What should the avid whiskey drinker watch for this year? After speaking with leading voices across the industry, while personally remaining steadfast with all things whiskey over the past year, here's what to know.
Irish and Canadian Whisky Primed for Huge Year
Rye whiskey enjoyed its share of the spotlight in 2015, with more and more high-end products reaching store shelves, and every big and small distiller trying to find a way into the marketplace. The growth of rye whiskey has been meteoric over the past five years, rising a whopping 536 percent, according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States (DISCUS).
But which whiskey categories are next primed for their own growth spurts? What will own 2016?
One place to look is Irish whiskey. The category has experienced the same massive overall growth as rye, a 538 percent increase in U.S. sales, albeit over a longer period, from 2002 to 2014. Consider that while bourbon has a vastly larger market share than either rye or Irish whiskey, over the same period, 2002 to 2014, bourbon's rapid growth, which fueled shortage speculation over the past year, was closer to 50 percent over that timespan.
The growth of rye whiskey has been meteoric over the past five years, rising a whopping 536 percent...
On the subject of Irish whiskey, things seem ready to take off further, with new distilleries already open and others in the works, and new products and extensions being released. For instance, Ireland's Teeling Distillery is now operational and has brought whiskey distillation back to Dublin. Teeling currently has a diverse portfolio, including single malt and single grain expressions, along with older, premium offerings.
Elsewhere, other Irish single grain whiskeys are becoming more prominent too, such as the Greenore Single Grain 8 year old. With new interest in the category, companies have had more freedom to release a full range of styles. Highly touted expressions such as Green Spot and the Redbreast lineup also entice enthusiasts and gives them a jumping off point for further exploration.
But, Ireland isn't the only place set to take center stage to in 2016. Canada is in the spotlight right now after whiskey author Jim Murray named Crown Royal's Northern Harvest Rye the 2016 World Whisky of the Year. Whether or not it deserves that designation, or however much attention one should pay to a single man's opinion, Northern Harvest Rye is a great showcase of what Canadian whisky can be—smooth, well-rounded, and eminently drinkable, with a friendly price of $30.
Talking on the matter, Canadian whisky expert Davin de Kergommeaux says, "You disagree with Murray's specific choice? It doesn't really matter. Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye is now the ambassador for Canadian whisky worldwide."
Northern Harvest Rye is certainly one worth checking out, but it's not the only new Canadian whisky to explore, either. "I think we're in the early stages of a Canadian comeback," said National Director of Diageo's Masters of Whisky Ewan Morgan, in conjunction with a DISCUS spirits trends forecast. "We're also starting to see brands offering consumers the chance to taste their whiskies straight from the barrel, like Crown Royal Hand Selected Barrel, featuring the brand's coffey rye."
Alberta Rye Whisky Dark Batch is another great example of the Canadian market's further diversification. Alberta Dark Batch takes Canadian whisky in an entirely different direction than most of what has been traditionally available, as the category often gets stereotyped as cheap, sweet stuff meant for mixing. Here, find a far bigger and bolder profile, yet with that same Canadian affordability.
All Whiskey Is Good Whiskey for Cocktails
Behind the bar, the bulk of whiskey cocktails have been traditionally made with either bourbon or rye. Why stop there, though? Considering the aforementioned increased diversity of Irish and Canadian whiskies, there are more avenues to explore.
The same can be said for Japanese whisky, where, in Japan much of their whisky, along with the Scotch they drink, is enjoyed in highballs. A selection such as Hibiki Japanese Harmony can work across the full spectrum, enjoyed neat, used in a refreshing highball during a meal, or seamlessly put to use in a mixed libation. Of course, the ongoing love-fest for all things Japanese whisky may not be a new trend, but it's bound to continue increasing in the New Year as well.
Maxime Balay, Scotch Brand Director at Moët Hennessy USA, believes that Scotch fits cocktails too, even single malts: "As mixologists continue to push the envelope of their craft, 2015 saw the rise of single malt Scotch whisky as a key component to some of the country's best cocktail lists, and we fully expect the trend to continue in meteoric fashion next year."
... the ongoing love-fest for all things Japanese whisky may not be a new trend, but it's bound to continue ...
Further, there's no reason blended Scotch can't be put to more creative use than previously seen as well. For instance, The Famous Grouse teamed up with tea-based cocktail mixer company Owl's Brew this year to create two specially paired syrups. The Smoky Earl was crafted to go along with the peaty The Black Grouse, while The Famous Mint Tea was made to be used with The Famous Grouse.
More Diversity and Experimentation
Right now, driven by consumers' increased interest in new styles, special releases, and innovation, diversity and experimentation are the name of the game across every major whiskey category.
According to Sazerac Company President and CEO Mark Brown, consumers are ever-more interested in "[d]ifferent types and tastes in whiskey. Diversity, in a word."
Buffalo Trace has long been at the forefront there, with experimental releases, annual Antique Collection releases, and now with the new Warehouse X program, where the brand painstakingly tinkers with minute components which could affect the spirit's aging process. More is on the way, too. "We are continuing to lay down more experiments," confirmed Master Distiller Harlen Wheatley.
And Buffalo Trace certainly isn't the only brand to be doing so in the American market. Woodford Reserve has continued to increase its one-off releases and experiments, such as this year's Master's Collection 1838 Style White Corn, along with its Distillery Series, including Sweet Mash Redux and Double Double Oaked.
Meanwhile, Jim Beam continued to roll out its Signature Craft Harvest Bourbon Collection, a six-part program focusing on unique mash bills. The final two releases debuted this year, Triticale Bourbon and Six Row Barley Bourbon, and both are excellent and distinctive expressions.
Across the pond, the same holds true with Scotch, and increasingly that experimentation has also resulted in a meshing of global styles. Consider the new Bowmore Mizunara Cask Finish. The Islay distillery is known for its big peaty profile, but in this premium release, distillers finished the whisky in Japanese Mizunara oak casks obtained from Suntory. It's the first Islay single malt Scotch to ever be finished in Mizunara oak, and a great example of the type of innovation and partnerships that the industry is nurturing. The resulting Scotch shows a unique and unprecedented profile, intertwining peat and smoke with the floral and spicy character of Mizunara oak.
For consumers who have, in the past, been strict devotees of a single type of whiskey (e.g., only bourbon or only peated Scotch), it's now easier than ever to branch out into other categories thanks to the regional cross-pollination which is occurring within Scotland. Consider The Glenlivet Nàdurra Peated Whisky Cask. The release adds a peaty, smoky twist to the traditionally non-peated Glenlivet lineup.
"More people are crossing over in brown spirits, meaning if they are bourbon drinkers they'll try a Scotch whisky," said Beam Suntory Master Spirits Ambassador Iain McCallum in DISCUS's trends forecast. "A whisky like Auchentoshan American Oak is a good example ... One that would be appealing to more traditional bourbon drinkers."
Another choice there is the recent Glenfiddich 14 Year Old Bourbon Barrel. The expression is finished in new charred American oak barrels which impart the characteristics one would expect in bourbon rested in the same types of barrels. It's a new permanent addition to the Glenfiddich line.
Continued experimentation with all types of cask finishing processes and aging techniques continue to be a priority elsewhere across the globe. Everywhere from Taiwan's highly-touted Kavalan Whisky, to Seattle, Washington's Westland Distillery, makers of another surefire trend set to takeoff—the American single malt.
More Transparency and Better Educated Consumers
At the forefront of the whiskey world this year was talk of sourcing and labeling, as several companies were taken to task, both in and out of the courtroom, for illicit and deceptive practices. The outcome has been an increased transparency from companies looking to stay a step ahead, as well as better educated whiskey drinkers.
"As consumers continue to seek out artisan spirit brands, it is clear they want to know who made it, how it was made and the terroir of the raw materials," said Judd Zusel, Rémy Cointreau's Vice President of Marketing & Innovation in the DISCUS trends showcase. "They demand traceability and authenticity in their products. They want to know that people are involved in every step of the process."
Buzzwords like "craft" or "handmade" or "small batch" don't provide the same instant cachet they had previously. "The word 'craft' has been tossed about quite often in the last 12 months," said Edrington Director of Innovation and Brand Development Marc Bromfeld, along with the DISCUS report. "But consumers are getting wiser and looking deeper at how the products are actually produced."
At New York's The Flatiron Room, the bar continues to offer their whiskey classes to routinely sold out, enthusiastic crowds of imbibers looking to study up. "People are starting to look at whiskey as more than just a social lubricant," said owner Tommy Tardie. "They are treating it like a hobby, which is very exciting. They are seeking out knowledge and wanting to know what it is exactly that's in their glass."
Classes and workshops are one way to up whiskey knowledge, and the result is smarter consumers and savvier connoisseurs across all ages and demographics. "Customer based knowledge is skyrocketing," said Tardie. "A few years ago terms like 'non distiller producer,' 'mash bill,' and even 'angel's share' were gibberish to 95 percent of casual whiskey drinkers. Things are changing."
Becoming a well-educated whiskey drinker doesn't just improve one's own ability to find and enjoy quality whiskeys, but it also helps keep the industry in check. Believe it, distillers take notice.
"These days, consumers are definitely more educated on bourbon differences," said Buffalo Trace Master Distiller Wheatley, also noting that, "[c]onsumers continue to appreciate authenticity."
Whiskey enthusiasts made their mark in 2015, and the impact will be felt in the year ahead. We want new expressions and continued innovation, and an ability to explore more regions and exciting global releases. And we want to know the truth behind it.