Thursday, January 27, 2011

SMS. The Straw That Stirs The Drink.

I have been thinking a lot lately about how single malt scotch is the straw that stirs the drink of the entire whiskey category.

In 2010, 47,093,000 cases of whiskey were sold in the United States. (New DISCUS Data, released Monday.) Just 1,281,000 of those cases, less than 3%, were single malt scotch, yet that’s what people want to talk about, that's what dominates the general and enthusiast media, that’s what gets consumers and the trade excited, and (not coincidentally) that’s what produces everybody’s highest per-unit profits.

Mind you these are just the U.S. stats, but we are the world's largest whiskey market. Less than half of the whiskey we drink is whiskey made here, 44%. Another 34% comes from our friends to the north. The rest, 22%, comes from the whiskey motherlands of Scotland and Ireland. The smallest piece of that is single malt scotch.

Yet that is what whiskey enthusiasts care about. There are many good reasons for this and I'm not complaining. It's not a bad thing. It's a great thing. I drink single malt scotch, I love single malt scotch, I just happen to be a little more interested in whiskey subjects other than single malt scotch, American whiskey in particular. That makes me an oddball in the world of whiskey enthusiasts and whiskey writers, which may give me a unique perspective. (It must be good for something.)

I am also very interested in America's young microdistillery movement. I think American microdistilleries have the potential to make the American whiskey landscape a lot more interesting, in the same way that Scottish single malts are such an outsize part of what makes whiskey in general so interesting. It's not a perfect analogy because what keeps the single malt distilleries in business is a combination of what they sell as singles and what they sell to blenders, and I don't see a parallel to that evolving here.

On the other hand, bourbon and Tennessee whiskey aren't exactly analogous to Scottish blends. It's a completely different paradigm. You can't compare Johnnie Walker to Jack Daniel's and if you always look at American whiskey through a scotch prism you'll always see a distorted picture.

This potential to be American stir-straws is what the buyers of Hudson and Stranahan's must see. If American micros can build their business on a combination of great products, local pride and fun tourism, I can see parallels and how in not so many years microdistilleries could be an integral part of the U.S. whiskey scene, not for their sales volume but for intangible benefits similar to what Scottish single malts provide now.


Greg said...

Chuck - informative post. I recently made the comment to David Perkins at High West about the American Single Malt void and he commented that he has distilled and is currently maturing a single malt whiskey (not peated). I believe the first iteration will be "Silver" and released later this year (it will be a young malt whiskey). I'm very interested in the micro distilleries and the potential they bring to the future of American whiskey.

Anonymous said...

Yes, very interesting! Thirty years ago, a micro distillery movement developed on the West Coast. But distillers made brandy, not whiskey. Then the movement ran out of steam. Some of the distilleries closed, and you hear little about those that remain. (Clear Creek in Oregon is an exception.) So it will be interesting to see how the current generation of micros develops. Of course, whiskey is much more popular than brandy, and most new micros are making whiskey.

Speaking of whiskey, I was surprised to see that 50% more Canadian whiskey is sold in the U.S. than scotch and Irish combined. Most liquor stores I go to have very little shelf space devoted to Canadian whiskey. This is even true in Buffalo NY where Canadian beer is very popular. So who is buying up all the Canadian whiskey?

Tom Troland

Chuck Cowdery said...

Canadian whisky is very big in the northern Midwest.

Cheryl - Delaware Phoenix said...

Scotch as a category I think does well for a number of reasons. The category itself is broad, with many subcategories. And while those subcategories can be very different, it all falls under the umbrella of Scotch. So even if you're drinking Clan MacGregor, you can feel that you're tasting a bit of the old country.

American whiskey suffers a bit in this area, because whiskey as a category just isn't an interesting name, it's too broad. And the government regulations in force after March 1, 1938 to distinguish between bourbon stored in new charred oak barrels vs. used or uncharred barrels vs unaged in any kind of barrel has created narrow categories that the customer doesn't understand. (Similarly for rye whiskey, etc.) And it's much harder to create an interesting bourbon (or rye whiskey etc) category when all you can talk about is the effect/flavor of the oak.

It's like if the Scotch had said that you'd have to age a Scottish whiskey distillate in sherry casks for it be called Scotch. It used to be that a lot of Scottish whiskey was made from corn, now it's made from wheat. But no one is complaining that it's not Scotch anymore.

Is this making sense?

I think there will be interesting whiskies made by small distilleries, but it may end up being called whiskey on the label because the TTB either doesn't have a category name for it, or that whiskey distilled from rye mash and aged in 100% used barrels is simply too burdensome.

I also think the single malt enthusiast might not be as interested in American small distillery whiskies except when they make an actual single malt.

In the interest of full disclosure, I operate a small distillery, but make no claim that what I make is interesting. That's for others to decide.

Justin Victor said...

Outstanding post Chuck. I too love SMS but had to remind myself this weekend that there are plenty of other outstanding whiskies out there. After listening to Mark Gillespie's most recent podcast I went out and purchased a bottle of Forty Creek. It is a fantastic spirit that I would recommend to any Scotch lover.

Thanks again Chuck. I love your perspectives of the whiskey world at large.