Jim Beveridge has seen a few trends come and go in the Scotch category. He’s worked for Johnnie Walker for more than 36 years. In 2001 he became the brand’s master blender. Beveridge (pictured atop) possesses among the most discerning and respected palates in the world.
So what does this whisky legend see as Scotch’s pertinent trends in 2016? I had opportunity to ask Beveridge when he traveled through Miami last week for Diageo’s 2016 World Class bartender competition.
1) Millennials Dig Scotch
This generation has discovered a taste for brown spirits. And Scotch checks off a lot of boxes in terms of what appeals to Millennials.
“To Millennials, knowledge is very important,” says Beveridge. “Scotch has such an amazing story to tell. There’s lot of things to talk about and understand and that’s why Millennials are interested in Scotch.”
Experimentation is also important to Millennials. They are notoriously brand disloyal. So consumer education becomes key. Explains Beveridge, “If you want to attract them and get them to stay, then you have to educate them and show them the reasons to stay.”
2) Scotch Is Embracing Cocktails — And Vice Versa
Scotch was once seen as unfit for cocktails. The spirit was too venerable for mixing. And its strong smoky flavors did not blend well into drinks.
But the modern mixology movement has warmly accepted Scotch. For instance: the Penecilin. Though this does come with risks. “If a Scotch cocktail doesn’t work, then it’s not good at all,” says Beveridge. “You have to be careful how you use it because of its smokiness. We have to communicate to the bartenders that these are only for certain cocktails”
Mixed correctly into cocktails, Scotch works just fine. I tasted many quality, balanced Scotch drinks during World Class 2016. Including a notable Scotch and soda. This classic combo contained Lagavulin, the extra-sweet Mexican brand of Coca Cola, orange blossom water and chocolate shavings. It was sweet, dry, smoky, and heavy with leathery flavor.
And it demonstrated that the potent flavors of Scotch could be woven into cocktails with tasty effectiveness if balanced correctly.
3) Blenders Are Bringing In Mixologists
As consumers increasingly gain interest in Scotch cocktails, whisky blenders are working with mixologists to help create spirits that fit the needs of bartenders. Beveridge himself recently collaborated with world-renowned mixologist Charles Joly on a new blend intended for craft cocktails.
The key in making more-mixable Scotches? Simplicity, believes Beveridge. “We’re progressing towards simpler expressions of flavors, and a deeper understanding of why those flavors work.”
To that end, whenever he creates new blends, Beveridge tastes them with soda water to ensure that they work in that classic cocktail.
4) Experimentation Is As Important As Ever
Johnnie Walker has always been defined by experimentation, Beveridge explains. But he adds that this tradition is even more important in today’s robust Scotch market.
There simply is not enough whisky to meet consumer demand. Brands in response are creating new blends and products through innovation.
Johnnie Walker for instance recently released a Rye Cask Finish from the brand’s new Blenders Batch line. This finishes whisky in used rye barrels for a spicy twist on traditional Scotch.
Beveridge says he made this whisky, on one hand, with Manhattans in mind. But he also creates unusual Scotches today because booming consumer demand allows for “radically different expressions of whisky. We’re much more about experimentation now.”
Nevertheless, he must be careful not to innovate Scotch into something too challenging for normal consumers. “I would never want them to regret a purchase,” Beveridge says. “When they’re buying your bottle, that’s a trust you build with the consumer. I would never want to betray that trust.”
5) Consumer Education Is Critical
Millennials are not the only generation today interested in what they drink. A great many consumers now care about the finer details about their sippers and cocktails.
So labels on bottles in the new Blenders Batch line include more info than usual. They explain why that particular blend works, and even provide background about the specific blender who conceived of the recipe. “This is in response to today’s consumer, who have a thirst for knowledge,” Beveridge says.
People now are not content with simply drinking whisky. “They want to know why they’re drinking something. They want to be able to tell their friends and colleagues why they’re drinking it,” Beveridge explains.
Millennials, of course, define this consumer trend. They are empowered by today’s unprecedented availability of information. Digital devices connected to the internet allow them to find out whatever they want, whenever they want, and then share this info with everyone else.
In this world, the brand that best communicates its story — its history, production, quality and people — is best positioned for success. “Everyone is now looking for a curator to tell them what to drink,” explains Beveridge.
6) You Don’t Have To Be A Snob To Appreciate Scotch
Beveridge rejects the idea that only connoisseurs or experienced drinkers can appreciate good Scotch. “I think most people have the skills necessary to discern whisky,” he says.
Of course, these skills develop with time as people sample more spirits. For the Scotch novice, Beveridge does not believe there is necessarily an optimal place to start.
“I think the obvious place is probably in the lighter styles, but some people have success starting with the stronger flavors and working their way backwards,” he says. “Perhaps they should start with Johnnie Walker Black, since that’s the center of the Scotch universe.”
Kyle Swartz is associate editor of Beverage Dynamics Magazine. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org