Stand by your dram

With funky companies attracting younger drinkers, now the whisky industry is thirsting after a newer market - women. Alice Whitehead reports

It is the fortifying drink of the Iron Lady and was famously supped by Madonna on a film set - for an increasing number of women, a whisky tasting is the de rigueur way to spend an evening. It seems whisky and women are no longer chalk and cheese.

The cigar and slippers image of Scotch has already been given a facelift over the past few years, with the industry spending considerable sums attracting 25 to 35-year-old drinkers. And with good reason. Although Scotch retains one of the biggest chunks of the UK spirits market, accounting for some 35 per cent of total sales (valued at around £2.5 billion), it is in overall decline.

According to the latest Nielsen figures, off-trade sales of blended whisky have fallen by 2 per cent and, despite a buoyant Christmas, malt whisky sales have stayed static. But Nielsen figures also indicate that the number of women drinking malts is growing - almost a quarter of Scotch drinkers in the UK are female - and the industry is beginning to switch on to female interest in Scotland's national drink.

Ian Macleod Distillers has made no bones about wanting to "shake off the old-fashioned image of Scotch whisky" and its brashest brand, Smokehead,

heavily target s younger drinkers.

The distillery recently teamed up with mixologists at Cargo Bar in Edinburgh to develop a range of Smokehead cocktails aimed at women . The bar's mixologist James Sutherland believes customers are moving further away from just drinking white spirits : "This new drive has included a large number of women drinkers who appreciate the delicate and varied flavours of whisky ."

The Famous Grouse has also heavily promoted its use in cocktails. "The single biggest challenge facing the whisky industry right now is long-term new user recruitment," says Emma Heath, marketing manager for whiskies at Maxxium UK, distributor of The Famous Grouse. "The opportunity to broaden appeal to women is something we are very interested in ," she continues.

In the pink

Whisky liqueurs have also been big news. The Scottish Liqueur Company recently relaunched its Columba Cream, in an effort to become Scotland's answer to Baileys. But perhaps the most controversial attempt to woo female drinkers has been made by the Edrington Group - which produces Famous Grouse, Highland Park and Macallan.

Late last year it rippled the water in whisky purists' glasses by putting a new liqueur - Amber - on trial in the US.

Specifically targeted at upmarket female drinkers, the liqueur is a mix of uber-traditional single malt Macallan with flavours of maple and pecan. Becky Brock, global innovations manager at Macallan, says it simply saw a good opportunity. "Just because you have heritage and history doesn't mean you have to stop trying out new things," she says. "We wanted to broaden our footprint and bring the Macallan brand to customers who wouldn't normally drink whisky."

Though it's too early to say how Amber will be received, or when it might be available in the UK, one Scottish company has already released a product aimed squarely at the female market. Strawberry Kiss, the flagship product of the Edinburgh-based Leith Liqueur Company, has caused something of a stir since its official launch in 2006, not least because of its lurid pink colour.

The liqueur - created by Norman Brown, who has some 25 years in the drinks trade including a stint at Thresher, and John Smith, a former master blender at Glenmorangie - mingles fresh strawberries with single malt whisky.

"It seemed natural, given the colour, that we aimed it towards women ," says Brown. "The industry is stuck in its ways and slow to develop , it needs young companies like ours to come along and shake it up a bit. Women increasingly have the spending power, so it's important the industry doesn't ignore them."

That said, Brown has been keen not to distance himself too far from the Scotch whisky cradle and sought the opinion of some 40 experts, including Glenmorangie's master distiller Dr Bill Lumsden. According to Brown, of those who tried Strawberry Kiss, all of them liked it. "We certainly didn't set out to upset the industry . Our experience meant they took us more seriously," he says.

The smok y, peaty ones

And it seems you don't have to sell a shocking pink whisky or creamy liqueur to appeal to women either. Sarah Bottomely, who handles the marketing for Glengoyne Distillery and, incidentally, is one of a growing band of women working at high levels within the Scotch whisky industry, says it's na ive to assume women will always go for lighter whiskies : "Glengoyne whiskies lend themselves to women because they are light and aromatic, but in my experience women enjoy a range of whiskies just like men ."

Annabel Meikle, whisky taster at The Scotch Malt Whisky Society, agrees : "You don't need maple syrup and ribbons to attract women to whisky, as with newcomers to any drink it just needs the fear factor taken out of it . In my experience women have a more discerning palate than most men and will go for a Laphroaig over a light, young whisky.

"The key is not to alienate but also not to actively pander to women. Retailers need to make female customers feel comfortable about asking for whisky, and show them that there is no right or wrong way to drink it. Above all, you can no longer assume that a woman who enters your shop is buying whisky for her grandfather, father or husband."

Sex appeal: a cross-section of Scotches to stock

The Famous Grouse Malt Whisky 10 Year Old, Edrington Group (£12.99 for 70cl, 40 per cent abv)

Golden, clear and bright, well-balanced aroma with a citrus hint, full, mature flavour of fruitcake and chocolate orange, clean medium dry finish.

Glengoyne 10 Year Old Single Highland Malt, Glengoyne/Ian Macleod Distillers (£23.99 for 70cl, 40 per cent abv)

Golden yellow, smooth and approachable. A sweet nose with toffee and popcorn aromas, slightly nutty palate with fresh green apples, sweet and malty finish.

Strawberry Kiss, Leith Liqueur Company (£15.99 for 50cl, 27.5 per cent abv)

Succulent summer strawberries with a background of subtle spices, delightful hint of 14 Year Old Speyside single malt whisky.

Smokehead, Ian Macleod Distillers (£19.99 for 70cl, 43 per cent abv)

Rich seaweed and intensely peaty. Fresh, fruity and immense flavour, notes of sherry, iodine, toffee, smoke and sea salt. Nose of heavy smoke and peat with lemon, fresh ginger and plum jam with a peat, spice and mandarin finish.

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