Have you ever wondered about the difference between whisky and whiskey?

No? Well, since I've got you here, let me enlighten you anyway.

Due to the translation of the word from the two original Gaelic forms (Scottish and Irish), the Scots ended up without the "e" and the Irish with. Irish immigrants then took the "e" with them over the Atlantic in the 1700s, where it has been used ever since to also refer to American whiskeys.The Japanese have generally opted for the British form (i.e. without the "e").

The reason you've never wondered about this, of course, is because until recently this was all pretty much a moot point, since for UK whisky aficionados, whisky was exclusively Scotch. Nobody cared about the filthy foreign stuff — but times they are a'changin'.

Bourbon has already enjoyed healthy growth in recent years, up 11 per cent in volume (CGA on-trade MAT to 08.08.15) with no signs of a slowdown yet.

American whiskey (excluding bourbon) is forecast to rise 39 per cent in volume this year. Irish whiskey is set to return to growth this year (up two per cent in volume following years of decline). And Japanese whisky continues to post incredible volume growth, albeit off a small base — up 113 per cent in the last five years and is forecast to increase another 52 per cent by the end of the current year (all IWSR 2015 Report).

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Freedom to innovate
The reason things have changed is that "emerging countries are now producing high-quality whiskeys, which put their unique style on the spirit by tweaking the whiskey-making process with something different, such as aging in unusual casks or using non-traditional grains," says Katy Carter, insight and brand manager at Cellar Trends.

"These 'new' whiskeys provide a platform for recruiting new users to whiskey, further adding value and growth to this dynamic category."

Such innovation is possible as imported whiskey is not subject to the same strict production laws as Scotch, as Jeremy Hill, chairman of Hi-Spirits, points out.

"In order to protect themselves over the last 20 to 30 years the Scottish whisky industry has regulated so tightly that it has backed itself into a corner when it comes to innovation. Now it is almost impossible for it to produce products that are attractive to new, and younger, consumers."

With no such shackles, the American industry has been free to launch such variants as Jim Beam Red Stag Black Cherry; Jack Daniel's Tennessee Honey; Fire Eater Hot Cinnamon; Buffalo Trace White Dog and Jameson Caskmates, aged in stout barrels to "recruit craft beer fans to the Irish whiskey category", says owner Pernod Ricard. "You simply couldn't do that with Scotch whisky," says Jeremy. "You wouldn't be able to call it Scotch."

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Sweeter by far
It is also true that imported whiskies, particularly those from Ireland and the US, have a more accessible flavour profile.

Bourbon, for example, has to be made with a minimum of 51 per cent corn (and most are 80 per cent or so), resulting in a much sweeter, rounder taste than Scotch. Irish whiskey, too, is much smoother and therefore both less challenging for young drinkers new to dark spirits.

Such a taste profile also makes the spirit more versatile in mixed drinks and cocktails, a recent boom area for drinks, all of which has driven interest in the category.

Despite this, it is a strange fact that most pubs still stock very few imported whiskeys.

"It is interesting that in reality most pubs' sales of American whiskeys will outstrip that of Scotch but typically what you will find is several slow selling top-end malts taking up the back bar and just one - two if you are lucky — American whiskies of any kind," Jeremy points out.

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Selling more whiskey
The top brands (Jack Daniel's and Jim Beam) are well represented in the pub trade, no doubt because of their popularity as a simple mixed drink — Jack & Coke being the biggest seller — but pubs can recruit new drinkers to the category by offering simple cocktails made with flavoured bourbons, as they are more approachable for those who haven't yet dabbled in whiskies (with or without the "e").

"The recommended approach is to have entry-level whiskies, such as flavoured bourbons, followed by mid-range whiskies and then a premium offering to encourage trade-up," explains Janice McIntosh, marketing controller for imported whiskey at Maxxium UK.

"Whiskies in all their forms take up about a quarter (23 per cent) of space on an average mainstream bar. This rises for wet-led outlets and hotels, and decreases for higher-tempo venues. It would typically be split out to: two blends, three malts, two American and one other imported."

For those interested in promoting their range of whiskies, a menu is absolutely vital, even if it's as simple as a card listing brands and the prices of finished drinks. Publicans should also be using social media to promote an exciting new range (get some ideas and advice from our #pubsgetonline campaign). "It's an easy way for licensees to let their customers know what's on offer," Janice says.

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Shout about whiskey
The growth in interest in imported whiskeys is also fuelling a boom in related pub events such as "meet the distiller" nights, whiskey festivals and food and whiskey pairings, according to Crispin Stephens, marketing manager for American whiskey at Bacardi Brown-Forman Brands (BBFB) but it's small-scale so far.

"The popularity of American whiskeys has been helped by the growth in American-style food such as burgers, hot dogs, fried chicken and barbecue. The relative size of the opportunity here is massive, food is still so far mostly a beer and wine occasion, but it needn't be.

"We're already seeing more premium outlets playing around with the concept but there's no reason any outlet can't execute simple pairings such as burgers with a Jack Daniel's & Coke or even something like fried chicken with a Southern Comfort (the whiskey-flavoured liqueur) & lemonade."

For the behemoth of the category, the BBFB-owned Jack Daniel's, the message is also around premiumisation.

"The trade-up opportunities for the brand and category are huge," Crispin says. "It used to be that those who transitioned out of the brand moved onto Scotch but that is no longer the case. We're working a lot around (the more premium) Gentleman Jack and educating drinkers about style and flavour.

"The malt whiskey industry has done some good work around that in the last 10 to 15 years using their flavour map, but we do it in a more unconventional way. We use American culture and stories of the frontier to bring it all alive. It's more exciting."

And at the moment that "e" word is the biggest difference of all between the whiskies with an "e" and those without.

 

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Going with the grain

Of course not all the excitement is happening in the part of the category that has the "e". Over in Scotch, grain whisky is making a comeback.

Due to the way it is produced (unlike malt whisky, which has to be produced in a pot still, grain can be produced in column stills, resulting in high alcohol levels and less flavour) grain has previously been seen as a somewhat of a lesser whisky.

Until, that is, Golden Balls himself, David Beckham, got involved in a joint venture with Diageo to launch Haig Club.
They aren't the only ones, of course. William Grant & Sons launched The Girvan Patent Still Single Grain Whisky in 2013 and Maxxium launched The Snow Grouse (serve straight from the freezer) back in 2011.

All of these products have been designed to tap into a younger market. Drinkers who have developed a taste for rum, Irish, bourbon and Tennessee whiskey need a sweeter, more palatable way into Scotch, which grain whisky provides.