For the Love of Whisky
Whisky (or whiskey, if it’s American or Irish) is having its moment in the sun, inside the bars, on the menus, and in the index market
For Benjamin Tan, co-founder of Whisky Butler, the epiphany came the first time he drank The Macallan 18, one that was bottled in 1990. That single dram, to use a vampiric phrase, turned him. “I fell in love with single malts because of that, the intriguing rich aromas and flavours were beyond my perception of whisky… that got me hooked and started my whisky exploration journey,” he explains.
Everyone has their own “aha” moment, that special single malt that becomes their gateway to a whole new whirl; a world filled with flavours, mysteries, aromas, ephemera. There’s something about whisky that makes its fans evangelical, and which in turn, helps fuel the popularity of the product. From that dram, Tan went on to be certified as a Whisky Ambassador, and with his friends, started Whisky Butler in 2015, an online whisky tasting club that sends its members monthly selections of curated drams.
Tan isn’t just one man spreading the word. Everywhere there are new blogs and magazines about whisky. In the last year, at least two new whisky bars have opened in Singapore and there are more whisky appreciation clubs around. Recently, key industry player Diageo launched its invite-only Johnny Walker House, offering lucky connoisseurs tastings of rare, collectible and premium Scotch.
Fascination with whisky as an investment has also steadily grown, fuelled by collectors in East Asia. It is no doubt aided by online platforms like Whisky Invest Direct, which allows punters to buy and sell units of whisky at wholesale prices as it matures in the barrel. Whisky as a commodity, who would’ve thought?
It’s not just Scotch that’s giving the drinking world such delight (and delightful returns). There is also a concomitant rise in the sale and popularity of both Japanese whisky and Irish whiskey.
Scotch whiskies (both single malts and blends) are obviously leading the liquid charge, and in the US—the world’s biggest market for Scotch—it is outselling Irish whiskies by four to one, though the latter is catching up. In the past decade though, Irish whiskey consumption in America has jumped 400 per cent, from 500,000 cases to 2.5 million, according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States.
“Irish whiskey (with an ‘e’) is the original smooth whiskey,” says Mathieu Musnier, general manager of retailer La Maison du Whisky. “And it’s a wonderful place to start enjoying malts. Teeling is a wonderful whiskey, it is the first distillery to operate in Dublin for decades and they have already become the whiskey of choice for many world-class cocktail bars around the world.”
In 2000, there were three whiskey distilleries in Ireland. There are now seven, and this year, five more will start production. The Teeling brothers are building one in an underdeveloped part of Dublin called the Liberties.
Irish whiskey is creamy and flavourful. Though it lacks the punch of Scottish malts, it acts as a friendly gateway whisky. Rebreast is also an amazing malt to look for (try the 21-year-old), suggests Musnier, as it was a La Maison bestseller for 15 years until it was overtaken by—you guessed it—a Japanese whisky called Nikka.
While it would be reckless to attribute the rise of Japanese whisky to just one man, you can pretty much attribute its phenomenal profile to Jim Murray.
“The catalyst for the Japanese whisky boom comes from Murray’s Whisky Bible, where (in 2015) he named The Yamazaki Single Malt Sherry Cask 2013 as the world’s best whisky,” explains Chua Khoon Hui, co-owner of Quaich Bar and the Whisky Store. “This triggered a craze for all Japanese whiskies.”
Incidentally, not one Scottish malt made the top five, so imagine the furore, backlash, media frenzy, and of course the surge in demand. “In the whisky industry you have to make a product that you will only sell 10 to 20 years later. Unfortunately for us, Japanese distillers are not producing quite enough to meet today’s demand—the shortage led to a hype,” Musnier adds.
In August 2015, a bottle of 1960 Karuizawa—the holy grail of Japanese malts, and a defunct distillery—sold for US$118,500 at auctioneers Bonhams in Hong Kong, setting an auction record for a Japanese whisky.
But Chua reckons the bubble and sky-high prices for Japanese whiskies may have peaked. “There are many Scottish whiskies that are just as good, at a fraction of the price,” he advises.
Whether you like your whisky in a snifter glass, in a cocktail, sitting in your liquor cabinet or growing in your portfolio, there’s no better time to experience it. Slainté!