The first ever World Whisky Day takes place this week, brainchild not of a big nose in the industry but a 21-year-old student

Blair Bowman. Picture: Robert Perry
Blair Bowman. Picture: Robert Perry
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ABERDEEN University student Blair Bowman needed an extension on one of his essays last week. This was not the usual 20-something crisis occasioned by Josh spilling bong water over the crucial lecture notes. “I had TV cameras and press in the house,” Bowman recalls. “They were getting in the way and I couldn’t get my work finished.”

Happily the tutors and lecturers of the Spanish department appreciate that Bowman has a lot on his plate. When he is not dissecting symbolism in the work of Lorca, the 22-year-old is busy planning the first ever World Whisky Day. It’s this Tuesday, March 27. .

The idea crystallised last year, when Bowman was studying in Barcelona. “It was World Gin Day, and the Spanish made a big thing of it. So I assumed that there must be a World Whisky Day at some point. I Googled around and couldn’t find any mention of it. All the domain names were still available.”

For an entrepreneurially minded, social-media-literate whisky maven such as Bowman, this was a sign. He bought all the domain names (for whiskey as well as whisky, he is nothing if not inclusive), set himself up on Twitter and Facebook and got cracking on making it happen. One year on, the inaugural event has 16,000 people signed up to take part in 125 events, from the opening of a new whisky bar in Kuala Lumpur to an open house malt-tasting in an aficionado’s front room.

This is not a big fancy start-up run from an office in Seattle, with free smoothies and astroturf carpets. Bowman estimates he has spent around £200 of his student loan on getting it off the ground. He has recently won an enterprise award of £1,000 to reinvest in the business. No one has come sniffing around with a huge cheque book. Yet.

He has, however, big ideas for World Whisky Day. “In the future, I would like to see it become a focus for tourism, with bigger events in major cities. Like St Patrick’s Day in Ireland. Two million people go to St Patrick’s Day events in Ireland. In the US, they spend $1.5 billion on St Patrick’s Day-related events.”

His sights are firmly set on 2014. “I think it’s going to be a really big year: the Ryder Cup, the Commonwealth Games, Homecoming, the independence referendum. I would like to see people who wouldn’t normally drink whisky on any other day of the year have one on World Whisky Day. I want to see it printed on calendars. I don’t see any point in not thinking big.”

While many in the industry are watching with interest to see how World Whisky Day goes down in its inaugural year, others have jumped straight in to support him. Richard Paterson, a top nose with Whyte & Mackay, describes it as “a fantastic concept” and is convinced that Bowman’s vision can only add to whisky awareness around the world. Having blended whisky for 42 years, Paterson is a convert to social media and knows the value of blogging tastings and organised events in a market that has become more specialised and knowledgeable than ever. “Over the last five years, customers have become more demanding,” he reports from London, where he is about to lead a tasting session.

“They don’t just want a 12-year-old malt or a five-year-old malt. We are giving them more different finishes” – sauternes, virgin oak, moscatel, tawny port, any barrels are fair game, to make the product more enticing.

“I’m just back from Russia, where the malt market is really taking off. The demand is unbelievable, and if you haven’t got the stocks, you’ve got a big problem,” he says.

Bowman, it appears, is pushing at an open door. He grew up in Edinburgh, the only child of an independent financial advisor and Edinburgh University’s director of procurement. “My parents gave me a lot of freedom and independence,” he says. “They supported me in whatever I wanted to do. If I had an idea, they encouraged me to go for it.”

He decided to study Spanish because it’s a world language used by a third of the population of the US. Aged 17, he began learning Mandarin “because everyone was talking about China”. As a native English speaker, with working Spanish and Mandarin, he reckons he can “speak to three out of every five people in the world. I can do business with them, have a conversation.”

Having been introduced to whisky by his father – Bowman senior is partial to a Highland Park – he developed a taste for it. “I’ve always been open-minded about what I eat and drink. I tried it with friends and that didn’t put me off, I didn’t have that mental block that it’s an old person’s drink. I thought it would be an interesting and unique thing, and that it would be cool to learn more.”

Bowman set up a whisky society at Aberdeen University, which has gone from a handful of his friends in a tiny room to 250 members traversing the Highlands and Speyside in search of rare and delicious malts. This has brought Bowman a priceless network of industry contacts – invaluable when you want to start a worldwide PR event while, at the same time, passing your end-of-year exams.

His travels have also given him an international perspective that might give purists palpitations but which he sees as a perfectly rational response to the 21st-century drinks market.

So it’s World Whisky Day, not World Scotch Whisky Day. North American bourbons and ryes, Irish whiskey and the new whiskies being distilled in the new world, Asia and northern Europe are all welcome to the party. Bowman sees no reason why whisky can’t adapt to the climate and culture of any country that wants to try it. “In China it’s a young person’s drink. I was in a cool nightclub in Shanghai and I saw a guy with a bottle of 30-year-old Macallan.” (That’s around £700-worth of oak-aged malt.) “He was drinking it with green tea, that's how they drink it over there.

“In Costa Rica, they have it with condensed milk. Bars have walls stacked with cans of the stuff. They pierce the can and pour it straight over the Johnny Walker. I suppose it makes it a bit like Baileys. I had to ask for it without.” This request was met with raised eyebrows. Bowmore explained that this is not how whisky is drunk in Scotland.

“In Spain they have it with lemonade. It’s a hot country, it has to be refreshing. I’m fine with that. If people like it, they will drink it.”

There are some good whiskies, he reckons, coming out of Australia, Sweden and Taiwan. He particularly rates Amrut, an Indian single malt that is made using barley from Scotland. “They are learning and copying the Scottish model.”

And if a novice drinker starts with a home-produced whisky, and likes it, they will get round to Talisker and Glenmorangie at some point. “No other whisky will ever have the history of Scotch,” he says. “And heritage is a big selling point in some markets. Nothing else will ever be the same.”

The emerging markets are, he concurs with Richard Paterson, where the real growth lies. Much of the traffic to the World Whisky Day website comes from Brazil, Argentina and Taiwan. The International Wine and Spirits Record predicts that Indian whisky consumption will increase by 45 per cent over the next five years, becoming the world’s second-biggest spirits market by 2013.

Yet despite many invitations to come and share a dram somewhere exotic on Tuesday, Bowman plans to enjoy the first ever World Whisky Day at home with his girlfriend and family. A bottle of Laphroaig quarter cask may be involved. He's not quite sure. He has three essays to finish first.