companies of all types are beginning to realize that the future of any business still built on an experience that cannot be digitized or downloaded is going to happen in the center of our cities. And it’s about time a Scotch whisky distillery grew a pair of balls and put a distillery where everyone knows a distillery should be: right in the center of town.
So what's happening? Blends were replaced by more dynamic single malts, only to later return in a more dynamic form themselves. Small Cognac producers united to become larger Cognac houses, only to watch those houses break themselves down once again into smaller, more quality-oriented labels. Whisky production moves from the urban landscape to the cheaper, more cost-effective countryside, only to return once again to the heart of the city. It's all a cycle, but each time a bit different than before. For the past six months I've been traveling all over the world to see what's happening with the spirits business and it seems to me like the modern momentum is growing. Ten years ago, the boutique market rejected modernity in favor of old-fashioned quality. Today, that schtick has been beaten to death. The new market wants a combination of quality, authenticity, and fun. They want better flavor from a more hands-on experience. They want information and excitement. They want big brands to have the care and quality of a small brand, and small brands to have the pricing and scale of a large brand. They want fresh ideas from old faces. They want historic tradition boxed up inside a unique and relevant perspective. In other words, they want the whole package. And there are people out there ready to give it to them.
Who else is going to step up? I'll be excited to see.