Raise a glass: whisky comes in from the cold

A T some point in your life, it’s likely that whisky will have left its rich mark. Often it was the first spirit most of us tried; a sneaky nip from our parent’s drinks cabinet – and unfortunately, there are those who never shake off the idea that whisky is a bit, well, fusty.

The stick-in-the-muds don’t help ­– people who treat whisky as a thing of reverence and purity to be spoken of in hushed tones – the kind of bores who’ll grimace at the idea of adding ice to a single malt.

Well, let them bore away, they’re a fading breed. Fact is, whisky is no longer the domain of the snob. Around the world, as it happens, it’s becoming more and more an aspirational and sociable drink, taking over from the likes of Cognac and rum, and even from gin and vodka. Growing international sales figures confirm the changing attitudes towards it.

“Scotch whisky is enjoying a renaissance in its established markets, where strong associations with programmes like Madmen are making the category cool once more,” says Dr. Nick Morgan, Heritage Director for Diageo Malt Whiskies.

The surging popularity of “vintage chic” is playing its part. Cocktails that had all but disappeared from menus a few years ago, like the Old Fashioned, Manhattan and Whisky Sour, are back with a vengenance. At the same time, cutting edge purveyors of molecular mixology are embracing its singular qualities [see box, right].

For instance, The Whistling Shop in Shoreditch has capitalised on the versatility of flavour that is particularly unique to whisky. “Not only have we been looking at different styles, regions and countries making whisky, but we’ve tried to do something innovative and bespoke with the spirit at the same time – hopefully making it educational,” says Ryan Chetiyawardana, bar manager.

Thomas Aske, co-ower of Marylebone’s progressive speakeasy-styled bar, Purl, also emphasises whisky’s potential for creativity: “There’s nothing really ‘safe’ on our menus – our choices hopefully make people think more about the flavours in whisky, rather than just a well-known brand name.”

It’s not just Scotland producing first-rate whisky – “World Whisky” has been gathering pace in recent years. In particular, Japanese whisky [which is featured in detail overleaf] has been collecting international recognition across a host of competitions and awards. There are also successful new distilleries in India, Taiwan and, er, Norfolk, turning heads with an innovative approach to making and maturing great whisky.

Despite the uncertainty of the financial markets around the globe, the investment prospects for whisky are looking rosy too. Highly collectible malts are picking up tasty auction prices – a 64-year-old Trinitas from the Dalmore sold in excess of £125,000 recently. There is a growing collectability too for whiskies from long-closed distilleries such as Port Ellen and limited release single cask bottlings from highly regarded distilleries like Glenmorangie, the Macallan and Ardbeg.

The fact is, this famous spirit has been fuelling conversation, settling scores and influencing culture, art and music since 1494. It seems that you can’t keep a good dram down.

Neil Ridley is the co-editor of the whisky website and blog, www.caskstrength.net. Follow him on Twitter @WeHeartWhisky