I recently published a review of the GlenDronach Peated, and that got me thinking that there’s a major shift happening in the tectonic plate alignment of the whisky world. We’re moving away from distillery house styles to a whole new way of looking, experiencing and thinking about whisky.
The second decade of the third millennium is a fascinating time to be a whisky fan. As the industry strains to cope with unprecedented demand for whisky (in all its types, including Irish, American bourbon and rye, Canadian and “World” styles – which in whisky means European, Asian and Australian). The industry is throwing all it has into the market, but so much has been written about NAS, that I’m not going to touch that subject at all.
No, I’d like to talk about whisky regions and house styles. Riling against the concept of whisky regions isn’t new, and Oliver Klimek made a clear cut case against keeping the whisky regions back in 2011. In short, Oliver says that regions aren’t useful as there are so many distilleries in every region that defy the characterization of the region. He specifically cites Talisker as being no less an “Islay” than Lagavulin, and takes apart that whole Island region as a collection of singular distilleries. Or, if you will, take Speyside – is it the sherried sweetness of Glenfarclas, the fruitiness of Glenlivet or the light sipping of Cardhu that define the region? And how about my own pet regional “peeve” of placing an Ardmore next to a (modern) Glen Garioch and them next to a Glenmorangie. So on this matter I fully agree with Oliver, despite using the regions freely in tasting I lead…
But what has radically changed is the concept of “house style”.
It used to be that you could describe a distillery by the profile of flavors it produces. Indeed, with some distilleries, you can still do that. Take Old Pulteney as an example. All Wick expressions are unpeated, clean and somewhat briny, with most of the differences between the various expressions being due to age and sherry/bourbon cask combination. Yes, there have been releases matured in casks that previously held peated whisky, but there has been no change in the distillate itself. In this grouping of ‘single style’ distilleries we can put Glen Garioch, Glenfarclas, Dalmore (sans the E150a), Oban, Talisker, Glenkinchie, Glengoyne, Benromach, Deanston, Aberlour, Highland Park and some of the classic Islay distilleries (Laphroaig, Lagavulin, Ardbeg, Bowmore and Kilchoman), to name just some. These distilleries have a single type of liquid coming off the stills, and variations start in the cask.
On the other hand, there are distilleries who have no ‘house style’ in the first place (or shall we say that they have ‘multiple styles’), rather building more than one brand. For years, Springbank has been producing three different whiskies in the same stills: The heavily peated Longrow is distilled in the traditional double distillation, Springbank is more mildly peated and is distilled 2.5 times (meaning that some of the spirit gets a third distillation) and Hazelburn is triple distilled from unpeated barley. Similarly, Tobermory produces two distinct brands, a trend which is becoming common in the industry, with the likes of Tomatin’s Cù Bòcan, Bruichladdich’s Port Charlotte and Octomore, Edradour’s Ballechin and Tomintoul’s Old Bellantruan. I’m going to roll BenRiach into this category, since it has three distinct lines of whisky (regular, peated and triple distilled), although they’re all bottled under the BenRiach name.
The whisky industry used to be divided squarely between these two prototypes of producers, with the vast majority of distilleries having their own house style that could be described in a few basic words. Take Glenfarclas, for example, described as floral, sweet, sherried and lightly spicy or Laphroaig with its classic oily, peaty and medicinal flavors.
Here, however, come in the third type of distilleries, let’s call them the ‘diversifiers’. The diversifiers are distilleries with a traditionally distinct “house style”, who dabble in a different style (mostly unpeated house style distilleries making peated expressions) to get ‘a piece’ of the other market. The original diversifier is, of course, Caol Ila, which produces quite a bit of unpeated whisky for Diageo’s blending needs, eventually making a yearly cask strength release as one of the two readily affordable special releases. Recently, however, it seems like everybody is making peated whisky. Of course, when I say ‘recently’ I do take into account that the whisky for these releases was distilled several years ago, sometime up to a decade and a half ago, placing these decisions a few years into our current epoch, I term geologically ‘the Singlemaltican‘.
Thus, we have Bunnahabhain making both peated and unpeated whisky, AnCnoc has seven (!) peaty expressions comprising nearly half of their range, and many distilleries have one peated expression, like the GlenDronach Peated, Scapa – forever the ‘other’ Orkney distillery – Glansa, Jura’s Superstition, Glenglassaugh (in line with the other BenRiach distilleries) released the Torfa, Macallan’s Rare Cask Black, Glenfiddich Vintage Cask, Tomintoul has the Peaty Tang – placing it in two categories at once, with Old Bellantruan as a separate brand, and the soon to be released Balvenie Peat Week, bottling whisky that’s very clearly intended to strike at the heart of the things that make aficionados go weak in the knees. It’s age stated (with a vintage, a la Knockando), non chill filtered, relatively high ABV (48.3%) sure to hold more flavor, and the novelty of truly peated Balvenie (as opposed to the peated casks used in a few experiments in the 17 year old releases, namely the IslayCask and the Peated Cask). Also, calling it “Peat Week”, distilled on the 37th week of the year (which comes out in early to mid September), with a 2002 vintage promises a yearly release (with the vintage possibly even making it collectible).
Distilleries don’t like to disclose their plans, but I suspect this category will be growing, with many more distilleries trying to find their place in this market.
What does this look like for many smaller players? For some, it’s about carving your place in the category, educating consumers through a comparison with your direct competitors. Consider this “here’s where we fit in” graphic from AnCnoc, a player that was not part of the peated arena at all:
For others, mostly independent bottlers less concerned with specific brands than with their own umbrella brand, it might take on the shape of selling a style of whisky, a flavor profile, rather than a specific distillery, as the SMWS has been advocating for the past two years or so, first with the “clans” and now with the profiles, going all the way as to putting color codes on the bottles themselves:
Chris Anderson brought the term ‘long tail’ into common use in an article in Wired in 2004. In short, he claims that in today’s market, where there is an abundance of information and choices, and consumers will be looking for niche products and that a strategy of getting a small piece of a market rather than trying to dominate it may be the way to go in markets with wide product variation. This is, indeed, what we’re seeing now, with more and more distilleries doing away with ‘house styles’ to be part of everything happening in the whisky market. On the one hand, this is a smart business strategy. On the other hand, might it affect the novel idea of “favorite distillery” (come on, we all have one….or a dozen), shifting us to becoming ‘whisky profilers’….
Indeed, we live in interesting times!