According to expert spirits writer and presenter Neil Ridley, the spirits industry is booming internationally, and our understanding of exactly what it is we are drinking is constantly improving.
From the ascendance of the "not for the faint-hearted" Chinese baiju to the unstoppable gin bubble, these are the big trends to keep an eye on:
1) The rise of no-age whisky
The world of whisky has diversified far beyond traditional Scotch. This year’s IWSC results have debunked the long-standing myth of "the older the better", with a range of no-age statement whiskies taking the sector by storm. Turning the focus to the art of the blend, rather than the prestige of age, the trophy this year was awarded to Richard Paterson’s The Dalmore Valour Single Highland Malt, a rich, chocolatey elixir with warm orange and cinnamon aromas.
"Age statements have long been the vanguard of how you would judge a good whisky, but today I think it's perhaps less about age and more about flavour, personality and DNA," comments Ridley. "Scotch whisky has become so popular that there's a shortage to go around."
2) Asia’s spirits explode on to world stage
From India’s ‘feni’, to China’s ‘baiju’ (pronounced bye-joe), Asia’s spirits market is thriving as never before. The continent has plenty to offer to western palates. Recent years have seen baiju, made from the fermented grain sorghum, arrive. For Ridley, its surprise entry shows that people are travelling more, and trying things for the first time. "It's great to see it breaking out of its domestic market," he says. With an increasing number of baijus being entered each year, IWSC officials have even introduced the baiju trophy, won this year by the Yushan Taiwan Kaoliang Liquor.
The spirit was deemed by the judges to have soft lavender and pine needles on the nose, followed by a delicate palate that has a touch of baked bamboo and Chinese pickle. "These are very unique spirits in their flavour profiling. Baiju tastes like nothing else on earth," Ridley warns. "It's not for the faint-hearted, and has a savoury flavour for those used to a more western style of spirit."
3) Mezcal takes its rightful place next to tequila
Possibly the greatest success story to have come out of this year’s awards is the rise of tequila’s partner-in-crime, the mighty mezcal. With certain craft mezcal producers using agave plants matured for up to 35 years, some are now ready to compete with the best tequilas. "Mezcal is very distinct in flavour,' explains Ridley. "What people are looking for now is authenticity, provenance and storytelling in their spirits, and mezcal is truly rustic.
"If you consider tequila the party spirit, mezcal is more organic by comparison, and there's a huge variety. You can taste the direct link to the agave plant." The top prize was awarded to the Corte Vetusto Mezcal Espadin, hand-crafted by fourth-generation master mezcalero Juan Carlos Gonzalez Diaz.
David Shepherd, co-founder and director at Black Sheep Spirits, says “Mezcal is niche. It’s about 2% of tequila sales, but it’s coming out of the darkness. It’s made that transition from bartender’s secret to being requested by consumers."
4) The gin craze continues
This year, the IWSC received nearly 400 gin entries from 35 different countries – an enormous 571% increase since 2013. With consumer loyalty yet to wane, gin has continued to dominate the aperitif scene – as producers experiment with new craft creations and evermore obscure botanical concoctions.
Professor Ampleforth's Bathtub Navy Strength Gin (winner of the Contemporary Gin Trophy, 2017) packs a botanical punch thanks to the “bashing up” of the ingredients, including orange peel and cinnamon, to release even more flavour. Eco-friendly Brighton Gin, who bike bottles straight to customers’ doors in the city, also walked away with an award, with its quirky packaging catching the eyes of the judges. "Gin is probably too big now to fail. It's not like gin has ever really gone away, but at the moment it's very much in ascendance," Ridley comments.
"You can make gin a lot more quickly than whisky, which is one reason why we're seeing more craft distilleries popping up. I don't think there's a major city in the UK that doesn't have its own gin now, which is great."
5) Armagnac: a forgotten treasure?
Another emerging trend that Ridley points out is a slow but sure increase in the popularity of French spirits. "It hasn't hit yet, but for me there is a renewed appreciation for French spirits, and particularly for armagnac," he says.
"It's a misunderstood French brandy with huge amounts of history and provenance. It sits somewhere between single malt whisky and cognac and has a lot to offer to a connoisseur, or to someone new. You can find amazing aged armagnacs at a fraction of the price of an aged whisky or rum."