Sales of single malt Scotch rose 9.6% in America in 2019, reaching $925 million total. That represents an $81-million increase over 2018. What’s driving this growth?
Scotch has evolved. For many years this category was seen by younger consumers as the whisky that their parents or grandparents drank. The spirit occupied shelves in stuffy backrooms, drank by old men seated in antique leather chairs by the fireplace. This was always an unfair comparison, given how vibrant Scotch is, how diverse.
Now Millennials may be moving past those outdated viewpoints, and beginning their journeys into the world of Scotch. It helps that the category has innovated so much in recent time. Taking a page out of the endless experimentation of American whiskey, Scotch brands have released more unique and creative expressions that can capture the attention of the modern U.S. consumer. Blends and barrel finishes have led this charge.
With all that in mind, here are five trends defining Scotch in 2020:
1) Approachable Brands
Many younger consumers are hesitant to buy Scotch because the price point poses a significant barrier. Entry-level bottles can cost $40-and-up. Add in the diversity of Scotch, which can be confusing, and it’s no wonder when younger consumers reach for the likes of Bulleit Bourbon instead.
“We know there are many fans of blended whiskies and bourbon that shy away from single malt because they find the language intimidating and the variety in the category hard to navigate,” says Brian Kinsman, master blender at William Grant & Sons. “Particularly, they are unsure about what the liquid will actually taste like. It’s a lot to ask of people to spend $50 on a bottle of something they’re not even sure they’re going to like!”
Producers like William Grant & Sons have sought to improve Scotch’s approachability. The company recently released Aerstone. This new brand has two expressions: Sea and Land Cask. The goal is to give consumers a simpler choice.
“If you know whether you prefer smooth or smoky malts when you walk up to a bar, then you’ve got a great foundation from which to explore further,” says Kinsman.
Sea Cask is smooth, while Land Cask is smoky (taking its name from the Highland malt). The kicker is the cost.
“We’ve also tried to lower the risk for people with price,” says Kinsman. “Both Aerstone Sea and Land Cask are priced at $28.99.”
Look for more brands to enter the market with better approachability in terms of both understandable flavors, and entry-level price points.
2) Scotch Cocktails
A driving factor in the American whiskey boom is mixology. This movement has largely left Scotch on the sidelines, however. With their potent flavors, these whiskies are tougher to incorporate into cocktails. And it does not help that many longtime Scotch enthusiasts consider it blasphemy to mix with these expressions.
Scotch brands are obviously more open-minded than that, and wiser to the importance of reaching younger drinkers through mixology.
“The state of Scotch cocktails is small but rapidly growing,” says Jim Brennan, SVP of marketing at Edrington Americas. “It is important to the category as it expands occasions and opens up Scotch to younger and more female consumers. That’s what we are doing with Naked Grouse.”
Launched in 2018, Naked Grouse is a blend of single malts from The Macallan, Highland Park and Glenrothes. With an approachable price of $34.99, consumers are not as hesitant to pour this product into cocktails. The brand’s silly name also helps this Scotch overcome the category’s stuffier stigma.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if you see some brands buck the mainstream and go for even more irreverent ideas like Naked Grouse,” says Brennan.
Another example of this offbeat strategy succeeding is the social media darling, Monkey Shoulder.
“One Scotch brand that has been particularly successful with younger drinkers has been Monkey Shoulder,” says Kinsman. “It’s a blended malt, with a smooth and rich taste profile that’s made to mix. So on those occasions where you want a cocktail rather than a neat single malt, it’s perfect. My favorite is a Monkey Old Fashioned.”
Mixologists have recently begun playing around more with Scotch. Penicillin is the classic example, along with Blood and Sand. Other creative takes on Scotch cocktails are rapidly growing in number and diversity. During the reception for the newly opened New York headquarters for Diageo, bartenders whipped up a (delicious) Scotch Tiki drink:
1½ oz. Johnnie Walker Black
½ oz. Ginger honey
½ oz. Lemon juice
2 oz. Carbonated water
Serve in a highball glass, garnished with Angostura bitters and mint.
3) Reaching for Bourbon Drinkers
It’s no secret that Scotch is behind bourbon in terms of attracting younger drinkers. That’s why you hear so many people in the Scotch industry talk about what whiskies they would recommend for someone who likes bourbon.
“For the bourbon drinker, I would offer a non-peated single malt Scotch whisky to try, particularly The GlenDronach, since its robust flavor profile appeals to the palate of a bourbon drinker accustomed to the bolder taste influenced by the rich flavors from the oak cask,” says Rachel Barrie, whisky hall of famer and master blender at BenRiach, The GlenDronach and Glenglassaugh.
However, Barrie disputes the notion that Scotch must battle against bourbon.
“Rather than competing, I think we need to change the narrative and alter perceptions,” she says. “Bourbon, especially in America, is what’s familiar, and therefore, comfortable. In order to shake things up and get consumers out of their comfort zone, we have to transcend barriers through transparent communication and education, and celebrate what makes every distillery in Scotland and America, distinctive in style and individual in character.”
Even so, it’s not hard to form a connection between the smoother, richer Scotches, and the rich profiles of bourbon. Many Scotch brands, after all, have begun finishing their products in ex-bourbon casks. This trend will continue in 2020, as producers seek to blur the lines between the two categories.
4) Age Statements Matter Less
We’ve been saying this for years: age statements have never mattered less to consumers. Quality comes first nowadays — trumping whatever number is on the bottle.
“When it comes to Scotch, the age statement is an indicator of quality and rarity, but it is not the only factor at play,” says Barrie. “Location (whether in a valley, on a hill or by the sea), the geography, fermentation, distillation and type of oak used all play a part in creating quality and flavor. Interestingly, non-age-statement whiskies allow a master blender to experiment more with the whisky stocks, and the outcome can be high quality single malt Scotch whisky with a distinctive expression of character.”
Another factor behind age statements disappearing is the sheer lack of stock. As the brown spirits boom spreads worldwide, many brands do not possess enough aged product to satisfy consumer demand. Instead, companies have released innovative, high-quality blends that help put new bottles onto retail shelves.
Consumers do not seem to mind one way or the other.
“You can argue both sides of this issue, but the relative success of non-age statements proves that consumers aren’t completely fixated with numbers,” says Brennan. “Our Glenrothes Whisky Maker’s Cut has been a really pleasant success for us. As for blends, I think this year we will see some good innovation and The Famous Grouse’s Cask Series will lead the way. I predict we will see some growth in the category.”
To his point about both sides having merit, the Glenrothes did also bring back age statements in 2018, zigging where other brands have zagged.
5) Connecting With Millennials
Perhaps the most important progress Scotch can make in 2020 is firmly connecting with Millennials. If the category can push past lingering stigmas, then these whiskies can offer exactly what younger consumers enjoy.
“While recent studies show that Millennials are drinking less, there has been a shift from beer and wine to spirits consumption,” says Barrie. “Millennials value authenticity, provenance and quality — the key qualities of single malt scotch whisky — and we see that they are willing to pay more to enjoy this. They also possess a sense of discovery and willingness to try new things, so why not Scotch?”
To that end, look for more brands in 2020 to highlight what makes them worth discovering.
“There will be more education around production, aging and distinctiveness of individual malt character,” Barrie says. “Smoky and sherry cask matured malts will rise, and provenance will be more important than ever before.”
One Scotch that has excelled in building a bridge to Millennials is The Macallan. This Edrington brand runs some of the best social media in the industry, simultaneously educating and entertaining through modern digital marketing. And in doing so, The Macallan showcases the pure qualities of the product.
“Younger consumers are looking for well-crafted, flavor-forward spirits with artisanal production and an authentic, heritage-rich brand story,” says Brennan of Edrington. “If that doesn’t sound like single malt Scotch, I don’t know what does.”