Bartenders are exploring new ways to serve scotch whisky, reports Mark Ludmon in Bar magazine
From the Rob Roy to the Blood & Sand, there are few classic cocktails made with scotch, with only the Penicillin – created in 2005 by Sam Ross at Milk & Honey in New York City – dating from the last few decades. Leading supplier Speciality Drinks, a long-time champion of whisky, has been endeavouring to change that with a competition to find a new classic recipe. The winner this year was the Claymore, combining 45ml of Chivas Regal 12 Year Old with 15ml of a champagne cordial – described by its creator, Rhys Wilson of London’s Happiness Forgets, as like “a delicate scotch Gimlet”. Its simplicity, versatility and broad appeal won over the judges who included Matt Whiley of London bar Scout, bartending legend Brian Silva and drinks writer Alice Lascelles. “It was simple and sophisticated and let the whisky really sing,” she points out.
Bartenders’ passion for using whisky was inspiring, says Speciality Drinks co-founder Sukhinder Singh, another of the judges. “Scotch whisky can be amazing in cocktails. There is such a great range of flavours.” This message is certainly getting through to the best bars where scotch now figures on most cocktail menus but there is still a job to be done to reach the mainstream, points out Georgie Bell, global ambassador for Bacardi’s malts such as Aberfeldy and Craigellachie. “I love to sip a whisky neat but we all want to make it more approachable. I’m a firm believer that single malts are there to be mixed so long as they are mixed appropriately.” She tackles this in bartender training, looking at how a recipe can be tailored to each unique expression. “You need to be trying the whisky first and see how you can complement and highlight some of those flavours. Some bartenders are using whisky in cocktails only for its smoky qualities but there’s a huge spectrum of flavours within the whisky category.”
To broaden the appeal of mixing scotch, Georgie is an advocate of the highball – a simple mix of scotch and soda water over ice. “It was the original whisky cocktail back in the 1890s. There are so many simple ways that people can play around with mixers and modifiers and garnishes and you can tailor it to your whisky.” One of Georgie’s favourite twists on this is to use the elegant, light and fruity Aultmore 12 Year Old single malt with soda plus a splash of Martini Bianco vermouth and pear slices.
These “simple and straightforward” serves are among recommendations from on-trade supplier Matthew Clark for broadening whisky’s appeal. “With a reputation for being enjoyed by an older generation, being drunk neat and the apparent perception of its inability to be mixed, scotch can sometimes be seen as a difficult nut to crack in terms of introducing new drinkers to the category,” points out Ryan Tucker, Matthew Clark’s spirits category marketing manager. “Scotch whisky is in fact an extremely versatile spirit and is much more than a drink to be enjoyed neat.” He recommends using Fever-Tree’s new Smoky Ginger Ale or Spiced Orange Ginger Ale for mixing with a scotch such as The Balvenie Double Wood 12 Year Old, a rich and complex whisky finished in ex-sherry casks.
R&B Distillers has been working with Fentimans’ natural, botanically brewed mixers to find new ways of drinking its single grain whisky Borders, made with 50% wheat and 50% malted barley and finished in ex-oloroso sherry casks, bottled at 51.7% ABV. “Looking for a whisky alternative to the classic G&T, we started experimenting with the extensive range from Fentimans because we felt their story shared our values,” explains brand ambassador Chris Hoban. Fentimans Curiosity Cola complements the whisky’s sweet vanilla notes while the spirit’s herbaceous notes are picked up by Fentimans Rose Lemonade.
As global brand ambassador for Chivas Regal for the past 13 years, Max Warner has seen scotch being increasingly mixed. “I have noticed over the past five years in the top bars, where before people were drinking bourbon-based drinks and classics like an Old Fashioned and Manhattan that were originally made with ryes or bourbons, drinks are now being made with scotch whisky. Bartenders are using scotch in a much more creative way, and the scotch whisky companies are embracing that.”
Creativity has been driven by Chivas Regal through its annual Chivas Masters competition which this year was won in the UK by Rhys from Happiness Forgets. The global winner was Japanese bartender Atsushi Suzuki, from the Sober Company in Shanghai representing China, who created a ritual serve using Chivas Regal 12 where the drink could be shared and personalised in different countries. But Max also champions a classic-style serve of a Chivas Collins, building 50ml of Chivas Regal 12 Year Old with 100ml of lemonade and 50ml of soda water over ice, garnished with two green apple slices and a wheel of lime. “It is about making a drink that reflects the flavour profile of the whisky and is easy to make,” he explains.
On top of Chivas Masters, the brand helps bartenders to understand the profile of its whiskies and the art of blending through activities such as The Chivas Lab. Beam Suntory has gone one step further with its Auchentoshan single malt by recruiting bartenders from around the world to blend their own unique whisky through its New Malt Order collective. Selected from six countries, the latest 12-strong contingent – including Lachlan Rooney (pictured above) from The Voodoo Rooms in Edinburgh and Charles Roche from Scout in London – came together at the distillery in Glasgow in September to select casks for a second edition of The Bartender’s Malt for launching next year.
While volumes of premium single malts are growing 3.7% year on year, traditional blended whiskies are in decline, with volumes down 7%, according to the latest figures from on-trade research firm CGA. Against this background, Edrington has relaunched its blended scotch The Naked Grouse as a blended malt to make it appeal more to “a younger consumer that’s not tied to conventional whisky rules”. Made from a blend of single malts, it is recommended for highballs and other mixed drinks including the simple serve of whisky with cherry cola or cherry soda over ice, garnished with a squeeze of fresh lime and a cherry. “The transition from a blended scotch to a malt is being made in response to the increasing popularity of single malts and demand from bartenders for an accessible whisky with ‘distinctive’ flavour,” explains global marketing manager Elaine Miller.
For Johnnie Walker blended scotch, Diageo Reserve is highlighting the art of blending through its new Blenders’ Batch series, an experimental collection that presents distinctive flavours and a good base for cocktails. The intense Espresso Roast expression offers notes of rich coffee and dark chocolate, made with heavily roasted barley and blended with input from leading bartender Ryan Chetiyawardana, owner of London bars including Dandelyan, alongside Johnnie Walker’s brand ambassador, Ali Reynolds. The second in the series is the smooth Rum Cask Finish with hints of the Caribbean rum originally held in the casks used to condition the whisky.
As well as through mixing, whisky can be made more accessible through food pairing, suggests Alwynne Gwilt, brand ambassador for single malt The Balvenie. She has explored how different whiskies match with the flavours and terroirs of different chocolates as well as how scotch complements ice cream. While attitudes are changing, there is still a lot of misconception about whisky in general, she adds. “There really is still a long way to go to break down those boundaries that many people find.”
Case study: Ardnamurchan in Glasgow
Ardnamurchan Scottish Bar & Restaurant in Glasgow, part of Star Pubs & Bars’ leased estate, stocks 80 malt whiskies, with most coming from Scotland. These are selected to present the characteristics of each of the five producing regions at a range of price points. Most whisky sales are at the end of meals, with staff trained to upsell to something like a 25-year-old single malt. “Our target is to get diners to spend an additional £10 on malt whiskies on top of the £100 they spend on dinner,” explains Neil Douglas who runs Ardnamurchan with his wife, Julie (pictured). “This works because of the staff’s product knowledge and diners’ desire to have a Scottish experience.”
Case study: Strongroom Bar & Kitchen
On-trade supplier Matthew Clark has worked with Strongroom Bar & Kitchen in Shoreditch, London, to help enhance whisky sales, especially scotch. To encourage trial, whiskies have been set out by flavour profile rather than the more traditional system of location but the menu also provides maps and information so consumers can learn about what they are drinking. Consumer masterclasses are held two Wednesdays a month, supported by brand owners introduced through Matthew Clark, which has helped build a loyal following and increased the level of consumer trial. Category training has also been provided through Matthew Clark so that staff can offer recommendations to customers based on what they have previously enjoyed.
Originally published in the November 2017 print edition of Bar magazine.