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SB Voices: Scotch has never been so accessible

Investment plans and an affordable, experimental approach to Scotch whisky are creating opportunities for new drinkers to access the category – more than ever before, says Melita Kiely.

Scotch whisky
Scotch whisky is becoming more accessible to a wider audience

Long-time followers of the spirits industry may recall Diageo’s grand Scotch whisky expansion plans of 2012. The Johnnie Walker owner intended to splash a staggering £1 billion on Scotch whisky production over a five-year period.

But in an unfortunate turn of events, currency volatility, political instability and austerity measures in China brought the programme to an abrupt halt in 2014. Global demand for Scotch stalled and exports to China plummeted 30% in 2013 to £51m, according to figures from the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA).

Today’s picture looks drastically different. At the start of this week, Diageo announced the “biggest single investment” in Scotch whisky tourism the industry has ever seen. The Lagavulin producer will spend £150m (US$215m) on an extensive upgrade of its Scotch whisky visitor centres, as well as a new Johnnie Walker experience in Edinburgh, phased over the next three years.

Glenkinchie, Cardhu, Caol Ila, Clynelish, Lagavulin, Talisker, Glen Ord, Oban, Dalwhinnie, Blair Athol, Cragganmore and Royal Lochnagar – each distillery will see its visitor centre upgraded.

It is hoped the investment will appeal to the ever-growing number of tourists who flock to Scotland every year. Diageo’s Scotch whisky distilleries welcomed 440,260 visitors last year, an increase of 15.2% compared to 2016, while the SWA forecasts another positive year for whisky tourism in 2018.

Developing these tangible points of access to Scotch whisky brands is sure to garner even greater intrigue in the category – and entice a new generation of whisky drinkers. Scotch has worked hard to shake off its ‘stuffy’ image of gentlemen swilling Scotch whisky glasses while smoking cigars in dark, leather-clad rooms. And as it’s grown, Scotch has evolved to become vastly more accessible to a younger, more diverse consumer base – and those on tighter budgets.

Just look at brands such as The Famous Grouse, which are spearheading this part of the market. The blended Scotch brand unveiled a new collection of experimental expressions last week. The Cask Series aims to be an “everyday premium” range of blended Scotch whiskies and an “affordable” way to allow curious consumers to experiment with new whisky styles. Though I’m yet to try the inaugural release – The Famous Grouse Bourbon Cask – at £19 a bottle, it certainly lives up to its affordable aims.

Scotch whisky is, at last, viewed as a spirit for all demographics – and it’s crucial its accessibility is enhanced even further to maintain momentum. There’s a stark change in confidence in the category compared to several years’ prior – and huge cause for optimism in Scotch whisky’s potential.

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