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Scotland's incomparable elixir: helping your customers navigate their way across the ocean of Scotch.

As seasoned beverage alcohol retailers know, Scotch whisky is Scotland's native and national drink. Popular in Scotland long before the Industrial evolution, Scotch whisky is viewed today as a fully contemporary libation that is simultaneously challenging, gratifying, au courant, versatile and sophisticated. Ordering Scotches like Johnnie Walker Black, Chivas Regal, Highland Park or The Balvenie in retail stores or in bar and restaurant settings is a badge worn with pride by the savvy, trendy consumer who has arrived.

Over the last century, Scotch has gained a global profile and a style owned by no other distillate category. Three main reasons for its cachet are its reliable quality, its carefully crafted image that cultivates the lore of Scotland, and its uniqueness. Available in over 200 countries as well as the vigorous duty-free market, Scotch whisky's global export revenues now top $3.4 billion per year. No competing premium distilled spirit is more sought-after from Tokyo to Sydney to Rome to Seattle than Scotland's shimmering amber-hued elixir. In the U.S., more than 9 million 9-liter cases of blended and single malt Scotch whisky were sold (Adams Beverage Group Database) last year. Not too shabby for a product born in a nation of only 5 million people.

In order to help and encourage your clientele to make more informed choices in their Scotch purchases, the following are some of the up-to-the-minute mechanisms that trigger consumer interest in Scotch whisky in 2006.

CREATE PROACTIVE PROMOTIONS

First and foremost, Scotch whisky is the most complex and, therefore, the most rewarding of all distilled spirits to consume. This fact alone puts fire in the bellies of educated, well-traveled, middle-class patrons who appreciate all finer pleasures including better beverages. Scotch's manifold and subtle virtues are best learned through direct experience. Therefore, the most important action for retailers to take is to create programs that will entice customers to taste Scotch. Consequently, if legal in your state the hosting of Scotch whisky tasting events or the providing of in-store samplings can introduce your patrons to the wide variety of Scotch whisky styles and tastes in the most effective way possible.

Getting intimately acquainted with all facets of the Scotch whisky category can take an interested consumer the better part of his or her adult lifetime. Becoming that consumer's personal Scotch whisky coach can ensure continued sales over the long term. Suppliers can sometimes provide retailers with colorful and well-versed brand ambassadors who conduct on-site tastings and talk about Scotch. Want to set the mood in your store? Hire a bagpiper on the day of your in-store tasting. Proactive promotions, such as themed events such as "Scotch Whisky Month" or "Robbie Burns Week" or "Scotch & Golf Day," convey the impression to the public that you are an avid Scotch whisky admirer and that you believe this spirits category is one that deserves their attention.

LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION

Another tried-and-true motivational sales tool has to do with playing up in your whisky section what some retailers describe as the mystique of Scotch whisky and Scotland. Scotch whisky's inherent connection to its native land is a potent stimulus that especially attracts consumers who are wine-oriented. This is due to the fact that the typical wine geek is already attuned to such aficionado concepts as "place/region of origin," "estate-bottling," "single variety" and "appellation." Make no mistake about this next statement: No alcoholic beverage born of distillation mirrors its place of origin more precisely or authentically than Scotch whisky, in particular, the idiosyncratic single malts.

Think not? It is no accident that the robust single malt whiskies--think Laphroaig, Talisker, Bowmore, Lagavulin--produced in Scotland's blustery islands off the north and west coasts smell and taste of the briny, salty sea air. Or that the famously floral single malts of Speyside--The Glenlivet, Glenfiddich, The Macallan--have heather-like aromatic echoes of this garden-like whisky district. And it is no coincidence that the blended Scotch whiskies with strong single malt whisky influences, like Chivas Regal (Strathisla Distillery), Dewar's 12-Year-Old (Aberfeldy Distillery) or William Grant's Family Reserve (Glenfiddich) evoke the locations where those malt whiskies are produced.

SOME FUNDAMENTAL FACTS

Scotch whisky, like all whisky produced everywhere, is made from a trio of commonplace materials: grains, water, and yeast. Whisky in some form has been produced in Scotland's hinterlands for a minimum of seven centuries. The earliest Scotch whiskies were all distilled in rudimentary copper pot stills and were all single malts, or whiskies made in small batches solely from one grain, malted barley. These first single malt Scotches were naturally elevated in alcohol (likely more than 60% alcohol by volume), unaged, pungent, and colorless libations that when drained and consumed straight off the pot stills possessed a kick with the power of an irate mule. These raw grain-based spirits, crude and basic by today's standards, would be barely recognizable to modern Scotch whisky drinkers.

By stark contrast, the Scotch whiskies of the last two centuries have been smooth tasting, golden-to-amber-to-brown in color, and moderate in alcohol at from 40% to 45% alcohol by volume. The three primary reasons for the significant leaps in quality are: one, the now legal maturation in oak barrels of all Scotch whiskies; two, the advancements in distilling technology, more specifically, the addition of large-volume continuous distilling to that of customary small-volume pot still distilling; and, three, the high level of skill of third millennium master distillers and master blenders who have had the advantage of seven centuries of accumulated experience that has been passed down from generation to generation. Let's take these issues one at a time and in order.

Oak barrel maturation. Aging in barrels made of American or French oak affords the new, clear-as-rainwater whisky the opportunity to develop different levels of aromas and flavors as it mingles with the complementary chemical compounds (mainly beneficial acids like lignin and tannin) found in oak barrels. Over time, the alcohol also reduces in strength. Add to that reality the influence of barrels that had been formerly used to age other alcoholic beverages, most notably, bourbon, sherry, and port, and you introduce yet another set of potential aromatic and flavor characteristics.

These contributing factors significantly magnify pure drinking enjoyment. While the legal minimum for wood maturation of all whisky made in Scotland is three years, most Scotch whiskies are aged for longer periods, some for as long as 25 or more years. Some master distillers are convinced that up to 60% to 70% of any whisky's aroma, texture and flavor are directly influenced by oak maturation.

Pot stills and continuous stills. As was mentioned earlier, the first whiskies of Scotland were all single malt whiskies (100 percent malted barley), produced in tiny, pot-bellied pot stills that produced small, individual batches. Nowadays, single malt Scotch whiskies are still 100 percent malted barley spirits that are twice distilled in copper pot stills at a single location. Labor-intensive single malts are highly distinctive and intense in character, reflecting both the environment that surrounds the distillery and the types of barrels used in the aging process. For five centuries, pot still distilling was the sole method of distillation in Scotland.

In the 1820s, a newfangled, efficient and innovative distillation system, the continuous still distillation process, was invented first by Robert Stein and later perfected by Aeneas Coffey. Continuous stills differ in appearance from squat, copper pot stills in that they are erected in tall plated, metal columns. In the continuous still format, distillation never stops as it does in the pot still system. As a result, the continuous distillation system, which utilizes maize or wheat rather than malted barley, can account for much larger quantities of spirits in less time, less cost and with less labor than the traditional pot still system. The tradeoff is that continuous still whiskies usually aren't as vivid in character as those produced in pot stills. The maize- or wheat-based distillates that are born in continuous stills are referred to as grain whiskies.

But, more than simply offering another lighter style of Scotch whisky, grain whisky, the introduction of continuous distillation ushered in a progressive and ambitious era of global expansion for Scotch whisky: the age of blended Scotch whisky. Nineteenth century whisky visionaries, like Andrew Usher, John Dewar, John Walker and others, recognized the huge potential for easier drinking whiskies that married single malt and grain whiskies, thereby creating a whole new Scotch whisky category. Blended Scotch brands were enormously successful across Great Britain by 1900 as well as in markets across the British Empire.

In 2006, blended Scotch whisky still accounts for the overwhelming majority of the Scotch whisky category sales. Blended Scotch has evolved into such a pivotal component of Scotch industry profitability that distilleries producing traditional single malt whiskies devote as much as 95% of their yearly production to the manufacture of blended Scotch whiskies. That said, as sales of blended Scotch have gone flat over the past decade, the popularity of single malt Scotch whisky has exploded internationally by between 5% and 9% annually. Currently, Glenfiddich is the world's number one single malt (number two in the U.S.) while The Glenlivet is the number one single malt in America. It is no understatement to say that the appeal of single malt Scotch, now in its second decade, has revitalized the entire Scotch whisky industry.

Master Distillers and Master Blenders. Not enough emphasis is placed upon the critical importance of Scotland's master distillers and master blenders. Scotland's master distillers make the single malt and grain whiskies while the master blenders create the Scotch whisky blends employing both varieties of whisky. Having a sense of what jobs they each do is a powerful lace-to-face sales tool. Master distillers are the highly skilled maestros who create the world's most complex distilled and consumable liquid: single malt Scotch whisky. Being a master distiller in Scotland's Highlands or Islands usually means having had the secrets of the distilling art passed onto you by your uncle, father or grandfather. A striking number of Scotland's master distillers are third or fourth generation distillers, sometimes with the same distillery as their predecessors. Master distillers are likewise responsible for creating grain whiskies in column stills.

The typical day of a master distiller starts by sampling the fruits of the previous day's distillations. From there, a check is made with the stillman as to how well the day's distillations are going in terms of schedule and quantity. By late morning, the master distiller finds himself examining the quality of the week's barley delivery. By early afternoon it's off to the warehouse to see if the cooper needs anything in his task of repairing old barrels and raising new ones. While he's in the warehouse, the master distiller pulls several whisky samples from aging barrels for evaluation in the laboratory.

By mid-afternoon, the master distiller sniffs but doesn't sip the barrel samples in the lab, determining which will be sent to the bottling house for blends and which will be retained in the warehouse for bottling as single malt. As the sun sets, the master distiller finishes his daily paper work and checks in with the night shift stillman to see how the next distillation is faring.

Master blenders are the creators of blended Scotch. They spend much of their time in the laboratory, sniffing their way through hundreds of malt and grain whisky samples each week. The most important function of a master blender is to maintain consistency from batch to batch of blended Scotch whisky. Even the slightest variance in smell, texture, color or taste will set off alarm bells in the consumer sector which prizes reliability in blended Scotches above all else.

To accomplish this sense of steadiness, the master blender must sort through the multitude of grain and malt whisky samples to arrive at a harmonious marriage that is a carbon copy of the last batch. A typical Scotch whisky blend consists of 30% to 35% single malt whiskies and 60% to 65% grain whiskies. Some blends are constructed from as many as 40 to 50 separate whiskies.

AND FINALLY ...

Assisting your patrons in their Scotch whisky journey through advice and creative and compelling promotions can reap large rewards for both the retailer and the client for decades to come. The beauty lies in the seven centuries of Scottish history, skill, ingenuity and tradition that comes contained in each bottle you sell. Remarkable when you ponder it even for a few seconds.

RELATED ARTICLE: Retailer checklist: 10 vital Scotch facts.

* All Scotch whiskies are alcoholic beverages that undergo two bio-chemical processes: first, fermentation of the grain mash to make beer, then distillation of the beer into high-alcohol spirit.

* Genuine Scotch whiskies are produced only in Scotland. The label should specify this legality with words such as "Distilled in Scotland" or "Produced in Scotland."

* Maturing spirits such as whisky in wood barrels didn't become a common practice until the 18th century. Evaporation steals about 2% to 3% each year of maturing Scotch whisky. Distillers call the whisky vapors that evaporate into the atmosphere "the angel's share."

* The three basic ingredients of all Scotch whiskies are grain, water and yeast.

* By law, every Scotch whisky must be aged in wood barrels for a minimum of three years.

* Single malt Scotch whiskies are comprised of 100% malted barley and are distilled in copper pot stills in small batches at individual distilleries, hence the moniker "single (distillery) malt (barley)." Single malts are usually more complex than grain whiskies.

* Is it whisky or whiskey? When one is referring to the world's greater, all-inclusive whiskey category or the whiskeys of Ireland and the U.S., the "e" is always used. When the whiskies of Scotland and Canada are at issue, the "e" is correctly dropped. Also, the accepted plural for whiskey is whiskeys while for whisky it is whiskies.

* Scotland's grain whiskies are produced from maize or wheat in continuously running, large-volume column stills. They are less complex than single malt whiskies.

* Blended Scotch whiskies are carefully arrived at unions of both single malt and grain whiskies. Master blenders say that grain whiskies lend foundation and volume while single malts provide power, grace and character.

* Blended malt whiskies are Scotches that are made up of at least two single malt whiskies, each from a different malt distillery.

--F. Paul Pacult

RELATED ARTICLE: The whisky newcomer's five=whisky tasting flight.

Pour one-ounce of each room temperature whisky into a stemmed wineglass. Use crystal, if possible. Have some room temperature mineral water and bland crackers at hand to cleanse the palate between whiskies. Smell, sip and savor each whisky individually in the order as prescribed below. Allow each whisky no less than 10 minutes of sampling. Serve in the following order:

Dewar's White Label Blended Whisky. A compelling, biscuity and silky whisky that's dry and sophisticated.

Glenfiddich Special Reserve 12-Year-Old Speyside Single Malt Whisky. Possesses seductive aromas and flavors of sweet malt and dry cereal that tell the entire story.

The Glenlivet 12-Year-Old Speyside Single Malt Whisky. The evergreen/floral bouquet is balanced by tastes of apricots and caramel. Elegant.

Famous Grouse 12-Year-Old Blended Malt Whisky. Smells of toffee and raisins and tastes of spice, sweet cereal, and figs.

The Macallan Fine Oak 10-Year-Old Speyside Single Malt Whisky. An exciting Macallan expression that offers notes of vanilla, dark toffee, and violets.

--F. Paul Pacult

RELATED ARTICLE: The advanced drinker's five-whisky tasting flight.

Pour one-ounce of each room temperature whisky into a stemmed wineglass. Keep in the order as described below, starting with the top one and working down. Have some room temperature mineral water and bland cheese (Monterey Jack is ideal) at hand to cleanse the palate between whiskies. Smell, sip, and savor each whisky individually. Don't rush the experience. Older Scotch whiskies often take 10 to 20 minutes to unfold in the glass. You can likewise add a few drops of mineral water to help expand the bouquet.

Bruichladdich 15-Year-Old Islay Single Malt Whisky. Scents of candle wax, honeydew melon and ginger delight the olfactory sense.

Johnnie Walker Green Label 15-Year-Old Blended Malt Whisky. Rich aromas and flavors of oloroso sherry and caramel highlight this breathtaking whisky experience.

Cragganmore 12-Year-Old Speyside Single Malt Whisky. Aromatic notes of honey, brown sugar and maple highlight this classic, sweetish malt.

Chivas Regal 18-Year-Old Blended Whisky. Concentrated, intense flavors of toffee, paraffin, black tea, and cigar box highlight this legendary whisky.

The Balvenie 21-Year-Old Port Wood Single Malt Whisky. Admirers of tawny port will appreciate the wine-like, caramel-like character of this full-bodied whisky.

--F. Paul Pacult

F. Paul Pacult is the world's only journalist to concurrently be a life member of Scotland's exclusive Keepers of the Quaich whisky society, a life member of France's Company of Musketeers d'Armagnac, and a life member of Kentucky's Bourbon Hall of Fame. He is the editor of E Paul Pacult's Spirit Journal, the author of A Double Scotch (John Wiley, 2005), the monthly wine/spirits columnist for Delta Sky, and a special projects editor to the New York Times. His web site is www.spiritjournal.com.
Leading Brands of Scotch
(thousands of 9-Liter Cases)

 2005 %
Brand Supplier 2004 (p) Change

FOREIGN BOTTLED SCOTCH

Dewar's Bacardi USA 1,400 1,375 -1.8%
Johnnie Walker Black Diageo 715 730 2.1%
Johnnie Walker Red Diageo 685 675 -1.5%
Chivas Regal Pernod Ricard USA 483 484 0.2%
J & B Diageo 370 355 -4.1%
Total Leading Foreign Bottled 3,653 3,619 -0.9%

US BOTTLED SCOTCH

Clan MacGregor William Grant & Sons 720 715 -0.7%
Scoresby Diageo 391 387 -1.0%
Cluny Heaven Hill Distilleries 285 285 0.0%
Inver House Constellation Brands 233 218 -6.4%
Old Smuggler Pernod Ricard USA 206 193 -6.3%
Total Leading US Bottled 1,835 1,798 -2.0%

SINGLE MALT SCOTCH

The Glenlivet Pernod Ricard USA 217 232 6.9%
Glenfiddich William Grant & Sons 145 147 1.4%
The Macallan Remy Cointreau USA 84 90 7.1%
The Balvenie William Grant & Sons 55 57 3.6%
McClellands White Rock Distilleries 43 44 2.3%
Total Leading Single Malts 544 570 4.8%

Total Leading Brands 6,032 5,987 -0.7%
Others 3,082 3,046 -1.2%
Total Scotch 9,114 9,033 -0.9%

(p) Preliminary

Source: Adams Beverage Group Database
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Author:Pacult, F. Paul
Publication:Beverage Dynamics
Date:Mar 1, 2006
Words:3045
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