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The New Scary World Of Whisky

Updated: Mar 5

Shadow of a man in a barrel cask warehouse

Image by The Whisky Ardvark

Being a whisky enthusiast can be a demanding and time-consuming hobby. The industry is constantly evolving and growing at an unprecedented rate, making it difficult to stay up-to-date. Unlike the first and second whisky booms in the late 1800s and post-WWII, this time the trend is spreading worldwide, with new distilleries emerging rapidly.

Exploring the complex realm of whisky can incite fascination and stimulation in some, but for others, it may prove to be an overwhelming and potentially scary experience, prompting them to contemplate relinquishing the drink altogether. Let us delve into the underlying reasons for this dichotomy.


'Short' Look Into The Past

To understand why some might be losing interest in whisky, we must understand what has happened in the last 100 years.

During the early 1900s, various legislations were introduced to regulate whisky production and ensure fair competition among distillers, blenders and consumers. The first minimum age limits for whisky were established in Scotland to maintain the quality of bottled whisky. However, the World Wars, the Great Depression and the temperance movement had a negative impact on the industry, causing many of the 180 distilleries in the UK (including Ireland) to shut down or become inactive during the war years. Only eight distilleries remained operational, but fortunately, many were later revived. Nonetheless, the 1920s alone saw the loss of 44 distilleries.

vintage look map of Scotland whisky distilleries

Image by Kevin Sheehan

Meanwhile, the prohibition hit the whiskey industry hard in the USA - spearing less than 20 distilleries from the previous estimate of 3,000.

Following the struggles and eventual prosperity, the industry experienced a revitalisation. Glenfiddich launched the first official commercial bottle of single malt in the 1960s, marking a new era in Scotch whisky. However, the 1980s saw a decrease in demand, resulting in the closure of 19 distilleries and the mothballing of many more due to overproduction. New regulations were enacted, such as the minimum 40% ABV bottling requirement and the ban on additives in Scotch whisky.

As we entered the 90s, six more distilleries in Scotland closed down. However, some distilleries came up with innovative ideas to regain consumer attention. In 1993, the first ever double cask aged single malt (Balvenie 12yo Doublewood) and the first rare collectable whisky (Black Bowmore 1964) were launched. These fresh concepts opened up new possibilities for the industry, ranging from whisky writing to bottling limited-edition releases and promoting diversity.

First cask finished whisky Balvenie double wood and first collectible whisky Black Bowmore 1964

Images by Best of Wine & The Whisky Exchange


The 2000s In Scotland

The 2000s saw a significant shift in the industry, with the introduction of Special Releases capturing consumers' attention. Limited-release expressions, cask-strength whiskies and drams from closed distilleries started to become highly sought after. Furthermore, there was a growing interest in spirits history, leading to an appreciation for the distinct character of single malts. This laid the foundation for whisky enthusiasts to delve deeper into their passion.

Diageo special releases 2001

Image by The Whisky Ardvark - First trio of Special Releases

In hindsight, it was easy to keep up with the changes in the industry. Even though new releases were introduced, they might have been far apart - not to mention the opening of new distilleries, which would have been the talk of the town for months.

In 2005, a small new whisky distillery would start yet another chapter. Kilchoman is considered the first 'new wave' whisky distillery in Scotland, with more than 40 new distilleries followed by 2023. With Dr Jim Swan's help, Kilchoman introduced a young quality single malt to the whisky-loving community - opening the door for younger whiskies in the market.

Kilchoman distillery burnt kiln

Image by Whisky Antique - Notice the burnt pagoda of the kiln

Many distilleries have responded to increasing demand by introducing non-age statement expressions. An age statement refers to the youngest age of whisky contained in a bottle. By eliminating this promise of minimum age, distilleries can use a wider range of their stock and ensure a quicker turnover of goods. This has become a widespread practice by the mid-2010s.

Meanwhile, the interest for rare extremely old whiskies has surged. Currently, the competition for the oldest bottled whisky is between independent bottler Gordon & MacPhail and Edrington's Macallan distillery. Whisky has become a commodity.

The oldest single malt whiskies ever bottled

Images by Whisky Auctioneer - Glenlivet 1940 80yo G&M / Macallan 'The Reach' 81yo

The trend of collecting whiskies has surged, attracting new types of customers - investors. Now, even those who previously had no interest in whisky are searching for limited-edition bottles that will increase in value over time, making them highly coveted. However, with the rise in popularity came the emergence of 'flippers' which further drove up demand for these bottles with the promise of easy profits.

But with demand comes the problem of sourcing casks to age whiskies. Ex-sherry and ex-bourbon casks have long been the industry standard, but they are limited resources. From Dr Jim Swans' re-charred STR wine casks to seasoned fortified wine barrels, the industry has turned creative with its cask choices. Furthermore, in 2019 new regulations allowed wider use of secondary casks - with the rule that the previous spirit matured in the barrel had to be traditionally cask aged. This new ruling meant that barrels from the tequila and beer industries, for example, could be utilised in the production of whisky.

The market offers an astonishingly vast range of expressions - more than ever before - making it nearly impossible to keep track of the newest releases, not to mention limited and single-cask releases. On the other hand, the clientele is also getting more demanding in their quest for new tasting experiences, prompting a loop where producers constantly try to offer something new and exciting. While others bask in the freedom of choice, some become overwhelmed and confused and ultimately lose interest.


Another New Distillery? When Did That Happen?

The trend of opening new whiskey distilleries is spreading across the world. Some are focusing on revitalizing established distilleries in popular regions, while others are venturing into uncharted territories for whiskey production.

Over the last decade or so, several countries including China, Taiwan, Singapore, Brazil, Pakistan and South Korea have started producing whisky. As of now, 38 countries produce their own whisky, based on our current data.

World whisky glass with a map

Image by AliExpress

In 2008, the Taiwanese Kavalan distillery successfully launched its first expression, paving the way for Asian drams on the global market. With China being one of the largest markets for whisky, companies like Diageo and Pernod Ricard have established local facilities to meet the high demand in the region. It seems that China has become the new promised land for whisky distilleries.

Japanese whisky has become increasingly popular since 2015, leading to significant price increases and the establishment of new distilleries. Despite this, traditional brands such as Suntory and Nikka remain at the forefront. Currently, Japan boasts nearly 50 whisky distilleries, including plans to re-open the Karuizawa and Hanyu distilleries. However, in 2021, regulatory bodies implemented new regulations to ensure that Japanese whisky adheres to specific criteria to be labelled as such.

In the past, Ireland boasted 28 whisky distilleries, but by the 1970s, only two were still operational. However, since Cooley's opened in 1986, the number of active distilleries has increased to 40 as of the end of 2022.

During the mid-2010s, the United States experienced a significant increase in the establishment of new distilleries. Between 2000 and 2022, over 1,000 distilleries producing whiskey were established.

But even though the interest in international whiskies has risen, Scotland manages to keep a strong hold on the market. Once home to 30 distilleries, Campbeltown's Springbank, Glengyle and Glen Scotia distilleries are expecting company in the form of three planned distilleries. The trend of resurrecting closed distilleries with famous brands like Port Ellen and Brora has also become popular.

With the increasing number of distilleries being established every year worldwide, it has become challenging to keep track of all of them (some make more noise than others). Gone are the days when the opening of a distillery was an exceptional occasion for whisky lovers. While some still get excited about new whisky distilleries, others have lost interest due to the frequent occurrences - prompting them to wonder when it all happened.


Main Changes in The Industry in the Past 30 Years (for easy reading)

- Increase in interest, product history and purchases

- Introduction of collectable whiskies

- Growing interest in younger single malts and cask strength expressions

- A wide range of non-age statement whiskies and the competition for the oldest-ever bottled whisky

- Wide range of choices and releases

- Vast amount of new distilleries worldwide and expansions of existing ones

- Interest in bringing back closed distilleries and brands

- New regulations and country-specific laws

- Cask finishes (wider regulations introduced in 2019)

- Innovative cask choices

- Price increases due to high demand

- Whisky is seen as an investment and commodity - easy money for flippers

- Buying whisky without drinking it

whisky showroom

Image by BBC


Are you able to keep track of all the changes? And what do you think has been the biggest change in the industry? Let us know by leaving a comment below.

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