Scottish Field

DOWNWARD SPIRAL

With Millennial­s driving sales for low alcohol drinks, Blair Bowman worries it may be the beginning of the end for true Scotch whisky

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Blair Bowman ponders the effects of low alcohol drinks

If you were to ask me my prediction­s for the whisky industry, I’d put my money on one thing – and it’s not exactly filling everyone with unreserved joy. reckon that we can expect a surge in low alcohol drinks, or low ABV (alcohol by volume) drinks, and I presented these thoughts to the head office of Whyte & Mackay in Glasgow back in January 2017. This emerging trend, which has taken off in the last few years, has without doubt been championed by our health-conscious, tech savvy 18-25-year-olds.

Needless to say, this has set the hearts of all drinks connoisseu­rs racing, and the alarming stats released a couple of years ago were enough to make a grown whisky-loving man cry. One survey showed that 65% of 16-24-year-olds considered alcohol unimportan­t to their social lives. In the same survey, 19% of respondent­s said they never drank alcohol, while 21% claimed they never drank in social settings. Those that did partake in the odd tipple tended to prefer lower ABV drinks. Why? While some of the answers lie in their desire to be fit and healthy, the power of social media – in particular Instagram – is the biggest driving force, with youngsters deeming it a form of social suicide to be seen drunk or intoxicate­d online.

And rightly so; but to what effect? Today, whisky companies are broadening their horizons, and Whyte & Mackay have just announced the release of a new low alcohol product called Whyte & Mackay Light. Legally, the minimum strength for Scotch whisky is 40% ABV, meaning the company’s new release – bottled at 21.5% ABV – has instead been labelled a ‘spirit drink’.

This may seem a peculiar move for an historic brand that dates back to 1882, but it does show they are amenable to innovation. To be honest though, I’m suitably dumbfounde­d that their Whyte & Mackay Light was approved by the Scotch Whisky Associatio­n in the first place. In 2013 Dewar’s released Dewar’s Highlander Honey – a whisky infused with local honey. They labelled it as a spirit drink, but it was bottled at 40% ABV. Though the SWA initially approved the product, they later did a U-turn and declared the product misleading, claiming it could be confused for true Scotch whisky. The main argument was that the words ‘spirit drink’ appeared too small on the label, thus wasn’t distinguis­hed clearly enough from Scotch whisky.

Whyte & Mackay did learn from this, deciding to print the words ‘spirit drink’ not once, but twice on their label – though pretty conspicuou­sly, I might add. Much to my surprise though, it has passed muster, demonstrat­ing that the SWA are also demonstrat­ing a willingnes­s for change.

Whyte & Mackay Light is described by the Associatio­n as ‘a lighter spirit drinker from Scotland, made from Scotch whisky married with Sherry. Crafted by the expert distillers at Whyte & Mackay, this spirit drink has been enriched by sweet Sherry casks and freshly emptied Bourbon barrels.’ It is noted as being ‘smooth with a subtle hint of smoke’, and is ‘perfect straight, over ice, or with your favourite mixer’.

I have yet to taste this interestin­g concoction, and I look forward to seeing how it stands up against Scotch whisky. That said, I do fear the worst as dilution to below 40% ABV often results in flavour and mouthfeel falling off a cliff face. I would gladly be proven wrong in this instance though.

Part of me wants to love this new product, but it really has put a spanner in the works. On one hand, a lower strength whisky could be the perfect stepping stone for new consumers to try flavours of whisky without being hit in the face by a full 40% ABV. It makes perfect commercial sense to cater for the masses, supplying those who more often than not reach for lower strength beers, wines, or mixed drinks like gins, to unwind. I’m a huge advocate for mixed drinks – whisky and soda or whisky and ginger ale are particular favourites of mine – as it brings down the ABV and still allows the base whisky to shine through. Whyte & Mackay Light may work well when mixed, perhaps as a means of fortifying a cocktail. On the other hand, its flavour may be so weak that its inclusion is totally worthless.

One of my greatest concerns is that the emergence of low ABV drinks could open the floodgates for lesser products to appear on the scene. Ultimately, I worry consumers may confuse the incredible world of whisky with this new hybrid whisky-spirit drink. I won’t take any credit for planting the seed with Whyte & Mackay, at least not until I’ve tasted it. But who knows, this could be the beginning of a whole new world for the whisky industry.

“The emerging trend of low ABV drinks has been championed by 18 to 25-year-olds

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