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.