Britons are rediscovering a thirst for whisk(e)y and the category has arrested years of plummeting sales, according to the latest Nielsen data.

Sales grew 4% in volume in the 12 weeks to October 12, 2014, meaning volume sales were flat over the 52-week period for the first time in years. Value sales also grew 2% to £1.2 billion (Nielsen, year to October 12, 2014) as the average retail price climbed to £21.46 a litre.

Blended Scotch continued to struggle, down 2% in volume and 1% in value to £809 million, but imported whiskey soared, with sales up 16% in volume and 15% in value to £214 million.

Malt whisky held volumes and grew value sales 5% to £170 million for the year. Market leader Glenfiddich is enjoying mixed fortunes: its 12 Year Old, the UK’s favourite SKU, was down 33% in volume terms as it tried to distance itself from discounting, but its Rich Oak 14 Year Old was up 58% and its 15 Year Old rose by 35%.

Brand manager Sarah Harding told OLN: “We have declined on volume because our average price is now higher and we are discounting less. But there is a willingness to trade up and explore other expressions, so that’s encouraging.

“Deep discounting at key periods will always continue, but we are looking to reduce our reliance on discounting.

“The category will continue to grow and price will always be an important lever. But the interest in whisky is high. It’s being discussed and tried more than it ever was.

“We have strong plans to return to growth this year. Gifting will continue to be important.

“To bring new people into the category, we all have a responsibility to demystify it. There is a lot of interest in it, but whisky knowledge is quite low for a lot of people.”

Beam Suntory is on a mission to educate shoppers about peated malts in its portfolio. “When people think of peated malts they think of Islay, but we have peated malts from the Highlands and Ireland too,” said brand ambassador John Cashman.

“Scotch is not growing like it used to but peated malts are bucking that trend and growing across the trade.”

It has grouped Ardmore Legacy from the Highlands, Ireland’s Connemara Original, Islay’s Laphroaig Select and Bowmore Small Batch into a collection called Peated Malts of Distinction and hopes to use POS to educate the masses.

Cashman said: “These might not appeal to hardcore peated malt drinkers who pride themselves on the extreme flavours they like. But we want people to know peated malts are not something to be afraid of. They can be layered with different flavours and complexities and not too extreme.

“We are seeing young people moving back into whisky. It’s losing its old man’s image. It’s cooler to be drinking whisky now.

“But more needs to be done to educate the consumer at the point of purchase. It can be a scary situation. Whisky anoraks have almost ruined it for everyone, so the average consumer doesn’t want to look silly. They don’t know where to start.”