Thursday 26 January 2012

Why Whisky is SO Important to Scotland

Another Wee Dram  from Victor...
This article is one of an occasional series of thoughts brought to you by Victor "Bagging" Brierley of Glasgow Whisky Tours. The opinions herein are his and only his and all writs, suits and death threats should be sent to Victor on his own Facebook page or via his own Glasgow Whisky Tours website.

Imagine travelling 5.000 miles across the globe to drink the drink that you love, on its home patch. Imagine then finding out that this same iconic drink is ignored in most of the bars you visit and the majority of the people you speak to don't know much about it. This, dear friends, is the story of Scotch Whisky.

We're a wee country in the Northern and chilly parts of Europe but our National Drink is revered and there's a bottle of it in just about every bar in the World. So, how on earth did this come to be? It's a very good question and if you come looking for an answer to this in the majority of bars and licensed premises in Scotland, you'll not be finding an answer.

Sure, in the 'Aficionado' circuit which is 99% dominated by men of a certain age, you get LOADS of knowledge, lots of it a bit too anally retentive and some of it focusing on box-ticking and cataloguing. The sort of thing that only 50-something year old men are really good at. You'll also get 'Industry' knowledge but when this is combined with in-house fighting and a scenario where you can visit certain distilleries and be shown a map featuring only their portfolio of distilleries, ignoring all the rest in Scotland, it's easy to paint a pretty bland and depressing picture of Whisky on its home turf.

Of course, there are exemplars and people who do a marvellous job selling and preaching about The World's most iconic spirit drink but I know that when you go drinking in a Glasgow Whisky bar and the member of staff doesn't know the difference between a Single Malt and a Blend, you'd have to say, there's got to be room for improvement.

Whisky generates £109 per second for the British economy but over 90% of the whisky produced in Scotland is exported. You could argue that is most of it is consumed abroad, does it really matter about the piddly wee market of Scotland? After all, if you were a big brand with ever tightening budgets, would you really be anything other than mad to dedicate time at home, when there's billions of Chinese and Indians who simply love our National Drink and want to buy rather a lot of it?

Well yes, the domestic market is tiny, probably even shrinking at a time when exports rose 23% in 2010, so surely we're over emphasising its importance? The simple answer is it's IMPOSSIBLE to over emphasise the importance of Whisky in Scotland. For instance, imagine if the spiritual home of Johnnie Walker, the worlds bigging selling Scotch Whisky was in USA, or China or Dubai? They would have Johnnie Walker World, a theme park, probably open all year round and packed with pampered tourists spending lots of tourism dosh.

What do we have at the ACTUAL home of Johnnie Walker, which is in Speyside? Erm, it's not quite this. If you were being kind, you'd call it 'twee'. It's not designed to extract tourism dollars, it's sort of seen as a bit of an afterthought.

And this is where we need to change. There are nearly 100 distilleries in Scotland, owned by various Global entities and tiny independents but they don't talk and they don't tell you about the other distilleries. Some of the visitor centres are good, some a top drawer. Others are closed and incredibly, for some Iconic brands, they don't even exist.

If you combine this with thousands of bars in Scotland who know next to nothing about our National Drink but could tell you the provenance of every bottle of imported lager in their fridge, it's clear we need to change.

So, how do we do this? It's actually really simple. Training. I'll now declare my interest here as I have set up a Limited Company called The Whisky Ambassador which is going to try and do lots of things. It's a big 'ask' as a football pundit might say but we're simply looking at the Mantra: Drink Less, Drink Better. Instead of fobbing customers off with a generic 'malt of the month', we're wanting to get Scotland to upsell in the bars here. Give customers a reason to drink something better. For bar staff to do this, they need power, they need buy-in from management and they need unity and support from the dynamic but divided Scotch whisky producers. Above all, they need training.

If's easier to simply pour another vodka or direct a customer to their 'usual' blend which depressingly clog up the optics eyline of the majority of bars in Scotland. It's a bit tougher to enthuse and be proactive about our National drink and offer alternatives, because in the majority of bars, there ins't an alternative/ "Nobody drinks 18 year old malts, so we don't have them' is the stock (or should that be lack of stock) answer. Yeah yeah, I know Catch 22, chicken and egg...

I've run out of space in this blog but I'll be telling you more about The Whisky Ambassador and Drink Less, Drink Better. It's a great idea as our email in boxes are telling us but it's not really something we can do alone. Knowlege is power. We want to supply the knowledge, we need unity and forward thinking for people to invest in training, be a bit cleverer in marketing and really just talk to each other. Hopefully, as an Independent, not linked to any trade body or distillery owner, we'll be able to do this. We'll be rolling out The Whisky Ambassador brand in the next few weeks, so watch this space. Imagine a sort of star grading system. like Michelin has, where you can select the best places to enjoy a luxury dram and I'm not just talking about the handful of luxury hotels who do it well.

We want people to find the real gems and get a proper whisky experience here, not the apologetic, pathetic excuse for one that's generally on offer in Scotland, the home of Whisky. As any football pundit worth his salt might cliche, it's a bit of a no-brainer, Motty.

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