American whiskey a go go: UK downing record amounts of US spirit

Britons consume more than 1m litres of bourbon, rye and other American whiskeys a month, with sales passing £1bn in 2016

Forget gin, British drinkers are now drinking record amounts of American whiskey, with sales topping more than a £1bn for the first time.

Whiskey is the UK’s fastest growing tipple as Britons drink more than 1m litres of the spirit every month. As a result sales grew 9% in 2016, compared with 7% for gin and a decline of 1% for scotch, the domestic rival to Jack Daniels, Maker’s Mark and Jim Beam.

American whiskey appears to have connected with millennials, many of whom have been introduced to it by fictional TV characters like Mad Men’s Don Draper and, more recently, bourbon-swilling super-hero Jessica Jones.

According to Euromonitor, the research firm that compiled the data, the perceived conservatism of scotch has benefitted its transatlantic rival.

“Scotch is extremely traditionalist, and uber-conservative when it comes to positioning and innovation – partly because it’s a much tighter regulated industry,” said Spiros Malandrakis. The biggest mistake made by the Scottish whisky industry, he added, was that it had been “much more hesitant in embracing cocktail culture than American whiskey”.

A publican in one of the UK’s trendiest cities also cites the down-to-earth appeal of whiskey from the US compared with alternatives. “American whiskey doesn’t have the snobbery of scotch,” said Lee Standen, a bourbon evangelist and manager of the Great Eastern pub in Brighton. “If you go to any of the trade shows, you’ll see that the people attending for the scotch brands are all in tweed coats, whereas the people there for the bourbon are in jeans, T-shirts and trucker caps.”

Nidal Ramini, a spokesman for Jack Daniel’s, the category’s top selling brand, said American whiskey was “flying” in the UK.

Cocktails, especially in high-end bars, are a big part of the American whiskey renaissance. For instance the midcentury classic the Old Fashioned – sugar cube, angostura bitters, soda, large ice cube and bourbon – was the top selling cocktail last year.

Much of the appeal has to do with nostalgia for 50s and 60s Americana, but there is a modern twist on the theme too.

“Pit smoking, barbecues, American street food – burgers, ribs, wings, all of these things are coming from the Americana trend, and they’re naturally paired with bourbon,” said Standen.

Traditional pubs might be closing hand over fist, but the overall value of what the industry calls the “on-trade” – places where you drink away from the home – is still growing. On-trade sales for the spirits market overall were up 3% last year compared with 2% for supermarkets and shops, according to Euromonitor.

It is in the bars, clubs and restaurants where American whiskey has stolen its march on rivals like gin and scotch.

New brands are coming into the UK market every month and distillers are wooing bar owners with special tasting nights and cocktail training for staff. The Great Eastern in Brighton now carries 130 different types of bourbon – the grain mash must be at least 51% corn – with prices ranging from £2.50 to £15a shot.

“People are well lubricated at the end of a bourbon night, but in a fun kind of way. It’s not that grumpy mentality that sometimes people say about scotch. You know, ‘I don’t drink it because it makes me feel a bit iffy.’ Bourbon doesn’t necessarily have that effect. It’s made from a very different kind of grain,” said Standen.


Rob Walker

The GuardianTramp

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