While Paul Varga Chairman and CEO of Brown-Forman, which produces Jack Daniels, is encouraging the Scottish whisky industry to embrace flavoured whisky, this particular salmon will continue swimming upstream. There is no doubt in my mind that the current trend which sees a handful of flavoured spirits, passing as whisky, will be commercially successful, JD Honey already is. Perhaps not as successful as flavoured vodka became but nonetheless it will in all likelihood be received favourably by the market and it is even more certainly the worst thing that could have happened to the industry. To begin with
It Is Not Whisky
To quote a drunk friend friend of mine “I dunno what they’re thinking but it isnae uisqe beatha”, and that’s not bias it is a legal observation, EU law states quite clearly that no ingredients except caramel colouring and water can be added to Scotch whisky meaning that these artificially flavoured offerings cannot presently be sold as whisky this side of the pond.
While Scotland has long been using whisky as a base for flavoured drinks such as Drambuie, marketing stories taking this tradition back to the forty-five, these are considered liqueurs not whiskies. Yes these are made from the fermentation of grains such as barley but regardless these offerings are not sold as whisky, in part because of the protected status of whisky and the ongoing efforts of the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) to keep it so. While this seems unlikely to change at least for now the power of the American spirits industry is not to be discounted and its reach outwith Scotland and the EU is another matter entirely. Ultimately they may well impact on the perception or understanding of the consumer, much as they have confused American consumers already.
Whisky Isn’t Flavoured
If you’ve read Heather Greene’s fantastic Distilled you’ll know she picks up on this topic as one of her most frequent points of confusion. For now that wave of confusion seems largely limited outwith the UK but my own personal experience tells me that whisky knowledge is pretty limited even in my own beloved Scotland.
When we talk about the aromas and flavours of our favourite whisky we’re not referring to synthesised or artificially infused flavours in the same way that vodka or gin might be. Instead the flavour comes from the wood, the wood contains naturally occurring oils such as vanillins, Oak Lactone, Lignins etc. For example when Hemicellulose breaks down in alcohol it creates nutty, creamy and caramel notes and flavours, similarly lactone creates sweet coconut aromas. You can find more information on the process over at Whisky Science but suffice to say when a whisky, or whiskey is properly aged it doesn’t need to have flavour added.
Is Flavoured Whisky A Passing Phase?
Personally I hope so but I suspect not. While Google trends suggests a decline in global search is already upon us I can’t help but think that the public often want what the public get, and since these sugary spirits aren’t technically whisky anyway the time between creation and profit is likely to be very short and quite appealing to new distilleries and old alike. Despite the shift in search of late it might be to much to hope this phase passes quickly.
My problem with flavoured whisky is that at best they confuse the issue and the consumer, at worst by using the term whisky they mislead the consumer. These spirits might be made with barley but that’s where the similarity ends. The world of whisky is a rich, vibrant and exciting one full of complexities and contradictions, the same cannot be said for honey or cinnamon whisky.
The tragedy is in the number of people who will likely be sidetracked by the misunderstanding these drinks foster, discovering the wonderful world of whisky, the cornucopia of exciting expressions was one of the best things that ever happened to me. The flavoured whisky question, much like the Bourbon myths only serve to limit how far we search.