The Reinvention of Whisky

Once considered the domain of fusty old men, whisky is now enjoyed by a range of people of all ages, genders and flavours. We delve into what the modern whisky drinker is looking for, and what's driving the change.

Old men, leather wingback chairs, buttoned-up cardigans, a smoking pipe… not so long ago this was what you might picture if asked to conjure up a typical whisky scene. But a lot has changed in the whisky world in the past 10 years or so and it seems it’s shaking off its sterotyped-shackles.

Reports from industry analysts, such as IWSR Drinks Market Analysis (International Wine and Spirits Record), reveal whisky sales, across all categories, bourbon included, are booming globally. And, according to research, more women than ever are among its patrons, with millennials, too, hopping on the whisky wagon: in fact, a UK-wide poll from YouGov reported that most whisky drinkers are on board before the age of 31.

This boom in sales and in whisky drinkers’ diversity is down to a number of factors. Consumer trends towards craft products and premiumisation (which basically means a perception of quality) lend themselves perfectly to whisky, with its inherent history and time-honoured processes. But, while there is a deep appreciation for the product’s back story and pedigree, consumers are also ever on the look-out for the new and exciting – happily, the spectrum of whisky styles and production methods mean the spirit is the perfect mix of quality, tradition and innovation.

As brands tailor their offerings to meet this demand, there’s slowly been a cultural shift in perceptions and attitudes. For example, for a long time, many ‘aficionados’ cried sacrilege if anything other than a drop or two of water was added to a single malt whisky – this prescriptive viewpoint often being alienating and intimidating to a prospective drinker. But the ‘rule book’ is now largely being dismissed by a new wave of broader-thinking whisky folk who believe the tipple, in all its guises, should be enjoyed however you like it best. And with an increased appreciation for the creativity of mixology, younger drinkers have been given the scope they needed to enjoy whisky on their own terms.

With many nations joining the big guns of Scotland, Ireland, Japan the US and Canada in producing some stellar examples of whisky – from Denmark to India, Germany to Taiwan – there’s been freedom to experiment, too, with new raw materials, cask types and ageing techniques, without the restraints of Old World regulations.

All these changes have meant that people new to it can ease themselves into the whisky world with perhaps a flavoured variety or smooth blend and, if they choose, work their way through to a bolder, aged expression.

As for the increased wave of female whisky drinkers? That’s simple: women aren’t prepared anymore to listen to what they “should” drink and are just going with their preferences. You may have spotted Mila Kunis ordering a Jim Beam in a recent ad campaign for the bourbon giant and brands are increasingly including women in their marketing to further dispel the outdated and nonsensical notion that whisky is for men. Increasing numbers of women are joining the industry too, and in 2018, Becky Paskin, editor of and Georgie Bell, global whisky specialist, started a social media campaign under the hashtag ourwhisky, to dispel lingering myths about who a whisky drinker is.

While there’s always room for improvement in making whisky more accessible to all, the fact a more diverse crowd is being introduced to the multiple wonders of it is good news for everybody.