Antarctica; home to penguins, pristine landscapes, a few hundred researchers and, if the internet is to be believed, consumers of Kavalan whisky. It seems absurd that a traditionally Scottish alcohol being produced in Taiwan and shipped to a barren ice continent staffed mainly by Americans, Russians, and Argentinians is possible, but the increasingly global production and demand of whiskey doesn’t make the story that far-fetched, especially when you consider that Kavalan has won practically every award available and has taken the world of whiskey by storm. We imagine award-winning whisky beats cheap Kiwi beer and homemade vodka any day of the week.
Just a decade ago, a tour of the best whiskey producers on Earth could’ve been done almost entirely by car with one or two plane tickets in-between, depending on your country of origin. The same tour today would require infinitely more planning, time, and resources. It would take you from the United States to Ireland and Scotland, but you’d also have to make trips to Italy, Taiwan, and India. Even Australia is being hailed as a superb whiskey producer, with The Great Southern Distilling Company winning a spree of international awards and continuing to innovate, most recently by putting an Aussie spin on American rye (bourbon) in the form of Tiger Snake Sour Mash.
The French, a people synonymous with superb wine and producing cognac for movie villains and disapproving father-in-laws, have also thrown their berets into the proverbial distillery ring with Armorik, a solid offering distilled in Brittany. It looks to improve the otherwise lagging French whiskey reputation perpetuated by unsung releases like Bastille and Brenne. While it hasn’t opened to as much international acclaim as some other whiskies distilled in “non-traditional” locales (India, for example), it highlights an ever-expanding whiskey market and a shift away from the domination of Scottish and American distilleries, especially among younger consumers who some argue have turned whiskey into a “fetish object of the young, urban, and image-conscious.” For the younger connoisseurs, whiskey has become more about the experience, meaning newer brands that focus on experimentation and flexibility have a fighting chance against the legacy brands you often find based in the U.S. or U.K.
There’s also the economics of the matter. While the recent global recession saw most commodities struggle to stay afloat amid plummeting sales, whiskey not only survived but expanded in both production capability and demand, a testament to the wherewithal of an industry reduced to near-ruin just 30 years ago. The argument can be made that the 1980s, which saw massive overproduction of American and Scottish whiskey coupled with a crash in its demand, gave these “non-traditional” markets a chance to produce and thrive. When you’re dealing with an established good that requires meticulous forethought, it can be hard for a new company to gain a foothold and compete. When distillery after distillery closed, a massive supply gap formed in matured whiskies, leading to a shortage in the upper-tiered whiskey market today and putting brands like Johnnie Walker and Macallan on equal footing with the upstart Paul John Whisky based in India.
The globalization of whiskey, both in terms of production and consumption, seems to be in its infancy, a remarkable statement when you consider the age of some whiskey producers. The question seems to be not a matter of if a country will get involved in whiskey, but when. Will Iceland begin competing with their Nordic brethren in Sweden for best whiskey produced in sub-zero temperatures? If whiskey is aged in international waters, what counts as its country of origin? Perhaps the United Nations can tell us.
Authored by Josh Skipworth. You can read more of his work at https://www.cartographyandcloture.com/