13 May Whiskey or whisky? Your spirit, your way
Talk to anyone about whiskey and you’ll often come up against the age old debate: whiskey with an ‘e’ or whisky without. Luckily, the whiskey world is a broad church, with room for everyone to enjoy the spirit in their own way. From the infrequent dabbler, to cocktail kings and queens, to the enthusiastic amateur and on to the whiskey connoisseurs and keen eyed investors.
Its success is a reflection of our long term love affair with whiskey in all its forms – be that Bourbon (American), whiskey (Irish) or whisky (Scottish), alongside other branches of the family, such as highly respected offerings from countries such as Canada and Japan. It is an enduring global favourite, easily outstripping other contenders such as gin, rum and vodka.
Global boom and Irish resurgence
Today, whiskey is booming, with the UK market alone expected to hit £2.4 billion by 2022. All forms of the spirit are riding a wave of interest, but a resurgent Irish industry enjoys impressive growth.
This seems only right and proper — as despite the common misconception, whiskey is an Irish invention from the 13th century. Up until the 19th century, Irish whiskey easily outsold its Scottish counterpart. Scottish dominance is a relatively new reality. Rebellion, war and blockade saw the turnaround as recently as the 1940s, when Irish output collapsed from its zenith of around 12 million cases a year to below 200,000.
Time, however, is redressing the balance. The UK Government reports a 300% surge in Irish whiskey sales in the past decade, while the Irish Whiskey Association aims to increase market share by a further 300% over the next. South Africa seems to have a particularly soft spot for a drop of the Irish — with sales up by more than a quarter in 2018 — and strong growth across countries that include Australia, Norway and (of course) the US.
A long neglected cottage industry, Irish whiskey now enjoys some overdue care and attention. One of the biggest problems it faced was an inability to meet growing demand. Happily, today, new distilleries are springing up across the country – now numbering around 31. While this is still dwarfed by Scotland’s 120 and the near 2,000 in the US (albeit mostly smaller craft ones), the Irish industry is much better placed to scale. It will also now benefit from a well-planned and funded strategy that aims to double exports to 24 million nine litre cases by 2030.
Quality always sells
Canadian, Japanese, Scottish and US distilleries are all in similarly rude good health — and the healthiest market of all is premium whiskey. Tastes are shifting towards quality, flavour and luxury as the cheap blends so prevalent in the second half of the 20th century go the same way as deely bobbers and brick sized mobile phones (links provided for those lucky enough to be too young to remember).
This shift is also seen at the highest, ultra-premium end of the whiskey spectrum. The 2019 Knight Frank Luxury Investment Index rates rare whiskeys as the best performing collectable. These exquisite creations leapt by 40% in a year to easily eclipse other contenders such as coins (12%), and art and wine (9%).
One of the reasons for its soaring popularity among the smartest and savviest alternative investors is rare whiskey’s resilience in a rapidly changing world. While ‘traditional’ safe-havens can be subject to volatility, the 2020 Knight Frank Wealth Report finds that rare whiskey has risen in value consistently and significantly over the past decade. It has grown by 564%, to leave other alternative options such as automobiles (+194%) trailing in its wake. The strength of this kind of investment owes much to the fact that it represents physical ownership of a continually improving asset ─ casks of maturing, premium spirit.
Whiskey or whisky — however you take it
The reason the whiskey/whisky debate rages on is that, simply, there is no right or wrong answer. It’s an intensely personal experience. The Irish spelt it interchangeably until the mid-1800s, when the ‘e’ was standardised by the Dublin distilleries. It was at this time that the city was the epicentre of whiskey excellence — the first to industrialise and bring consistency. The great whiskey houses — such as John Jameson, William Jameson, John Powers & Sons and George Roe & Co — adopted the ‘e’ to differentiate their high quality spirit from the cheaper, unregulated ‘provincial whisky’ made outside Dublin and that made in Scotland.
I’m a fan of all whiskeys/whiskies. I enjoy them for their unique styles. Some may favour the smooth creaminess and fuller mouth feel of the traditionally triple distilled, single pot still Irish, while others may prefer the peat and pepper complexity of the traditionally double distilled Scottish. These are opinions: the only unassailable fact here is that YOUR preference is YOUR choice. This isn’t a zero-sum game.
Whiskey has sustained its position at the top of every drinks list for more than 700 years because of its quality and adaptability ─ we all have our own spin on how to best enjoy the depth and limitless diversity of its flavours. Whether a newcomer to the drink, a nerd (like me) or an alternative investor, whiskey AND whisky is for everyone — however you take it.