Cow’s milk vodka, offbeat Japanese gin, Scottish whisky distilleries coming back to life: premium spirits have never been more innovative – or popular. Brian Noone surveys an industry hitting its stride
Sipping spirits don’t yet have the cultural clout of fine wine or the ubiquity of craft beer, but it’s impossible to deny that they are having a moment. As the calendar turns toward 2018, every major category of premium spirit – whisky, rum, vodka and gin – is making its case for the international spotlight, and an array of creative new distillates are riding their coat-tails, presenting unprecedented opportunities for both collectors and connoisseurs.
First and always there is whisky. Now two decades deep into its global revival, it remains the post-prandial drink of choice for the most discerning of palates. The upcoming year will see a continued broadening of the category as distillers educate the public about the spirit’s range beyond the strong flavours of the peat smoke and bitter tannins that some drinkers adore. Demand for Irish whiskeys, for instance, which are often softer on the tongue, grew worldwide by 11.2% in 2016, the last year for which figures are available, while US-made whiskeys grew globally by nearly as much over the same period, some 10.2%.
Across the board, from Scotland to Tasmania, whiskies are united by the will to experiment. Ageing in wine casks has produced notable new results, whether it’s the Bowmore 26 Year Old Wine Matured or the Johnnie Walker Blenders’ Batch Wine Cask Blend, both of which launched this autumn. Or take The Macallan Edition No 3, which was crafted in concert with perfumer Roja Dove. Most prominent of all is the re-emergence of distilleries long gone. Ballantine’s, known exclusively for its blends, has just released a trio of 15-year-old single-malt bottles from its formerly blend-only stock from distilleries dating back to the 19th century: Glenburgie, Glentauchers and Miltonduff. Elsewhere, three distilleries that have been closed for decades are set to reopen within the next year or two: Port Ellen, Brora and Rosebank will all start producing again, with the first bottles of decent spirit becoming available in the middle of the 2020s.
The auction value of the old Port Ellen and Rosebank bottlings has been sky-high in recent years, and the reopenings likely won’t affect those prices, at least for a few years. Indeed, auction sales of whisky generally continue to climb dramatically – Rare Whisky 101, an analyst and broker, reported 94% growth year-on-year for the first half of 2017 – but it remains a highly variable asset class that is better suited to passion than profit, a perspective that is being borne out by the increasing buzz about a bubble in Japanese whisky after a brisk few years of optimistic pricing.
Elsewhere in the auction world, vintage rum is making a surge, as collectors discover that the sweetest of spirits is not without its subtleties. The rare old bottles will continue to be traded among the most dedicated enthusiasts in coming years; however the real news is not at auction houses, but in the world’s leading bars, where more aged rums are appearing on menus alongside whiskies and cognacs. The industry, almost exclusively based in the Caribbean, is waking up to the demand for nuanced spirits and is making use of existing stock to great effect, as in the Appleton Estate Joy Anniversary Blend, which carries an age statement of 25 years, or the range of venerable rums by Plantation, which for years has bought in stock from other distilleries but this year acquired its own facility in Barbados.
As rum climbs, so vodka falls – at least, it has done in recent years, tumbling 4.3% globally in 2016. But in Eastern Europe and elsewhere, makers are wising up to trends, and new releases show a prescient grasp of consumer preferences. Moving away from neutral spirits that are primarily diffused into mixes, the new vodkas are all about unique texture, refined flavour and even terroir. Belvedere has just introduced two single- estate rye bottlings, Smogóry Forest and Lake Bartężek, each hailing from a different corner of Poland, while upstart Irish distillery Kalak boasts that all its barley comes from within 100 kilometres, and English Black Cow Pure Milk Vodka is precisely what it says (the curds from the milk go towards cheese, while the whey becomes vodka) and has quickly become beloved by bartenders for its rich, creamy mouthfeel.
One spirit that’s having no trouble with popularity is gin. Experimentation here is even more pronounced than with whisky, as the distillation process allows for results much more quickly. Barrel-aged gins are being attempted, but results so far suggest that the potential for hierarchical growth is fairly limited, meaning gins will likely continue proliferating on a local level, much like craft beer. The most notable new offerings outside Britain, where a new style appears weekly, come from Japan: Suntory’s Roku and the Nikka Coffey Gin are joined by Ki No Bi from Kyoto Distillery, which imported Englishman Alex Davies to craft a few highly unusual takes on the spirit.
Back in London, April will bring the inaugural Cognac Show, a sister event to the industry-leading Whisky Show. With more than 150 cognacs to sample, the French elixir is poised for widespread reconsideration – a status that its Mexican agave-based cousins, tequila and mezcal, are similarly awaiting, with new brands and bottlings coming out of Jalisco, Oaxaca and rest of the country with remarkable speed.
But by far the most unusual trend approaching in 2018 is the non-alcoholic spirit. A paradoxical concept, it was introduced by Britain (London really is the global centre of alcohol), where you can now get a G&T-flavoured soda called “Juniper” as well as two exceptionally tasty alcohol-free spirits made by Seedlip. Distilled in a copper pot and packed with botanicals, the spirits are now appearing in locales as diverse as three-Michelin-star French Laundry in Sonoma, California and two-star &samhoud places in Amsterdam – a sure sign that spirits of all kinds, and the cocktails that make use of them, are nudging ever closer to a world where fine cocktails sit side-by-side with fine wines and fine dining.
Centurion Compendium, 2018