Whole world at its feet?

02 November, 2007

From Japan to Canada, the world's whisky offering is constantly broadening its horizons, writes Richard Woodard

For most consumers, whisky means Scotland, Bourbon or Ireland - and the latter means Jameson, which dwarfs the rest of the category.

But there's a host of intriguing spirits out there from lesser-known names, distilled in unlikely locations: from Japan to Nova Scotia,

and Tasmania to the Brecon Beacons. The flatlands of Norfolk are as far removed from the heathered moors of Speyside as can be, but as you read this, newly opened St George's distillery near Thetford is laying down stocks of English whiskey.

Most of these drams will remain niche products, unable and often unwilling to supply supermarkets and enter the mainstream. Many never leave the country in which they are distilled - because exporting is too complicated or costly.

But for retailers looking for unusual spirits likely to pique the interest of the whisky enthusiast, what does the world have to offer?


Imitation, they say, is the most sincere

form of flattery. And the Japanese make no bones of the fact that many of their distilleries have aped Scotland's finest in their quest to produce home-grown whiskies of the highest pedigree.

But the results have proved to be more than mere Speyside wannabes: Suntory's Hibiki 30 Year Old blend scooped a trophy at this year's International Spirits Challenge, as well as one of two gold medals awarded to Japanese whiskies - not to mention 15 silvers and five bronzes.

Such success has lifted the profile of the industry beyond the domain of the whisky anorak and specialist writer, according to Suntory brand manager Tomo Akaike, enabling the company to secure a listing at Tesco for its Yamazaki 10 Year Old single malt.

New UK agent Cellar Trends (cellartrends.co.uk) has also found good on-trade listings, and handles three Yamazaki expressions with rrps of £24.99-58.99, as well as Hakushu 12 Year Old at £44.99 and the Hibiki 17 Year Old blend at £57.99.

Marcin Miller, co-founder of specialist Japanese whisky export business Number One Drinks Company (onedrinks.co.uk), has so far seen great interest in France and Scandinavia for imported products from distilleries including Karuizawa and Hanyu. However, the price-conscious UK market remains a trickier proposition.

Miller's latest import is ginkgo-blended malt, a vatting of spirit from three different distilleries - unusual because, unlike Scotch producers, the Japanese are very reluctant to trade stocks with competitor companies.

Historically, despite the undoubted excellence of Japanese whisky, there has remained an ingrained sense that it is in thrall to Scotch - a kind of unspoken inferiority complex or diffidence which is only slowly being overcome.

As such, according to Neil Mathieson, the managing director of Eaux de Vie (eauxdevie.co.uk), UK agent for Nikka, Japanese producers are content to export only their best whiskies. In Nikka's case, this means aged and vatted malts only - and don't demand huge volumes from export markets. The result is a range of peated and unpeated styles to delight eclectic whisky lovers.

What is more, Miller believes that Japanese distillers have now evolved their products beyond being mere facsimiles of Scotch, acquiring a character of their own. And the use of Japanese oak as a finish, he adds, is a tasting experience never to be forgotten.


While Scotland has dozens of distilleries from Orkney to Campbeltown, Ireland has just three: Bushmills in the north, Midleton (home to Jameson) in the south - and Cooley.

The little guy competing with giants - Pernod Ricard-owned Irish Distillers (Midleton/Jameson) and Diageo (Bushmills) - Cooley continues to plough its own idiosyncratic furrow, producing double-distilled whiskies closer to the Scottish style.

The company makes a lot of own-label Irish for clients like Tesco and Waitrose, and has a big success story Stateside with Michael Collins. But in the UK, agent Eaux de Vie concentrates on the malts - peated Connemara and unpeated Kilbeggan and The Tyrconnell.

Elsewhere, look out too for C&C International's underrated Tullamore Dew range, now distilled under licence by Irish Distillers since the closure of the Tullamore distillery in the 50s.


Rather like Ireland, Canada is dominated by a couple of major players - in this case Diageo-owned Crown Royal and Beam-owned Canadian Club.

In recent years, the country has struggled to develop a high reputation for its whiskies outside North America, where the vast majority of sales occur. But there remain a few independent outposts of distilling, most notably Glenora at the northernmost tip of Nova Scotia.

UK agent Eaux de Vie handles the distillery's 12 Year Old single malt, but Neil Mathieson acknowledges that selling a 12 Year Old single malt from Nova Scotia is no easy task in such a competitive market segment.

The distillery also has a truly Canadian variant - an icewine finish at cask strength - and can claim to have taken on the Scotch Whisky Association and won, after the SWA lost a recent bid to outlaw the Glen Breton brand name as being too Scottish-sounding - and therefore potentially confusing to consumers.

And the rest ...

It would almost be easier to list the countries where whisky is not distilled, rather than the other way around. Austria and Germany have thriving micro-industries, Sweden and Finland are making strides, and even former eastern bloc nations like Poland and Bulgaria have whisky production of a sort.

There are several malt distilleries in Australia and New Zealand, and even India - home to a molasses-based "whisky" which cannot be classified as such in the EU - is now making the real stuff, most notably with Bangalore-based Amrut, available in the UK (amrutwhisky.co.uk).

And there is proud Penderyn, a single malt produced by the Welsh Whisky Company in the Brecon Beacons (welsh-whisky.co.uk). Lauded for the quality of its spirit and its smart, modern packaging, it's a good example of what a combination of provenance and production excellence can achieve. Can England's St George's distillery emulate its success in the years to come?

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