Each week, we bring you the latest whisky news on WhiskyCast. Now, we’ll be bringing it to you as it happens here on our News Updates page!
July 20, 2016 – Sixteen months after acquiring the Scotch Malt Whisky Society from The Glenmorangie Company, the society’s new owners are making a major push to expand membership and sales in the United States, the world’s largest Scotch whisky export market by value. The SMWS has reached an agreement with Spirit Imports, the Florida-based owner of the SMWS United States franchise, to supplement the local marketing and sales effort in partnership with ABCK Corp., a marketing firm led by longtime spirits industry executive Arnaud Brachet. Spirit Imports will continue to serve as the importer for the SMWS single cask bottlings and provide member support, while Brachet will lead a new campaign aimed at increasing the Society’s American membership.
Spirit Imports has owned the Society’s US franchise for 23 years, and markets a number of other spirits brands including the Classic Cask series of whiskies, Millstone, SIA, and William Wolf Bourbon, while also producing the Whisky Extravaganza festivals in cities around the US. The company was founded by Alan Shayne, who continues to manage it today with his family, with Gabrielle Shayne responsible for most of the day-to-day operations of the Society’s US chapter. “We have so much going on within our organizations between Spirit Imports and the Whisky Extravaganza,” she said in a telephone interview. “It’s just pretty much the resources were kind of tight…there’s so much going on that we just haven’t been able to focus on that sector of the business.”
“Alan and Gabby Shayne have been wonderful partners and ambassadors for the Society for many years in the States, and we’re delighted of course that that continues,” SMWS Chairman Paul Skipworth said in a telephone interview. Skipworth cited Arnaud Brachet’s 25-plus years of spirits industry experience, including stints as the global marketing director for Veuve Clicquot and the US marketing director for Belvedere Vodka. “He’s got a wealth of experience, and really, putting the Shaynes together with him gives us an incredibly strong team and presence in the States, which comes to what we’re trying to achieve.” Skipworth plans to use ABCK to increase both membership and services in the US market by hiring dedicated brand ambassadors and increasing the number of “partner” bars where the Society’s independent bottlings are available to members nationwide.
Skipworth also pledged to increase investment in the Society’s inventory of casks and make more of its bottlings available in the United States. “The US market is the biggest premium whisky market in the world…there’s an amazing group of very experienced consumers in whisky who are looking to progress on their whisky journey,” Skipworth said. “Given that the Society has the largest selection of single cask Single Malt whiskies in the world, we think that we are really well placed to satisfy the demand from American consumers.”
Under the Society’s structure, a tasting panel based in Edinburgh selects casks to be bottled under the SMWS label. While all of the bottlings are available to members in the UK, operators of the 18 SMWS international chapters are able to pick and choose which expressions to import and sell in their markets. The US selection has also been limited by government regulations requiring that whiskies be sold in 750ml bottles instead of the global standard 700 ml bottles that the Society uses in all of its other markets.
The Whisky Extravaganza festivals have been the Shayne family’s main vehicle for promoting the Society in the United States until now, and that relationship will be the one major change Society members see immediately. The family will continue to operate the festivals separately from the Society’s US chapter, and the SMWS will become just one of many brands exhibiting at the events. The Society’s participation in those events is still being negotiated, according to Shayne, with a goal of reaching a deal in time for the first event of the fall scheduled for October 20 in Chicago.
In addition to the membership and marketing push in the US, the Society is also making a major investment in Edinburgh with a complete remodeling project of its Queen Street venue. The changes will include more public space, including a ground floor whisky bar and retail outlet that will make a selection of the Society’s bottlings available to non-members for the first time. Society members will have their own private room on the second floor with table service and guided tastings available. “It’s our intention for this really to be Edinburgh’s primary whisky destination and something that anyone who’s in town with an interest in whisky will want to see, said SMWS marketing and spirits director Kai Ivalo in a telephone interview. Plans are for the work to be completed by August 1 in time for the month-long Edinburgh Festival, which attracts thousands of visitors to the city each August.
July 18, 2016 – George Dickel head distiller Allisa Henley has left Diageo’s Tullahoma, Tennessee distillery to join the upstart Popcorn Sutton Distillery as its master blender. The move reunites Henley with her predecessor and longtime mentor at Dickel, John Lunn, who left in March of 2015 to become Popcorn Sutton’s master distiller. Lunn has been working on a new premium gin that will make its debut this autumn, and the two will work together on aged whiskies planned for the future. Those spirits will be sold under the Avery’s Trail brand to distinguish them from Popcorn Sutton’s moonshine-style whiskies named for the distillery’s namesake, longtime moonshiner Popcorn Sutton.
Henley told WhiskyCast that Lunn and Popcorn Sutton CEO Megan Kvamme contacted her about joining the Newport, Kentucky distillery, and she made the decision to leave at the end of last month. “I will never diminish or take away from my 12 years at Dickel and what all was accomplished there,” she said in a telephone interview during her first day on the job. “There were a lot of things that have been done at Dickel in the past 12 years…a lot of new variants, the visitors center has grown…essentially, it’s like me getting to do that all over again.”
Henley was promoted to head distiller at Dickel after Lunn’s departure, and will be remembered for creating the 17-year-old George Dickel Distillery Reserve expression released last month. While she remains featured on the Dickel web site as of today, Diageo spokeswoman Allison Fleischer told WhiskyCast in an email that “we have an incredible team of whisky makers at Cascade Hollow who will continue to make George Dickel to our exacting specifications – chill charcoal mellowed and Handmade the Hard Way.”
Henley grew up just down the road from the Dickel distillery in Tullahoma, and still lives there with her family. She plans to make the three-hour-long commute from Tullahoma to Newport on a regular basis, since Lunn will continue to oversee day-to-day production. “As the blender, I’m going to get to come in from the creative side and come up with new ideas for products we can make and then partner with John and be like ‘OK, let’s figure out how to pull this off.” Eventually, Henley will be on the road helping to promote the Popcorn Sutton and Avery’s Trail brands in addition to her product development role.
July 13, 2016 – It’s almost as much of a American political convention tradition as funny hats, the phrase “the great state of…”, and the final balloon drop after the party’s presidential nominee gives his – or in this year’s case, her – acceptance speech. Planning for the Distilled Spirits Council’s convention week parties in Cleveland and Philadelphia started almost as soon as the primary campaigns got into full gear last summer. The spirits industry trade group will host parties on Monday night of each party’s convention with invitations to key politicians, media, and policy makers.
The Council’s Vice President of Government Relations, David Culver, calls the conventions not only a place to connect with lawmakers and influencers, but a way to promote the products of DSC members and the group’s responsible consumption program. “We don’t have a legislative agenda at either convention, but we do want to be able to showcase all of our member company brands and the cocktail culture,” he said in a telephone interview. “Both conventions are a great opportunity and always have been for us to build relationships with legislators at all levels…federal, state, and local.” The Council is co-sponsoring the events with The Wall Street Journal and the Locust Street Group.
The “Spirits of Cleveland” party will be on July 18 at Cleveland’s Old County Courthouse and feature a post-Prohibition theme with music and cocktails from the period. A week later, “One Hell of a Night” at Philadelphia’s World Café Live concert venue will feature Jason Isbell and headliner Joe Walsh – not the former Illinois Congressman who shouted “You Lie” during President Barack Obama’s 2009 address to a joint session of Congress, but the rock legend and former member of The Eagles. Both events will also feature locally-produced craft spirits in addition to special bottles provided by the Council’s larger members.
While a number of companies and trade groups have backed away from supporting the Republican convention in Cleveland, and many of the party’s key leaders have decided to skip the event to avoid being linked to presumptive GOP nominee Donald Trump, Culver said there was never any consideration of not taking part in both conventions. “We decided earlier this year well before the nominees were known for either convention that we were going to be supportive in both Cleveland and Philadelphia as we always have been, and I don’t see any reason for me not to say right now that you can plan on us being supportive again in 2020.” While declining to say what the Council will spend on each event, Culver noted that the budgets for both are roughly equal and in line with spending at previous conventions.
For the record, the Council is not taking a side in the presidential race. “We support both sides of the aisle, and we’re pleased to be supporting both conventions,” Culver said.
Links: Distilled Spirits Council
July 5, 2016 – The Balvenie’s longtime malt master, David Stewart, has virtually every award that can be presented to someone in the whisky industry and enough plaques for a small museum. During a ceremony at The Palace of Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh today, Stewart received an honour held by few in the industry when Queen Elizabeth appointed him a Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (MBE). Buckingham Palace and the Prime Minister’s office announced the appointment last winter in the Queen’s annual New Year’s Honours List, but the actual presentation was scheduled for this week during Her Majesty’s annual Holyrood Week series of royal events in Scotland. The award is a medal presented by the Queen to individuals honoring significant achievements or outstanding service to their community or profession.
Stewart joined William Grant & Sons as a whisky stocks clerk in 1962 and rose through the ranks to become the Malt Master for the company’s entire Scotch Whisky range. In 2009, he scaled back his workload to focus on The Balvenie’s single malt lineup while turning over responsibility for the rest of the range to his hand-picked successor, Brian Kinsman. Stewart is credited as one of the pioneers of the concept of secondary cask maturation with The Balvenie DoubleWood in 1993, and the use of cask “finishing” is common practice throughout the industry today.
“Who would have thought when I started off here in 1962 as a whisky stocks clerk that I would ever become a master blender and receive some of the awards from the industry, and now to have received this accolade – the MBE – which, you know…I would never have dreamt of having,” the modest Stewart said during a WhiskyCast interview after the honour was announced. In a news release, William Grant & Sons CEO Simon Hunt praised Stewart’s leadership over the years.
“David’s dedication, skill and modesty have made him one of the best loved and respected craftsmen in the business. David’s MBE is a testament to how well respected he is. He is considered to be one of the greatest master blenders and we are incredibly proud of him.”
The company plans to present Stewart with a book of congratulations signed by his colleagues and whisky lovers, with pages being sent around the world to collect signatures and messages before being bound in the style of a classic whisky stocks register similar to those Stewart has used over the years to track casks during maturation. In addition, The Balvenie has started a social media campaign to allow whisky connoisseurs to congratulate Stewart using the hashtag #RaiseADram.
Links: The Balvenie
June 24, 2016 – Thursday’s stunning victory for supporters of the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union means the one thing Scotch Whisky industry executives despise almost as much as tax increases – uncertainty. With long lead times for everything from new distillery construction to maturation of new spirit, industry leaders want as much stability as possible – and “Brexit” threatens to throw a giant monkey wrench into the works at a time when growth in Scotch Whisky exports has been hampered by existing global economic uncertainty.
“We’ll have to wait and see now how that plays out,” said Scotch Whisky Association spokesman David Williamson Friday morning, describing the “Brexit” vote as a “seismic” political event. Prime Minister David Cameron’s resignation following the referendum adds political flux into the mix as well. Cameron is likely to be joined by Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne, who had warned before the election that a “Leave” victory would likely mean significant tax increases on spirits and other goods. Cameron’s successor will likely be the one to trigger Article 50 of the European Union bylaws and begin the process of withdrawing the United Kingdom from the EU in a process expected to take at least a minimum of two years.
Williamson said the SWA’s main priority will be to minimize the potential impact from “Brexit”, since EU member nations account for around a third of overall Scotch Whisky exports. The trade body’s primary goal is to maintain as much access as possible to the European single market, which acts as a free-trade zone with no tariffs on exports between member nations. The industry also benefits currently from the EU’s trade treaties with other countries and geographical protection status for Scotch Whisky, and Williamson said the SWA will seek to keep as much of that in place as possible. The association had cited all three factors in its support for the “Remain” campaign leading up to the election, and Diageo chief executive Ivan Menezes spoke out in favor of the campaign
Adding to the political flux: Scotland’s future. Scottish voters overwhelmingly supported the “Remain” campaign, and Scottish National Party leaders are criticizing the outcome. First Minister Nicola Sturgeon told reporters that the “Brexit” vote could lead to a second Scottish independence referendum. “Scotland voted to stay in the EU. It is democratically unacceptable to be taken out of the EU against our will,” Sturgeon said. In 2014, Scottish voters rejected an independence referendum, but a number of opinion polls since that election have shown growing support for a second vote.
“We’ll take one referendum at a time,” Williamson said.
Scotch Whisky isn’t the only segment of the overall industry lamenting the vote. In Washington, the Distilled Spirits Council also expressed disappointment, noting that a trade treaty in place since 1994 allows duty-free exports of US-produced spirits to both the UK and the European Union. That treaty is one of many that will be affected by “Brexit”, and the trade group pledged to work with both the US and UK governments to ensure continued duty-free access to the UK market. According to Commerce Department statistics, the UK is the largest export market for American spirits with 2015 exports valued at $226.1 million. Approximately 86 percent of those exports are of American whiskies.
In addition, the US remains one of the two major export markets for Scotch Whisky.In terms of volume, the US is second only to France in Scotch Whisky exports. However, 2015 exports to the US were valued at £749 million, making the US the largest export market by value. To put the aftermath of the “Brexit” vote in comparison, that £749 million was worth $1,082,305,000 when the SWA released its report on May 17, based on that day’s exchange rate of $1.445 to the pound. When converted using Friday’s closing rate of $1.374 to the pound, the value of those exports drops to $1,029,440,000 – a decline of $52.8 million dollars.
Editor’s note: This story was updated with additional information.
Links: Scotch Whisky Association
June 11, 2016 – Imagine the outcry in France if politicians served a California sparkling wine instead of Champagne at official events? While Canadian Whisky supporters aren’t taking to the streets and building barricades in Ottawa yet, there is growing criticism as the new Speaker of Canada’s House of Commons continues the tradition of picking a “Speaker’s Selection” Scotch Whisky for use at official events. Nova Scotia MP Geoff Regan has picked a 12-year-old Aberlour single malt for use as official gifts and to be served at Parliamentary events.
“It’s really kind of a tone-deaf message that he’s giving here,” says Davin de Kergommeaux of CanadianWhisky.org, founder of the Canadian Whisky Awards and author of the book Canadian Whisky: A Portable Expert. “The message it sends is that Canadian Whisky is not as good as Scotch, and this of course just isn’t true. We have whiskies here readily available that are every bit as good as the very best Scotch whiskies and the very best Bourbon whiskies.”
Regan’s director of communications, Heather Bradley, noted in an email that the Aberlour was selected in a blind tasting conducted in January during the Speaker’s Burns Supper honoring the Scottish poet Robert Burns. According to Bradley, Regan insisted on including Canadian whiskies in the tasting, and said “he is proud of the many excellent Canadian products.” However, Bradley declined to disclose which whiskies were included in the tasting. The selection was also dependent on a supplier’s ability to meet specific requirements for “relabeling, quantity and the ability to enter into a legal agreement,” and Bradley said not all of the producers invited to participate in the selection process were able to comply with the requirements.
The “Speaker’s Selection” Scotch carries a special label and is available to Members of Parliament for use as gifts and to be served at official events. According to Bradley, Members pay $75 Canadian ($58.65 USD) per bottle, and the revenue from those sales covers the cost of the program. De Kergommeaux takes issue with that, noting that each Member has a government-funded budget for official expenses that can be used for “Speaker’s Selection” purchases – meaning Canadian taxpayers are footing the bill. It should be noted that Members are not getting the specially-labeled bottles at a discount, since the Liquor Control Board of Ontario’s web site lists Aberlour 12 at a retail price of $64.95 ($50.80 USD).
The tradition of a “Speaker’s Selection” Scotch began in Ottawa in 2003, when former Speaker Peter Milliken decided to follow the lead of the United Kingdom’s Parliament, where the House of Commons has had a “Speaker’s Scotch” for many years. Milliken picked single malts from Talisker and Dalwhinnie, while his successor, Andrew Scheer, picked a single malt from Glenmorangie. In an email, Bradley noted that Scotch Whisky has a role in Canada’s history as well, and that the country also celebrates Robert Burns’ birthday. Regan’s home of Nova Scotia was originally settled by Scottish emigrants, and the province’s name is translated as “New Scotland.” Ironically, Nova Scotia is also the home of Glenora Distillers, which was the first Canadian distillery to produce single malt whisky on a regular basis starting more than 25 years ago.
“Why does it have to be a single malt whisky anyway,” de Kergommeaux said in a telephone interview. “There are so many great Canadian whiskies…it doesn’t have to be a single malt, although if they want a single malt, there are at least five distilleries here with single malts that are worth considering.” The possibilities span all of Canada, from Glenora in Nova Scotia to Yukon Spirits in Whitehorse, Yukon Territory.
While de Kergommeaux objects to the Speaker’s selection, he does respect the Speaker’s taste. “That Aberlour he picked is a favorite of mine…but it shouldn’t be representing Canada. A Canadian Whisky should be representing Canada.”
Editor’s note: WhiskyCast’s Mark Gillespie serves on the Canadian Whisky Awards judging panel.