Lifestyle: Year of the Connoisseur

The whisky industry is more dynamic now than ever. We look at the trends in the industry.

From phenol levels to cask finishes, artisan distilling and designer whiskies, there’s a trend among consumers who are showing interest in the finer details of this brown spirit.

While Irish, Scottish and American whiskeys have enjoyed long-standing popularity, countries like Japan and India are becoming major players in the premium whisky game. New markets are also starting to open up, as indicated by a study by Bank of America Merrill Lynch, which noted that India consumed over 1.5-billion litres of whisky in 2014.

Gone are the days of the “anything goes” drinker: we have entered the era of the whisky connoisseur. Judd Zusel, Rémy Cointreau’s Vice President of Marketing and Innovation, says that consumers continue to seek out artisan spirit products.

“It’s clear they want to know who made it, how it was made and the terroir of the raw materials. They want to know that people are involved in every step of the process.”

Buzzwords like ‘craft’ and ‘handmade’ have been tossed around recklessly for too long and lost their flavour. Instead, consumers are getting wiser and looking deeper into the production methods of these products.

Premium whisky brand Glenfiddich’s national brand ambassador in South Africa, Luthando ‘Jezz’ Tibini, has conducted nearly 20 000 whisky/food pairings over the past five years and points out that it is a misconception that these pairing evenings are merely about drinking. “It is about lifestyle, networking and building relationships with outlets, such as restaurants, lounges, bars and hotels.

This is where we conduct our tastings, pairings and all other forms of brand engagements,” he says. In days past, Glenfiddich was perceived as a brand for ‘old people’, but the company has been successful in drawing a lot of younger consumers to the brand.

“Whisky is an innovation game that keeps on evolving, just as customers evolve. We still have our core range, but these are the everyday expressions that define us as a brand and these speak to our everyday consumers,” Tibini adds. When it comes to whisky trends, bars, hotels and restaurants are offering great services, such as whisky cocktails served with pairing snacks and cigars.

“The best food pairing is the Glenfiddich 12 Year Old and salmon. The one compliments the other in flavour, texture and finish,” explains Tibini.

His favourite cigar pairing is the Glenfiddich 21 Year Old Caribbean Rum Cask Finish and Romeo y Julieta Exhibicion #4. “The combination gives a fruity, nutty flavour with hints of spices and sweetness.” He adds that a noticeable trend is that more women are drinking Scotch on the rocks.

At the end of 2016, Glenfiddich launched two expressions from their Glenfiddich experimental series called Project XX (pronounced Project 20) as well as the Glenfiddich IPA. The Glenfiddich IPA is finished in casks that were seasoned with Indian Pale Ale Beer created specifically for this whisky.

Heinrich Göttsche, food and beverage manager of the Protea Hotel Fire and Ice by Marriott Pretoria Menlyn, says that the Glenfiddich Rich Oak 18 Year Old is by far their bestseller, closely followed by the Glenlivet 15 Year Old and other ranges of premium whisky brands, which include Balvenie, Highland Park and Abelour.

The hotel orders whisky stock based on consumer requirements and target market. He adds that the entry of the affluent black market has had a significant impact on whisky sales. “Apart from the popular brands, hotels also need to stock a good selection of blended, Irish and American whiskeys to complement the single malts on offer.”

Drinking whisky has become a status symbol with a noticeable trend towards single malts as opposed to blends. Whisky is also no longer a drink that is enjoyed by the elite in a cigar club, but rather enjoyed by people from a variety of social spheres. More women are starting to appreciate the art and sophistication synonymous with whisky, explains Göttsche.

Whisky trends in 2017/2018

Whisky attracting a youthful crowd
Millennials love bourbon and are now drinking rye and Scotch too. Whether as a sipper or in cocktails, this new and growing appreciation for whisky amongst the younger crowd has helped jumpstart the global whisky revival. In South Africa, from Sandton to Soweto, whisky has become popular with the aspirational middle class, and it is the fastest-growing spirit in South Africa, with its growth outpacing even cider and beer. The annual Whisky Live Festival in Johannesburg and Cape Town has proven so popular that Durban has now been added to the list of exhibition venues. Co-organiser of the festival, Sian Neubert, says that there’s been growing interest from women and the 25 to 35-year-old age group.

Whisky footprint in Africa
Johnnie Walker whisky is one of the top selling brands in South Africa and Africa is one of its best whisky markets. So much so that it has launched a brand new whisky called Johnnie Walker Platinum Label. Brandhouse, a joint venture between Heineken, London-listed Diageo and Namibian breweries, has hinted at plans to take this whisky to parts of West and East Africa. Head of brown spirits portfolio at Brandhouse, Nyimpini Mabunda, says that there is a lot of activity in certain markets in Africa, such as Angola, and there are plans to extend Johnnie Walker Platinum Label’s footprint on the continent. “In South Africa, whisky is growing at three times the total market. That is about four-million nine-litre cases sold per year,” he says.

The ‘premiumisation’ of whisky
Pernod Ricard also competes in the premium whisky space in Africa with its Jameson Irish Whiskey, Chivas Regal Scotch whisky and The Glenlivet single malt Scotch whisky, among others. Research has shown that there are four whisky tiers in South Africa: The value sector (retail price of under $9 per bottle), standard sector (retail price $13 per bottle), premium sector (retail price more than $15 per bottle) and the super premium sector ($120 per bottle and more). Although every tier has shown growth, it is the premium sector, which has shown to be the most impressive. This is due to a steady rise in the middle class and whisky’s aspirational status as well as the industry’s investment in education.

Know your whisky
Classes and workshops are one way to top up on whisky knowledge and the result is smarter consumers and savvier connoisseurs across all ages and demographics. “Customer-based knowledge is skyrocketing,” says Göttsche of Protea Hotel Fire and Ice. “A few years ago, terms like ‘nondistiller producer’, ‘mash bill’, and even ‘angel’s share’ were gibberish to 95% of casual whisky drinkers. Things are changing.”

Craft distilling
Similar to the evolution of the craft beer movement, whisky has also gone that route. In South Africa, there are several small artisan distillers making whisky. Some distillers are actually buying their ‘beer’ from brewers, thus focusing their efforts primarily on distilling and ageing. Because this industry is still young, so are many of their whiskies.

Designer whisky
Some distillers are making tiny quantities of time-intensive, high-cost and high-quality whiskies. They are using the finest wood, the best barley, the purest water and carefully monitor them through each phase of their production life – but with a price tag to match.