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SB Voices: Can Irish whiskey reinvent Scotch?

Irish whiskey’s popularity has grown at an astounding rate in recent years. But rather than stealing market share from its Scottish counterpart, could it help redefine Scotch whisky’s image?

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Can Irish whiskey help reshape people’s views on Scotch?

Yesterday (Monday), the tables were turned and I found myself in the hot seat being quizzed about Irish whiskey for BBC Radio 4 show You & Yours. As someone who’s much more comfortable firing questions, rather than being in the firing line, it was a nerve-wracking experience – but a reality check about how people outside of the spirits industry still perceive whisk(e)y.

As is often the way in the media world, time was against us and the radio interview took a different turn to what I’d been expecting and prepared to answer. Thankfully, the written word isn’t quite as time sensitive as live broadcasting, allowing me to reflect in more detail on the programme’s discussions.

The show was interested in highlighting Irish whiskey’s growing popularity, which has enjoyed phenomenal success over the last few years. In 2013, there were just four operational distilleries in Ireland. This number had multiplied to 21 by November last year, when Waterford’s Blackwater Distillery switched on its stills. One of the questions I was asked during the You & Yours interview was whether Irish whiskey was adding to the market, or taking away from Scotch.

From where I’m standing, and from interviews I’ve conducted myself in the past, Irish whiskey is definitely adding to the whisk(e)y scene and helping it thrive. I see no need why it has to be an ‘us versus them’, or ‘Irish versus Scotch’ rivalry; there’s room for everyone (provided products are of high quality) and there are benefits to be enjoyed by both sides – and other whisky styles as well – if Irish whiskey continues to flourish.

Before I continue, let me be clear: I’m a big whisk(e)y fan (another talking point we had no time for on air). I love Scotch, I love Irish whiskey – I spent New Year’s Eve putting my Bourbon Old Fashioned-making skills (and drinking ability) to the test (results: questionable…)

But Scotch has had a long-held reputation of being a drink for an older generation, ‘a man’s drink’ – again, something that was supposed to be explored in more detail during the programme, but was omitted due to time constraints. I know these historic notions are not something people like to hear about Scotch, but it’s also not helpful to anyone for us to bury our heads in the sand and pretend that these misconceptions don’t still exist.

They do.

It’s why the industry gets so excited about bartenders mixing Scotch in cocktails, why we need campaigns such as #OurWhisky to show people what the modern-day whisky drinker looks like – and no, they don’t all look like your grandparents, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t still a large section of society that holds onto this ideal.

Bartenders are embracing mixing Scotch in cocktails more and more these days

For whatever reason, Irish whiskey has managed to avoid being typified in the same way as Scotch – and if it is able to bring newcomers to the category because of that, it can surely only help Scotch in its fight to break down misconceptions about who whisky is for and how it can be enjoyed. And that’s why I don’t think it’s a case of Irish taking away from Scotch; there’s a global behavioural shift towards whisky that still needs to happen, and if one part of the whisk(e)y category succeeds at this, there will be more opportunities for the wider whisk(e)y world to also benefit.

Evidently, there’s huge work to be done if we are to really change people’s views on whisk(e)y. The vox pops that aired before my interview were fiercely against Scotch and in favour of Irish to emphasise the latter’s popularity. “It tastes like dirt,” quipped one interviewee, who expressed her disdain at peated expressions. Of course, we, within the industry, know that not all Scotch is peated. And if a person is a fan of Irish, they will most likely be able to find a Scotch whisky that’s also palatable to them.

However, it’s very easy to get stuck inside the industry bubble. Yes, there is fantastic work going on across the sector to remove prejudice against whisky, to open up the category to more people, regardless of gender, regardless of age, regardless of class status – but more still needs to be done. We still have not reached a point where Scotch whisky is as approachable as we would like it to be, where it is as understood by consumers from all backgrounds and walks of life as we would like it to be. Change within the trade is great, and yes, change is also apparent among consumers. But I’m not convinced that it’s at the level we like to tell ourselves it’s reached.

Your average consumer is still not as aware of the trends, styles and flexibility of the whisky category as those of us who are immersed in it on a daily basis. The vox pops that accompanied the interview are proof of this problem. The conversation about whisk(e)y needs to be louder, it needs to break through industry parameters and reach regular consumers on a relatable level. Only then will we start to see real change in people’s attitudes towards whisk(e)y and create a truly inclusive spirit.

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