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Almost on the Rocks, Scotch Is Fighting Back : Alcohol: Distillers work to make whiskey a drink of choice again, from home in Scotland to Japan.

October 17, 1995|DIRK BEVERIDGE | ASSOCIATED PRESS

TAIN, Scotland — Scotch and water? They definitely don't mix at the distillery. When hard rains threatened to flood one of Glenmorangie's storerooms, workers had to hustle with sandbags to avert disaster.

Distillery manager Bill Lumsden figured this was just about perfect--a chance to make his guests from Japan get into overalls and rubber boots and roll dozens of big Scotch whiskey barrels into a semi-truck trailer to help save the day.

"The process must continue against all sorts of things," Lumsden said. "I'm glad they could see how we improvise."

The guests, about a dozen Japanese barmen, seemed in fine spirits although they had come halfway around the world only to end up pushing barrels on a soggy September morning.

"This is, of course, very educational," said Masashi Yashiro, a marketer with the Tokyo wine and spirits merchant Kokubo and Co. Ltd.

That was Glenmorangie's point, to teach the Japanese the ways of making fine single-malt Scotch whiskey so they can be more knowledgeable about selling it back home in some of Japan's more luxurious bars.

It seems like an elaborate way to market a bit of whiskey, but Glenmorangie's visit from the Japanese bartenders comes at a time when Scotch whiskey distillers are fighting hard to keep the world drinking their liquor. It remains to be seen whether they can succeed, although recent sales figures are finally starting to offer some encouragement.

For years, the industry has seen a trend of higher sales in terms of the total price, but the amount being drunk has fallen. Distilleries are closing, jobs are being lost and the Scotch whiskey industry is working hard in an effort to redefine itself in the eyes of millions of drinkers.

Scotch whiskey distillers even broke up a decades-old gentlemen's agreement and began running television advertisements in Scotland, hoping to reverse a trend of young Scottish drinkers choosing lighter spirits such as vodka and rum.

"We're trying to say to younger people, 25 to 35, 'Don't assume whiskey's an older person's drink,' " said Murray Loake, a spokesman for Guinness PLC, owner of Bell's Scotch whiskey. Bell's started the ads, which seem certain to be followed by the competition.

"That's the problem in the U.S. and the U.K. It's perceived as a drink your father drinks."

The Scotch Whiskey Assn. is predicting that 1995 could finally be the year when both the sales price and the sales volume go up.

The distillers sold about 249 million bottles outside the European Union, up from 235 million bottles, in the first six months of the year, with the peak holiday season yet to come. Drinkers in the EU bought 146 million bottles, up from 140 million bottles a year earlier.

The total value had not yet been tallied--but the distillers think they might finally be having a good year all around.

"It's difficult to pin down exactly what's happening," said Campbell Evans, spokesman for the trade group. "A number of countries around the globe seem to be doing very well."

Americans are finally sipping more Scotch as they come to grips with the idea that moderate drinking and a healthy lifestyle can go together. Brazil is bouncing back as the economy improves, Europeans are downing more Scotch whiskey, Japan is recovering, and newly opened markets including China and India show strong promise.

But this may come too late for areas of Scotland devastated by the industry's prolonged downturn. In 1979, there were 26,000 people in the business. Since then, about 20 distilleries have closed and there are just 14,000 people employed.

"Although we're seeing sales increase and volumes increase, I don't think the jobs will come back," Evans said. "A lot of distillers are not at capacity."

So the marketers will continue to fight for share, with an increasing emphasis on the single-malt whiskeys--such as Glenmorangie--that fetch a premium price and net higher profit margins for the distillers.

But if young Scots aren't enamored by the idea of sitting by a fire and sipping a single malt whiskey that is almost as old as they are, how can the distillers expect to do well in places like Japan, among traditional sake drinkers?

Interestingly, whereas the young Scots prefer the lighter alcohols, Scotch whiskey is viewed as quite trendy in developing markets in Latin America and Asia.

Still, the trendy drinkers don't necessarily go at it quite the same way as a crusty old Englishman sipping away in an overstuffed chair.

Drinking a single-malt Scotch is an evolving new art in Japan, where the local distillers produce a lighter liquor more to traditional Japanese tastes.

Nakamura Yoshio, manager of the cellar bar in the Royal Hotel in Osaka, said customers will often order their Scotch whiskey mizu wari.

Takashima Katsushi, chief of the Beets pub lounge at Osaka's Shin-Hankyi Hotel, explains.

"We normally drink whiskey and water with a lot of ice," Katsushi said.

Serious Scotch drinkers in Edinburgh or Glasgow would cringe at this abomination. They take their whiskey "neat," or perhaps with a small bit of water, just enough to let the "serpent" out of the drink, as the locals say.

The Japanese say they've been learning to sip their Scotch in the traditional way in recent years, thanks to a few pointers from the industry in Scotland, and it's the top-selling spirit at many of Japan's international bars.

"In hotel bars, they prefer Scotch whiskey," Yashiro said. "In the very ordinary level, middle-class, Japanese whiskey is accepted, but upper class prefer premium Scotch whiskey."

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