On November 2, this city’s most devoted whiskey hounds will converge on the Northlands Expo Centre to sample some of (but, one hopes, not all) of the 100 whiskies and cognacs that will be poured by 25 different suppliers as part of Edmonton’s first World of Whisky and Cognac Gala event. Many of the drams on display will be first-class single malts, with a few higher end Canadian ryes, American bourbons and Irish and Scotch whiskies – Johnnie Walker Blue, for example – mixed in for good measure. But outside those doors, in bars, restaurants and homes across the city – and indeed, across the country, the continent and even the world – a revolution of sorts is taking place. And it begins, as so many do, with young people.
It’s become popular sport over the last few months to pick on Millennials, the generation born between the early 1980s and the early 2000s and one that’s been described as everything from hopelessly hapless to infuriatingly self-involved. But for North America’s whiskey producers, they’re something else entirely: A godsend. That’s because they have taken to drinking rye and bourbon in a way that hasn’t been seen since the days of prohibition. The numbers say it all: After declining at a rate of approximately 0.25 to 0.5 per cent a year for the last decade or so, sales of whiskey in North America suddenly shot up by five per cent in 2012. And in the first six months of 2013, exports of Canadian whisky to the United States have increased 18.4 per cent, with total exports up 24.6 per cent. “That’s a huge turnaround,” says Davin de Kergommeaux, Canada’s pre-eminent expert on whiskey and the author of Canadian Whisky: The Portable Expert.
It’s not just about how much they’re drinking, de Kergommeaux says, but also how. “Millennials, the new drinkers, are not as stuck on the old rules about what’s right and what’s wrong,” he says. “They’re more interested in what it tastes like than what the label says.” Those labels can even say things like “toasted caramel” or “cinnamon rush,” adjectives that would have immediately disqualified them from consideration for previous generations of whiskey drinkers. In fact, de Kergommeaux says, they can’t seem to get enough of them. “I was talking to someone at Black Velvet [the Alberta-based maker of a toasted caramel and a cinnamon rush whisky] and they said it’s been crazy – they can’t keep up with demand.”
Neither can bars and restaurants, many of which are now offering an increasingly complex assortment of whiskey-based cocktails. Mat Busby, a bartender at The Bothy Wine & Whisky Bar, says he’s found himself making more Old Fashioneds – a popular bourbon-based cocktail that usually features bitters, sugar and orange zest – than he ever expected to in a lifetime. “We noticed, right from the first month or two here, that we were constantly making them – way more than we anticipated. We’ve gotten pretty good at it.” And while The Bothy brands itself as a more traditionalist-friendly spot – it only has four blended whiskies in its collection, and only one that is flavoured – Busby says he’s seen a change in the demographic that sidles up to his bar on a nightly basis. “I think over time we’re getting more and more of a younger crowd, the 20-to-35 crowd.”
There is, of course, still a place at that bar and others like it for traditionalists, those who prefer their Scotch unadulterated by things like added flavour or fancy garnishes. But here, too, change is afoot. The seemingly insatiable demand from Asia for single malt Scotch has driven supplies to all-time lows, and forced big-name Scotch producers to move away from putting age statements on their bottles. Macallan, for example, recently ended the release of its 10-, 12- and 15-year-old Scotches. Still, de Kergommeaux insists that there’s something for everyone out there right now. “The old-style whiskey drinkers are not being pushed aside. They’re still being served well. But new people are coming in and discovering new ways to discover old drinks, and it’s really having quite an effect.”