Chris Marshall: Whisky fads are enough to drive aficionados to drink

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A "dram in a can" may sound like sacrilege, but the story of whisky is littered with oddities, says Chris Marshall

IT is perhaps our most iconic export and the one of which we're most protective.

Scotland's national drink has stayed largely unchanged for the past several hundred years and today ranks as one of the world's most popular tipples.

But there is growing disquiet among whisky aficionados - who can, ironically, be a pretty sober-minded bunch - about the latest attempt to bring the water of life to a new audience.

Dubbed "a dram in a can," the new product sees neat whisky sold in aluminium tins for the first time.

Marketed by Panama-based drinks firm Scottish Spirits, which retains an office in Glasgow, it is hoped the product will appeal to a new generation of whisky drinkers who are unwilling to carry around a bottle.

The company is testing out the product in its Caribbean and South American markets, but the Scottish Whisky Association is attempting to ban the cans for breaching international labelling rules.

The episode is just the latest twist in the story of a drink which has taken on a growing number of guises in recent years.

Whisky expert Jim Murray, author of The Whisky Bible, says novel ways of selling the spirit are nothing new.

"Obviously, this is not the traditional way to sell a dram, but I've seen it on draught in Chicago and out of plastic sachets in Uganda, so it might catch on somewhere.

"My biggest problem with the idea is that there's no way of knowing what it is you're buying - and this isn't proper Scotch.

"I can't see it taking off here because a can would cheapen a product that Scots are rightly proud of. A tin of whisky could never make your heart skip a beat like a fine Scotch."

It is just the latest attempt to put a modern twist on a drink which some consider staid and traditional. The final of TV reality show The Apprentice saw competitors market a trendy new bourbon. Named Urbon, it was devised by the show's eventual winner, Stella English, after she identified whisky as the spirit least likely to appeal to young women.

Perhaps the most bizarre whisky product launched recently was that which took the phrase "a wee dram" quite literally, distilling the drink from the sugar-rich urine of elderly diabetics. American designer and researcher James Gilpin took urine from volunteers, including his own grandmother, before purifying and fermenting it. He later added whisky blends to give colour and taste before bottling it with the name and age of the contributor.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, it was not widely marketed, but was exhibited at testing sessions.

Then there was the bright pink whisky, which was sold by Bruichladdich of Islay for 65 a bottle.

The colour, which came about by mistake after the firm aged their latest 20-year-old malt in red wine casks, was marketed as Flirtation in a rather poor attempt to attract more women and gay men.

There are also whiskies drunk in parts of Asia which can be bought with dead snakes and lizards preserved in the bottle.

Arthur Motley, a buyer for Royal Mile Whiskies, says most drinkers continue to want the spirit in its unadulterated form with fads such as selling it mixed with Irn Bru having come and gone.

"Whisky is not like vodka," he says. "I think people care about it and how you treat it.

"It is a quality product that has a great heritage. I've seen whisky sold in ketchup sachets, but you don't hold out much hope for what's inside when it's sold like that."

While admitting that the whisky "purists" can sneer at some of the more gimmicky products, Arthur points to Loch Dhu, a black, caramel-tasting concoction which was universally reviled by the experts, but continues to sell for 100 a bottle years after being discontinued.

"Loch Dhu was another attempt to present whisky in a different way, using caramel colouring. People in the know thought it was one of the worst whiskies ever bottled, but who are we to know if people are willing to pay 100 a bottle for it."

Experts say one of the problems with fads in whisky is the drink's relatively long maturation date, which makes it difficult to quickly re-produce popular new products.

But some things are worth waiting for.

A case of whisky which spent more than 100 years in the Antarctic after being buried by the explorer Ernest Shackleton during his unsuccessful 1907 to 1909 expedition to reach the South Pole is one such whisky.

Five cases were dug up last year and one of those - a Mackinlay whisky - is being flown to Scotland.

Just another unusual chapter in the colourful history of our national drink.

Top-price tipple

At 100,000 a bottle, it's thought to be the world's most expensive whisky.

The Dalmore 64 Trinitas is said to be made from the "rarest and oldest stocks of whisky in the world", which are over 140 years old.

Speaking ahead of the sale of two bottles last year, master distiller Richard Paterson said: "People recognise you have to pay a premium for true exclusivity, craftsmanship, quality and heritage."

According to the tasting notes the "bouquet is highly complex" with "notes of sweet raisins, rich Colombian coffee, crushed walnuts, bitter orange, grapefruit, sandalwood, white musk and Indonesian patchouli".

American collector and buyer of the first bottle, Mahesh Patel, said: "Whisky is my passion. I have over 1000 bottles in my collection, and The Dalmore Trinitas is now the jewel in the crown."