The Australian whisky market is expanding. Much as we have seen with champagne over the past five years, whisky as a drinks category has grown from a small number of known brands and styles to a much bigger and sophisticated portfolio. In champagne’s case the growth was down to the recent favourable Australian dollar, which allowed every sommelier and his labradoodle to import a hitherto unknown champagne house or grower, at very merchantable prices. But with whisky the growth has come not so much from the dollar’s importing power, but from a genuine demand and interest from consumers.
And what was once seen as a fairly static market has suddenly stratified. Scotch whisky is spreading its generic wings to the point where blended or single malts from big liquor conglomerates no longer dominate so effortlessly. Cask strength, single cask, and single malts from smaller distilleries are bringing a more educated, personal and intimate nature to whisky’s enjoyment and understanding. And one of the flow-on effects has been an increased consumer interest in whiskies made outside Scotland, such as Japanese distillations and, of course, Australia’s own whisky products.
In Australia’s case the growth of locally distilled whisky has boomed over the past 10 years, thanks to tight distillation regulations made at the time of Federation being revoked, and despite the fact that the tax paid on Australian spirits is among the highest in the world Australian whisky sales are up 150 per cent in the past 12 months. And whisky distilleries are growing too, up from two in 1990 to 25 today. (On a broader note, Australia is the 13th biggest Scotch whisky importer in the world, bringing in about 26 million bottles a year, which is one sixth of France’s consumption, the number-one market.) Wherever the whisky comes from, the consumer trend is the same, however—which is the habit liquor licence owners will want to hone in on. Roy Morgan research from March this year points to a very strong whisky growth among Generation Y.
Men and women in their 20s and 30s have taken to whisky as an intelligent, educated, informed and contemplative drink. Or a ‘slow drink’. This is very much a case of whisky not so much being seen as a drink of their grandfathers, but more a drink of Don Draper. The Mad Men retro tone of the über-cool and ever-assured has helped drag whisky into an entirely new and cashed-up demographic. Indeed, whisky consumption rates among the 18 to 34 year olds has increased by 50 per cent over the past five years. This is a complete turnaround compared to similar Roy Morgan research in 2006, which found that “Australians aged over 65 were the most likely to drink whisky and those 18 to 34 were least likely.” But if whisky was to rely on television’s popular cultural endorsement alone for market growth, it might all be nothing more than a blue flash in a MasterChef finalist’s celebrity-branded pan.
Fortunately, whisky has a complex history and appreciation that helps its adopters bind. Perhaps it also helps that Generation Y is the key coffee demographic. Coffee’s emphasis on baristas, blends, roasting techniques and bean origin is all about the quest for quality. The morning cup of coffee can be a stepping stone to whisky’s nighttime analysis. Distillation methods and geography, barrel maturation regimes, service traditions, such as the addition of two or three drops of water to a straight whisky, have helped intellectualise this spirit, and help consumers make a decision to spend $20 or $30 on a rare or unusual glass. And that hints at the other emerging trend, as well: drinkers are drinking less but drinking better. It is the premium end of the whisky category where so much growth is happening in the industry. And of the dedicated whisky bars that are mushrooming in the capital cities—leveraging this interest has become a good way to market and promote your operation, and put money through the till. Educative, tutored tastings, like you might more normally associate with wine, have given to whisky a cultured and serious connoisseurship. It’s got to the point where your whisky drinking customers start talking about the rare Cask Strength 1000 Sporrans’ ‘unique floral notes’. It is no wonder then the sort of detail and service standards you’d usually provide for wine are now being expected for whisky.
From a range of stemware designed for different whisky styles and strengths, to a dedicated whisky list, complete with detailed descriptors, to a revival in the more traditional whisky based cocktails, there’s plenty of sea-room in this expanding category for your business to play and profit in.
Importantly, however, while there is a real movement towards small-production, limited whisky, Roy Morgan research also reminds us of the power of the bigger brands. Among the 18 to 34 year olds, whisky preference is broken down to: Jameson’s (22 per cent), Johnnie Walker Red (13 per cent), Chivas Regal (13 per cent), Johnnie Walker Black (11 per cent) and Grant’s (7 per cent). For whatever reason, Irish whisky has a stranglehold on front bar sales and volume. Jameson’s is the world’s most remarkable whisky and spirit story, posting value and volume growth every year for the last quarter of a century, and last year alone growing more than 10 per cent in Australia. Perhaps the fact that it’s advertised and promoted as being thrice distilled is the key.