Today, U.S. depletions of single malt Scotch stand at nearly 1.75 million cases, up from fewer than a million cases a decade ago. The category now accounts for 23% of all Scotch sales in the U.S. market, compared to a 13% share back in 2010. More importantly, single malt’s dynamism in the marketplace continues to grow, propelled by an innovation thrust that’s likely to gain greater impetus from recent changes in production rules by the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA).
The SWA’s new regulations, announced in June, state that Scotch whisky must be matured in new oak casks or oak casks that have been used only to mature wine, beer, or spirits. There are some exceptions, such as casks used for spirits and beer that contained added fruit, flavoring, or sweeteners. But the new rules do provide some clarity: Previously, there was no firm language on what cask types were permitted beyond the material (oak) and size (no more than 700 liters), along with the addition that “most casks will previously have been used to mature other alcoholic beverages,” with Bourbon and fortified wine (mainly Sherry) being the most prevalent. Scotch makers looking to employ other cask types were required to consult with the SWA—and were often rebuffed. Last year, for example, the organization reportedly quashed Diageo’s attempt to release a Scotch finished in Don Julio Tequila casks. But now the rules have changed, allowing the use of Tequila casks and other barrel types.
The new guidelines aim to bring Scotch whisky up to speed with its global competitors, many of whom are further along in cask-finishing innovation, and Scotch distillers are keen to capitalize on the change. “We’re still restricted in that the liquid must be aged in oak, but the new freedom to use Tequila, mezcal, or Calvados casks gives us greater opportunity to be more playful about what we do,” says Iain Allen, global brand ambassador for the Glen Moray single malt Scotch brand. “We’ve got quite a few casks sitting in the warehouse. Right now it’s about seeing how they mature.” Glen Moray’s core cask finishes currently include Port, Sherry, Chardonnay, and Cabernet Sauvignon ($30 a 750-ml.), along with higher-end expressions such as a 21-year-old ($180) finished in Port casks.
While the SWA traditionally has maintained careful oversight of innovation, creative cask experimentation has managed to fill the single malt space over the years. Five years ago, Glenmorangie began incorporating Pedro Ximénez (PX) casks into the mix in its Lasanta expression, which previously had been aged in Bourbon and Oloroso Sherry casks. “PX is known as the king of Sherries, and it lends a more concentrated, dark chocolatey finish,” notes Brendan McCarron, Glenmorangie’s head of maturing whisky stocks. “We now finish 25%-30% of Lasanta in PX, and it gives a more sumptuous, longer-lasting palate to the whisky.”
PX casks also have been playing a more prominent role at Glenmorangie’s sister brand Ardbeg (both are owned by Moët Hennessy). In 2017, Ardbeg released An Oa, which McCarron notes is smokier and sweeter than the flagship 10-year-old. “The sweetness of An Oa comes from the PX casks, but to ensure that the signature smokiness comes through, we also use virgin American oak,” McCarron says. “These two very different cask types speak to each other in a way.” An Oa also spends at least three months in a massive, wooden “gathering vat” at the distillery, which helps round out the whisky prior to bottling.
Ardbeg also flexes its experimental muscle with the annual release of a limited-edition whisky on Ardbeg Day, held each year at the end of the weeklong Islay Festival, Fèis Ìle, in May. This year’s edition was Ardbeg Drum, made from whiskies finished in rum casks for three, four, and five years. “We tried to pack as much rum flavor into Ardbeg Drum as we possibly could,” notes McCarron. Though consumer response was overwhelmingly positive, McCarron says there are no plans for a new rum barrel-aged expression of Ardbeg. The brand recently added an age-statement label to its permanent lineup for the first time in two decades with Ardbeg Traigh Bahn ($300 a 750-ml.). The 19-year-old expression is aged in American oak and Oloroso Sherry casks and will be released annually as a small-batch product.
Glenlivet, the leading single malt brand in the U.S. market at 429,000 cases, has seen success in offering expressions that depart from tradition. Its latest release, a 14-year-old whisky ($55 a 750-ml.) that debuted in August, was initially matured in American oak and first-fill Sherry casks and then finished in Cognac casks. Called Cognac Cask Selection, the new release is a U.S. exclusive. This fall, rival Glenfiddich is releasing Glenfiddich Grand Cru ($300), a 40% abv expression aged 23 years and finished in French oak casks previously used for aging French sparkling wine.
At Glenfiddich’s sister brand Balvenie, this year master blender David Stewart curated the release of The Balvenie Stories, a collection of three single malt whiskies with unique production differences: The Sweet Toast of American Oak ($60 a 750-ml.), The Week of Peat ($99), and A Day of Dark Barley ($799). The Sweet Toast of American Oak is a 12-year-old whisky bottled at 43% abv that’s finished for four months in twice-toasted virgin oak casks from Kelvin Cooperage in Kentucky. The Week of Peat, meanwhile, is a 14-year-old expression at 48.3% abv that replaces the brand’s vintage-dated Peat Week label. It uses barley malted with Highlands peat to produce a gently peated whisky. A Day of Dark Barley—the sole limited-release expression of the three—is a 26-year-old whisky made with roasted dark barley that’s blended into the brand’s traditional barley mix.
Grain is notably emerging as much more of a distinguishing factor for some distillers. In 2011, Bruichladdich debuted Islay Barley, a whisky that uses only locally grown grains. The 2010 vintage, which used Optic and Oxbridge barley varieties grown on eight Islay family farms, won the No.-9 spot in Whisky Advocate’s 2017 Top 20. Part of the Rémy Cointreau portfolio, Bruichladdich also makes the heavily peated Port Charlotte and Octomore brands. Elsewhere on Islay, independently owned Kilchoman Distillery touts its 100%-Islay single malt, produced locally from grain to bottle.
For all the major players, staying relevant is a constant mission. With its Enigma and Code releases, Glenlivet has taken a slightly different approach to attracting consumer attention in a crowded, competitive single malt Scotch sphere. A limited release, Glenlivet Code ($120 a 750-ml.) launched in 2018 with no cask information or tasting notes. The brand intended to test consumers’ perception of single malt whisky, making for an interactive drinking experience. Official tasting notes for Code finally were revealed at the end of last year. This year, Code was followed up by Enigma ($119), which, like its predecessor, initially discloses no production details.
In a move to reach a wider spectrum of consumers, William Grant & Sons announced the launch of Aerstone, a new single malt Scotch brand, in September. The label aims to simplify the complex language that often surrounds Scotch whiskies through two expressions: Land Cask and Sea Cask. The former is a peated single malt that uses Highland peat, while the latter is a more typical Speyside-style whisky. Both offerings carry 10-year-old age statements, retail at just $29 a 750-ml., and include clear tasting notes throughout the packaging.
At Laphroaig and Bowmore—both owned by Beam Suntory—keeping a high profile is key. “As consumers continue to explore different whisk(e)y segments, the main challenge for single malts will be to ensure we’re top of mind in a sea of choice,” says Ivan Hidalgo, managing director of the Beam Suntory Scotch portfolio. To that end, Laphroaig has actively added to its cask-strength range, releasing a 10-year-old Cask Strength ($70 a 750-ml.) last year that finished at No. 7 on Whisky Advocate’s 2018 Top 20, and, more recently, the 2019 Cairdeas ($80), a limited-edition, cask-strength version of the distillery’s Triple Wood expression.
Speyside single malt brand Tamdhu has gained attention with high-strength whiskies that use one of the most traditional Scotch components—Sherry casks. Owner Ian Macleod Distillers purchased the brand from Edrington in 2011 and has worked diligently to revive it. At the time of acquisition, Tamdhu had only one expression—a 10-year-old whisky. Today, the lineup includes 12- and 15-year-old expressions, as well as Tamdhu Batch Strength, an annual release that first launched in 2015. Batch Strength has breathed fresh life into Sherry cask aging, and its second release, Tamdhu Batch Strength 002, finished at No. 8 on Whisky Advocate’s Top 20 list in 2017. “When you look at the market, there’s not many high-strength, Sherry cask-matured whiskies,” says Tamdhu international brand ambassador Gordon Dundas. “We’re developing a real following because of those whiskies.” The current version, Batch Strength 004 ($90 a 750-ml.), is a robust, 57.8% abv Sherry bomb that was released earlier this year.
In a move to maintain high visibility for a long-standing label, Glenmorangie recently made waves in the age statement space with its Port-finished Quinta Ruban expression. In the past, Quinta Ruban carried a 12-year age statement, but contained 13- and 14-year-old whiskies as well. Under the new recipe, Quinta Ruban is all 14 years old—and at a price ($55 a 750-ml.) that will remain the same. “I’m an advocate of the idea that age doesn’t necessarily mean better,” says McCarron. “It wasn’t that we didn’t like the whisky. But the main flavor drivers we noticed—notes of dark chocolate and Seville orange—come through more at 14 years old.” The extra two years of aging is done in Port casks.
As innovation ramps up across the single malt Scotch space, expansion is ongoing—often with an emphasis on highlighting heritage along with modernization. Edrington-owned Macallan unveiled its new distillery in Speyside last summer after a construction project that took three and a half years. The new facility has 14 stills, all of which are perfect replicas of those at the original distillery, in an effort to ensure consistency across the range. Capacity has increased by about 33%, at around 15 million liters of pure alcohol annually. The site also has a new visitors center; highlights include a 4-D experience that illustrates Sherry cask production in Spain, as well as a display of more than 3,000 bottles that showcase the range of natural colors Macallan’s whisky takes on through cask maturation.
Loch Lomond Group recently expanded its Glen Scotia distillery in Campbeltown, adding two palletized warehouses and a dunnage warehouse where nosing, tasting, and tours now take place. Glen Scotia remains relatively small, with annual production of around 600,000 liters, but Loch Lomond Group operations director Bill White hopes to attract more tourism and highlight the brand’s heritage. “The visitors center is very much an adjunct of Victorian times,” he says. “We’re trying to dial up the heritage associated with Glen Scotia and the region as much as possible, as we know we’re part of a special place.”
Moët Hennessy has been expanding at both Glenmorangie and Ardbeg, with Glenmorangie recently adding an additional wash still and spirit still, as well as new mashing and fermentation facilities, while Ardbeg has gained two stills. “We’re doubling our potential capacity over the next eight years,” says McCarron. “We’ll eventually have the liquid we need, and plenty of room to play and explore our more innovative ideas.” McCarron is quick to note that the expansion—which will double Ardbeg’s annual capacity from 1 million to 2 million liters—will be carried out gradually, to guard against any potential future issues of oversupply.
At retail, single malt consumers still seem content with the category’s higher price points. “We get people who come in after work and get a bottle of single malt for $90-$100, regularly,” says David Gordon, co-owner of the five-unit, Waltham, Massachusetts-based Gordon’s Fine Wine & Liquors. The Gordon’s single malt Scotch selection has grown to encompass over 300 SKUs, and single malt brands are frequently featured at weekly Whisk(e)y Wednesday tasting events.
Similarly, at The Whisky Shop in San Francisco, which offers some 700 single malt Scotch whiskies, consumers are drawn to the higher end. “Most people will happily come in and buy bottles priced at $60-$120,” says owner Mark Stewart Cassidy. “And that’s where most of our selection lies.” Popular expressions at The Whisky Shop include Oban 14-year-old ($83 a 750-ml.), Laguvalin 16-year-old ($115), and Talisker 10-year-old ($73).
Amid all its new expressions and expanded distilleries, it still appears that single malt is in many ways just getting started. For his part, McCarron is looking forward to Ardbeg’s—and single malt Scotch’s—bright future. “It’s a tough market, with Bourbon, rye, Japanese, Taiwanese, and even Australian whiskies doing well,” he says. “The competition is crazy, but Scotland is still making unique, distinctive, incredible whiskies. I’m confident that all our expressions, core and new, illustrate that.”