With each generation whisky fashions change, from Scotch to Australian whisky, back to Scotch and now Bourbon whisky. So too consumption patterns and how we drink whisky. As whisky is being rediscovered, from Baby Boomers to Millennials, it’s the cocktail trend and sipping whiskies that are creating renewed interest. Counter-intuitively, our per capita consumption of whisky is declining. In other words, as the population increases, new cohorts enter and older ones live longer, whisky is not keeping pace. In recent years, whisky case sales have declined, yet the amount of money we spend has upsurged. The answer: we want to drink better whiskies. The smaller premium segments are enjoying double-digit growth, while the voluminous mainstream and economy segments wane.
Over the past decade, segments like malt whisky have skyrocketed fivefold, albeit from a small base. Good news for the fledgeling craft malt whisky distillers who can catch a ride on this consumer malt and premium whisky wave. Bourbon whiskey which commands over half of the whisky consumption in Australia has seen its premium segment grow by 40% while the lower segments decline. Also, over the past ten years, the major distilleries in Scotland and America have invested billions of dollars to significantly increase their capacity to tap into this global whisky boom. Joining, if not stimulating this demand is the arrival of small craft distilleries worldwide; they too have increased more than fivefold since 2008. Fifty countries are making whisky today, a far cry from a dozen counties in the 1980s. Following the rapid expansion in the distilling industry, over a thousand new whisky brands and even more new line extensions released from existing brands. Never before have we had such choice, competitive prices, the range of styles and outstanding whiskies to drink, from Taiwan to Sweden, Scotland to Kentucky. This boom is described as whisky’s new golden age. Much of it is high quality at good value as advances in science, technology and inventiveness push whisky into new and exciting directions from grain to wood. [See No oak. No whisky, to learn how cask wood management is creating exciting new flavour vectors].
The established international brands continue to dominate our whisky landscape with the three top brands holding half of the total whisky sales, and in the small malt segment, five malt brands dominate. Attention is being garnered by the new craft segment which has carved out a noisy half per cent share in the whisky category. Craft is the amorphous term attributed to micro-distilleries and nano start-ups that have populated the whisky landscape over the past two decades. Their smaller scale and more manual resourcing have conferred on them the perception of being more artisan than significant distilleries. In marketing parlance, provenance and authenticity make craft whiskies more popular with younger drinkers seeking a discovery brand, especially as the cocktail phenomenon sweeps the night economy. By marketing the provenance to a town, suburb or district, by sourcing of local ingredients and being operated by locals amplifies the sense of small, local and intimate, earning them the craft moniker.
As Australia’s sizeable industrial whisky distilleries were shutting-down, the new small ‘craft’ movement was in ideation. By the mid-1990s, the old Australian whisky brands that dominated sales for decades disappeared from the liquor shelves and memory: Corio, Four Seasons, Bond 7, etc. As the last of the large distilleries silenced their stills, it was school teachers, gun store owners, property developers, plumbers and publicans who put their hands to experimental whisky distilling. It was as if a bushfire had wiped out the old hardwood trees and new shoots reappeared from their ashes. Most of these new craft whiskies were poorly made, young whiskies that struggled into the 21st century. Some of these distilleries closed. However, persistence and outsider help slowly improved the quality. Twenty years later some labels were winning awards in competitions. The success of these pioneers and the low barriers to entry attracted dozens of wanna-be distillers. Some were looking for a sea change, others to lure tourist to a food stop, and for younger recruits, a different and romantic career path beckoned.
The transmission of knowledge and skills proliferated, with specialist suppliers like still fabricators, coopers and maltsters serving this demand. From ten whisky distillery start-ups in 2005, a hundred operate or are in development today to produce whisky. In 2018, spirit production is projected to exceed one million litres of pure alcohol. The six largest distilleries generate over two-thirds of this spirit. By 2021 capacity could increase by another four million litres as significant plant upgrades and new large distilleries are erected to capitalise on this current upswing.
Australia, along with the rest of the world is experiencing an exciting and expansive whisky era. There are extraordinarily good, high calibre new whiskies released almost every day and the major distilleries keep improving their international brands. The massive leaps in world production and entry by new players mean prices, quality and choice will remain very competitive. For the whisky drinker has never had it so good.