Walpole Editorial | Why there’s more to whisky than Scotch by Aleks Cvetkovic

Aleks Cvetkovic’s latest column exploring ‘what is British about British luxury’ looks to the great whisky producers in the north – from Cumbria to the island of Islay in the Inner Hebrides – and examines how the UK’s best distillers are leading the way in innovation and sustainability, and “shoring-up whisky’s rightful place on the world stage as a leading British luxury export”.

I always think that a sip of Scotch is like a good story in that its flavour profile has a beginning, a middle and an end, but almost always surprises you along the way. And like a good yarn, a wee dram or two in a comfy armchair also has a tendency to compel one to feel reassuringly philosophical to boot.

Moreover, few craft industries are more nuanced than whisky making. From the salty, sea-kissed creations of distillers on Highland and island coasts, through to smooth, sweet lowland malts, or the fiery, heavily peated concoctions of Islay, I struggle to think of another industry that has the same richness and variety of regional expression.

Today, many of Britain’s best distillers are working hard to do more than craft good Scotch.

That said, there is of course far more than unites Scotland’s distilleries (and distilleries in other parts of the UK, for that matter) than differentiates them. Today, many of Britain’s best distillers are working hard to do more than craft good Scotch; they’re leading the way in terms of innovation and sustainability, continuing to shore-up whisky’s rightful place on the world stage as a leading British luxury export.

 Just two months ago, Bowmore – a thoroughbred Islay distiller established in 1779 on the island’s western shore – proved this point only too well, care of an auction in Hong Kong. Black Bowmore is the brand’s premier product, a series of short-run bottlings drawn from exceptionally old, precious casks, and an entire collection of Black Bowmore from first release to last was presented by Sotheby’s in a stunning handmade archive cabinet on the 21st of April. The hammer dropped at a modest HK$4,375,000, which made said collection the single-most expensive whisky cabinet in history.

Of course, it’s not all exotic rarities at Bowmore. The brand is owned by Beam Suntory, whose sustainability pledge is among the most impressive in the industry. This promises to reduce the group’s water usage by 50 per cent per unit produced by 2030, replenish more water than the portfolio uses by 2040, and plant up to 500,000 trees per year by 2030, more trees than those harvested to make the group’s whisky barrels, among other admirable objectives.

This kind of commitment to responsible production is a trend that’s running through many Scotch producers this year.”

Ballantines, the much-loved Chivas Brothers’ brand, recently introduced a new bottle cap across all its whiskies, which, while it sounds like a small change, more than adds up when you think about the number of bottles a distillery gets through. In fact, said bottle cap design will save up to 837 tonnes of plastic a year (equivalent to 21 million plastic bottles) and is easily recycled in turn.

This move is just one step on Chivas Brothers’ journey towards achieving 100 per cent circular packaging across its entire portfolio by 2025. Like Beam Suntory, Chivas Brothers is deeply committed to doing its part, and for the past three years has partnered with the Spey Fisheries Board to support the preservation of the river Spey’s natural character. In March, the group helped to restock the Lour Burn – a tributary of the Spey – with some 40,000 salmon eggs to boost the local salmon population, an intrinsic part of the river’s biological make-up. This ongoing commitment recognises that “there’s no whisky without water”, and highlights the importance of pure, natural Highland water sources to the production of high quality Scotch.

It’s not just the big boys who are thinking green, either, or even thoroughbred Scotch brands, for that matter. The Lakes Distillery in Cumbria is a young, maverick entrant to the British Whisky market (the brand also distills gin and vodka too), founded by Paul Currie in 2011. Its ‘ethical roadmap’ sets out the brand’s journey to improve its sustainability credentials, and several impressive milestones have been met to date, including the installation of a biomass boiler to heat the distillery’s customer-facing areas with organic, sustainable fuel sources, and the installation of shielded LED lighting throughout the distillery to negate any light pollution that might impact on the local, rural landscape. Other meaningful steps include the recent decision to change bottle supplier from two suppliers in Europe to a local manufacturer in Yorkshire, which has significantly reduced The Lakes Distillery’s carbon footprint, and ensures all their British-made glass bottles are 100 per cent recyclable.

Other brands are innovating in different ways too; finding new ways to connect with consumers both at home and overseas. The Macallan has just opened its first ‘Manor House’ at the Rosewood London hotel, an al fresco dining concept designed to transport revellers to summer in the Scottish Highlands, with rare whiskies paired with a seasonal menu by world renowned chefs, the Roca brothers. Elsewhere, Glenfiddich embraced the power of social media in March to launch a new expression on burgeoning social media app, Clubhouse.

Said expression, The Grande Couronne, is a 26-year-old malt finished in French cognac casks. The latest creation of the brand’s beloved Malt Master, Brian Kinsman, it was deemed that such an unusual new whisky required an equally distinctive unveiling. Glenfiddich’s brand director, Claudia Falcone, explains: “Glenfiddich has always challenged the conventions of whisky making. Clubhouse allowed us to engage in an authentic and inspiring conversation around whisky and art with our high profile live panel discussion. Drawing on the parallels between whisky, art and culture, Glenfiddich is one of the first spirit brands to make the leap onto the platform to grow our community.”

This pioneering spirit trickles throughout the British whisky landscape – more so now, than ever before. It’s heartening to see so many brands excelling both in terms of growth and in terms of commitment to ethical, forward-thinking production.

The best British whisky might be a deeply traditional product, but it’s born of a thoroughly progressive mindset.

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