Stephen Jardine: World Whisky Day? Well, I’ll drink to that

Slainte. Picture: Colin Hattersley
Slainte. Picture: Colin Hattersley
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Today is the day to celebrate our national drink, writes Stephen Jardine

With a National Quiche Lorraine Day now in the calendar alongside Cherry Cobbler Day, perhaps it’s simply a surprise it took so long for anyone to come up with World Whisky Day.

The worldwide celebration of our national drink which takes place today was only launched four years ago by Aberdeen University student Blair Bowman. Since then it has gone from strength to strength and last year there were over 170 events in 48 countries.

If whisky sometimes has a stuffy image, World Whisky Day tries to dispel that. From a Glengoyne whisky pop-up restaurant on Calton Hill yesterday to whisky desserts at Crieff Hydro, the aim is simply to get people involved and taste the water of life.

Today’s World Whisky Day has something extra to celebrate. A report published earlier this week by the Scotch Whisky Association showed signs the decline in whisky exports in recent years is slowing.

Traditionally the whisky market has followed a pattern of peaks and troughs. Since it has to be aged at least three years to be called Scotch Whisky, matching demand with supply has always been tricky. In the past, over-supply led to distilleries being moth-balled but in recent years the industry has struggled to meet demand with the result that old distilleries have reopened and new distilleries are planned.

However that coincided with a slowdown in sales in areas affected by the economic downturn, trade tarrifs or the fall in oil prices. Blended whisky has been the biggest casualty with sales down significantly in recent years from £3.27bn in 2011 to £2.71bn in 2015. Compensation for that has come in the form of a stronger performance in single malt exports, up in that time from £745m to £916m.

Single malts now account for nearly 25 per cent of the value Scotch whisky exports, up from 18 per cent five years ago.

The whisky market is changing and becoming more premium. Smart marketing has opened a new audience for quality single malts here and in emerging markets in South America and the Far East with new affluent consumers.

As blended demand declines, the ability to market the constituent malts in their own right could help drive sales higher.

What lies ahead is a period of adjustment as the industry changes. There are concerns about how the new wave of distilleries will fit into the picture. Without big marketing budgets, will they be able to play the single malt premium brand game or will they have to fight for a declining share of the blended market?

There is also the tricky topic of No Age Statement whiskies. Traditionally, age was everything but veering away from that defining label has been part of the industry’s response to managing dwindling supplies.

With dedicated whisky fans, it has been a controversial approach. Sections of the industry also worry reputation is being damaged. However others see it as the best practical response to stock issue.

But even with a slowdown, whisky remains the most amazing success story for Scotland. Last year exports were valued at £3.86 billion. That alone deserves a World Whisky Day toast. Slainte.