Scotch Takes a Hint from Bourbon

In the wake of Scotland's vote for independence, the country is caught between past and present more than ever. Alia Akkam considers what this break from tradition means for Scotch, and how the centuries-old industry is vying for younger, savvier drinkers.

Last month, 85 percent of Scottish citizens cast ballots in the country’s most historic—and suspenseful—referendum. The record-breaking number of voters had a big decision to make: Should Scotland remain in the enveloping fold of the United Kingdom, as it had since 1707, or finally be set free from the motherland’s imperialistic clutches in the name of political autonomy? The word secession rebelliously lingered on the lips of that swath of left-leaning folks tired of Prime Minister David Cameron’s Conservative ways, but in the end, 55 percent of the population thought it best to continue their tense, 300-year-old dalliance.

In a country where bagpipes and kilts are symbols just as potent as they were in the 1500s, and where haggis suppers commemorating poet Robert Burns are carried out with the same ceremony that they have been since the end of the 18th century, the awkward dance between progress and the past is perhaps best embodied by Scotch. This revered “water of life” has been synonymous with Scotland since the 15th century, and just as the nation is torn between its political and social future, its namesake brown spirit also hovers between two worlds.

For centuries, Scotch has been crafted in the same comforting manner. To be truly deemed Scotch, core touchstones—including being made in Scotland with water and malted barley and aged in oak casks for no less than three years—simply can’t be altered. Why tinker with a timeless formula? While a number of wine and spirits regions are pondering that question, Scotland is fast embracing a philosophy that imbues tradition with innovation.

It comes as no surprise this approach was first met with success in the cocktail world. Quality single malt Scotches abound at bars, and while mixing one with anything beyond a drop or two of water (and for some, rocks) was once deemed blasphemous, today it’s not uncommon to find the spirit in cocktail form. Revitalized classics such as the Bobby Burns, and runaway hits like New York bartender Sam Ross’s Penicillin, have helped give a spirit mired in history a boost of ingenuity.

Of all the whiskey categories, Scotch has long been the grand dame. And yes, history is on its side, but Scotch’s rigid rules and prolific catalogue have also cemented its fairy tale status. As bourbon ascended to be a distinctly American spirit, and Japan started crafting single malts, the appealing duo of quality and terroir inevitably seduced whiskey drinkers to look beyond Scotch. To attract the Millennials, who might equate it with the stuffy bottles in their grandparents’ den, Scotch brands started taking an ironic approach: looking to these other whiskey epicenters to innovate.

Dave Pickerell, who has helped spearhead U.S. appreciation for bourbon as the longtime master distiller of Maker’s Mark, thinks finishing Scotch is a smart move. “They’re running out of options,” he says of his Scottish counterparts. “You can only push the envelope so far with age—and frankly, Scotch isn’t always better when it’s older. Because they can’t flavor it, the closest they can come is finishing.” In a way, cask finishing is a response to the global movement of flavored spirits which has been led by the American market.

For starters, some forward-thinking malt makers decided to finish aging their whisky in more unusual casks, taking cues from Japanese distillers, who sometimes ferment their whiskies in barrels of native oak, Mizunara, and Americans who finish theirs in everything from chardonnay barrels to Mongolian oak.

Making Scotch doesn’t allow much room for breaking with unyielding tradition. Its flavors and hues are imparted from years’ worth of time in barrels that once housed other liquids, most often bourbon and sherry. But on the tiny island of Islay, off Scotland’s west coast, Bruichladdich gives its whisky quirky spins in old rum and cognac barrels, leaving them redolent with notes of vanilla and espresso.

Furthermore, Bruichladdich’s lighter, more floral styles are unusual to Islay. Cloaked in peat, the region largely turns out smoky Scotches. Although Bruichladdich’s Port Charlotte range fits the formula, as does its aggressively peated cult hit, Octomore, its unpeated expressions are the ones that best capture the distillery’s affinity for progress. Nearly 15 years ago, when the mothballed distillery starting making whisky again, it captured a younger demographic attracted to more delicate wines and craft lagers. “We tried different distillations, using barrels from places like Chateau d’Yquem, and it turned out we were quite innovative,” says Allan Logan, Bruichladdich’s distillery manager. That Bruichladdich shunned age statements—increasingly more common among distillers seeking flexibility—was also considered bold.

At BenRiach, where age statements are still in play, tinkering with different casks underscores the distillery’s willingness to take risks with old liquids. Consider the peated BenRiach Curiositas 10-year-old, an uncommon sight in Speyside, where more subtle, honeyed whiskies flourish. Placing whisky in dark rum, madeira, sherry and port casks has become part of their process, as well as finishing in more offbeat alternatives like Sauternes, Barolo and Tokaji. Brian Means, bar manager of the whisky-centric Dirty Habit, in San Francisco, sums up this forward-thinking approach best: “It’s a gamble for these guys to age a whisky for fifteen years and hope for the best. That definitely takes guts.”

Dave Pickerell, who has helped spearhead U.S. appreciation for bourbon as the longtime master distiller of Maker’s Mark, and current consultant to Hillrock Estate and WhistlePig, thinks finishing Scotch is a smart move. “They’re running out of options,” he says of his Scottish counterparts. “You can only push the envelope so far with age—and frankly, Scotch isn’t always better when it’s older. Because they can’t flavor it, the closest they can come is finishing.” In a way, cask finishing is a response to the global movement of flavored spirits which has been led by the American market.

The American-bred, UK-based founder of Compass Box Whisky, Jon Glaser, is most drawn to blended Scotch—a category that suffers from a notorious, if unfair, stigma of low quality. His brazen solution is to unite single malts from different distilleries.

“When I started [distilling], Scotch wasn’t cool. They were mysterious and high-handed, and blends were dying. I thought the category could grow if we presented things in a more contemporary way,” says Glaser. Inspired by wine world rule-breakers such as biodynamic pioneers Randall Grahm and Bruno Clair, Glaser realized similar unorthodox notions could be applied to whisky, opting for quality oak and a higher percentage of malt to grain for more refined results. With his efforts, blended Scotches have regained cachet.

Sometimes, it’s neither blend nor the barrel that indicates innovation, but the physical distillery. Due to the boom and bust whisky market, BenRiach, GlenDronach and Glenglassaugh were shuttered for years before industry veteran Billy Walker and the BenRiach Whisky Company revived them. First opened in 1875, Glenglassaugh began producing again in 2008. Complete with intact original floor maltings (where the antiquated ritual of germinating and drying barley took place) and circa-1959 stills and washbacks (where yeast ferments malted barley) Glenglassaugh merges its bygone years (they have vintage stocks ranging from 1963 to 1986) with its nascent liquid. These are then presented as more accessible non-aged expressions. Five releases recently made their stateside debut, including Evolution, which was matured in George Dickel Tennessee whisky barrels, and the Glenglassaugh 40-year-old, which spent sessions in bourbon barrels, European oak hogsheads, Pedro Ximénez sherry puncheons and oloroso sherry butts.

More straightforward, visceral changes manifest simply in Scotch’s branding. Wooing younger drinkers with contemporary packaging are Compass Box’s cleverly named expressions (e.g. Hedonism, The Peat Monster) and modern illustrations and Glenmorangie’s sleekly labeled Ealanta and Elixir. Bruichladdich bright, minimalist teal package looks nothing like the Scotches of last century. But what do you expect from a company that also makes The Botanist, Islay’s only gin? Playing to a design-savvy audience entranced with new flavors and techniques—as well as the narratives behind the brands—Scotch has begun to realize power of a bottle and a story. The return of pre-WWI Burn Stewart Distillers’ flask-shaped Black Bottle is one history-soaked conversation starter; Dewar’s latest trefoil Celtic truth knot embossed label is another.

Surely, as the market expands, more distilleries will begin lacing their small-scale productions with tempered experimentation to meet demand. Union Jack flags may have been unfurled with particular zeal a few weeks ago, but Scotland was irrevocably changed. Not quite ready to eschew deeply embedded traditions, clearly, her people are beginning to imagine a world that does. In their fantasies, the Scotch surely flows.

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