“What I like to do,” says Blair Bowman, “is cut through the myths.” Bowman is a whisky consultant. Someone who, in his own words, is trying to convert people all over the world into whisky fans, one by one. But he has no patience for fusty ideas about how the spirit, which has been distilled since at least the 1400s, should be consumed. The purists’ cardinal rules over whether or not to add ice, what temperature is ideal and whether one category of whisky is superior to another – all can be dispensed with, he says.
“You should drink it however you want and not let anyone tell you otherwise,” says Bowman, with refreshing nonchalance. One of his own mixtures of choice, for instance, is whisky with ginger beer. A fantastic combination – but he still gets asked in bars now and again if it should be “allowed”.
Few beverages have cultivated the reverence that Scotch whisky has. For some, it’s the very essence of Scotland distilled, matured and poured into a glass. The drink is rich with history, craftsmanship and culture. There’s truth in that – Bowman happily agrees. But there’s another side to Scotch.
It’s also a booming export product that is taking certain foreign markets by storm. In 2018, Scotch whisky exports were worth £4.7bn in total, up nearly 8% on 2017. More than a billion bottles of Scotch were sent overseas that year. And these considerable sales made up 70% of Scotland’s food and drink exports, and 21% of the UK’s as a whole.
The dominance of the whisky trade in Scotland’s economy is an example of specialisation taken to a fine art. It runs two ways: Scotland’s food and drink industry specialises in the spirit, while whiskies themselves are differentiated depending on the particular region, method or distillery that produced them.
So far, this strategy has been successful for Scotch, but such a high degree of specialisation comes with its own risks. With increasing specialisation, there is also vulnerability. As new markets emerge and tastes evolve, whisky-makers that have crafted a spirit over decades are in a constant race to keep up with the demands of new palates.