The drambusters

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Despite scotch whisky being the UK's native spirit, malts and blends are underused by pubs. Ben McFarland suggests how this can be changed.Scotch...

Despite scotch whisky being the UK's native spirit, malts and blends are underused by pubs. Ben McFarland suggests how this can be changed.

Scotch whisky is the Benny Hill of the drinks world (just bear with me on this one). Favoured by the more mature male, frowned upon by the fairer sex and with substantially more followers in Europe and the USA than in the UK, the synergies between the world's biggest selling spirit and perhaps the world's most politically incorrect comedian are there for everyone to see.

Where the cracks of disparity appear, however, is that for the lewd and late Mr Hill, a return to fashion is highly unlikely, while for scotch, it's time for a dram-atic comeback.

Whisky is Britain's native spirit yet its flavour, heritage, character and versatility is celebrated much more vigorously abroad than it is on our own shores. There was a time when the British topped the whisky consumption league but in recent years Spain, France and the USA have led the way.

In France, for instance, more scotch is sold in a month than cognac in a year while in Spain more than three quarters of scotch is drunk by the young and trendy in late-night clubs and bars and usually with Coke and ice.

Whisky's future is not so rosy over here, however, where it plays second fiddle to more accessible, yet less challenging, white spirits.

"Moving to the UK as a scotch whisky drinker, I was astonished at how little people knew about their home product, especially in the trade," said John Glaser, an American self-proclaimed "whisky zealot" and founder of the Compass Box Whisky company.

The former marketing director for Johnnie Walker created Compass Box Whisky two years ago in an attempt to shake up a whisky sector struggling to shed its fuddy-duddy image.

Specialising in unusual, small-batch blends of malt and grain whiskies with funky packaging and quirky brand names, Compass Box has found many followers among the style bar fraternity but has yet to make an impact on the pub market.

Beyond those pubs that specialise in whisky, the range of whiskies in the pub sector rarely stretches beyond the big blends and a handful of mainstream malts - and licensees are missing a trick, says John.

"I think there's a massive opportunity for pub owners and the on-trade in general to expand their offering of scotch whisky beyond the major brands," said John.

"There's such breadth in whisky and there's an opportunity for licensees to set their venue apart from others by offering a more compelling range.

"I think scotch whisky is changing hugely with growing interest among both the trade and consumers but pubs and bars are still not doing as much as they can with whisky.

"The bars selling more whisky are doing so because they are knowledgeable and educated about whisky and are coming up with drinks that complement rather than mask whisky's huge range of flavours," added John.

For whisky to work in the pub, John believes licensees need to toss out the protocol of only drinking it neat or with water and encourage pub-goers to drink any whisky any way they want.

"Scotch whisky is bound in most people's minds by a set of rules and it's suffered from this baggage for far too long," he said. "There's lots of different ways to drink whisky and the scotch whisky trade needs to loosen up a bit and not let old rules prevent people from discovering the drink."

Before drenching a 25-year-old malt in Happy Shopper cream soda, however, licensees should take a look at the Wicked Whisky cocktail booklet - a dozen suggestions for simple, scotch-based long drinks published by the Scotch Whisky Association.

Styles of whisky

There are two styles of scotch whisky - malt whisky and grain whisky - while blended whisky is a mixture of the two.

  • Malt whisky

Malt whiskies are made with malted barley in one distillery and have a more distinctive bouquet and flavour than grain whiskies. They differ considerably in taste according to the distillery in which they are made.

The malt whiskies are divided into four groups according to the geographical location of the distilleries. As with great wines it is possible to identify the origin of single malts and place them in their regional group. Each group has its own clearly defined characteristics, ranging from the lighter Lowland malt whiskies to those distilled on Islay, which are generally regarded as the heaviest malt whiskies.

The differences in aroma, taste and colour are determined by a wide range of factors including the geological structure of the ground from which water is extracted, the amount of peat used when drying the barley and even the location of the bonded warehouse in which the whisky is matured.

But perhaps the most significant influence on a malt's flavour is the shape and size of the still and the kind of wood used for the cask. A taller still will produce a lighter spirit as the heavy alcohols have to work harder to climb up the pipes.

  • Lowland malt whiskies are made south of an imaginary line drawn from Dundee in the East to Greenock in the West. Lowland whiskies tend to be lighter in colour and fresher on the tongue reflecting the more moderate climate of the region. Lowland single malts include Auchentoshan, Bladnoch and Glenkinchie.
  • Highland malt whiskies are made north of that line. Highland whiskies encompass a huge region and there are marked differences as one moves from north to south. The further south one goes, the lighter and sweeter the malt reflecting the impact of more sunshine and the heather-clad hills. Highland single malts include Glenmorangie, The Dalmore and Dalwhinnie.
  • Speyside malt whiskies produced in the valley of the River Spey. Although these whiskies come from within the area designated as Highland malt whiskies, the concentration of distilleries and the specific climatic conditions produce a whisky of an identifiable character and require a separate classification. Speyside single malts include Aberlour, Cardhu, Glenfiddich and The Glenlivet.
  • Islay malt whiskies are from the island of Islay. They can usually be distinguished on the nose by their tangy characteristics brought on by the introduction of salt and seaweed during maturation. Bowmore, Bruichladdich and Laphroaig are examples of Islay single malts.

"Single malts only account for about five per cent of scotch whisky sales but they are outperforming a static blended sector," said Nick Williamson, senior brand manager for Glenfiddich, the UK's leading single malt brand.

"Within the on-trade we're the leading malt with a 22 per cent share but that's a big piece of a small cake. We're trying to make people trade up from blends and a lot of our strategy is trying to break down the barriers and let people know how it's drunk and that a single malt is something they can drink every day."

Grain whisky

Grain whisky underpins all blended scotch. It is made from wheat or corn and distilled in tall "column" stills. Grain whisky has a higher alcohol content and a lighter character. The notion that a grain whisky is a neutral spirit is misguided - there are eight grain distilleries in production and each contributes a distinctive flavour to the whisky.

This flavour, however, is not so dramatically influenced by geographical factors and grain whisky can be distilled anywhere in Scotland.

Blended whisky

Blended whiskies account for around 95 per cent of all scotch whisky produced. A blended scotch whisky is a careful balance between malt and grain whiskies each of which must be separately entitled to the name scotch whisky.

Most blends are predominantly grain whisky and usu

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