Think Whisky ambassador Neil Ridley previews the event

Think Whisky 2020 will take place on April 28 and this year, for the first time, it will run alongside a number of spirits events as part of Think Spirits 2020. DRN caught up with Think Whisky’s ambassador and whisky consultant Neil Ridley to have a chat about all things whisky.

What do you think retailers should do to enhance their whisky ranges?

The good thing about whisky is that it is such a diverse category and it encompasses not just Scotch whisky but also whiskies from Ireland, Japan and all over the world.

One of the great things you have is incredible flavours and innovation from all of these different countries.

For retailers it is important to highlight the diversity and value for money that the category can offer.

Scotch has started to offer a lot more diversity now between the different whiskies available and Irish whiskey is now the most diverse it has ever been.

And then there are all of these great world whiskies from 40 countries, ranging from Australia to Taiwan.

Retailers can make the most of this diversity of flavours and there is also more guarantee of quality because whisky is one of the most regulated categories of spirits.

There is an argument that the strict regulations for Scotch Whisky hinders innovation but I disagree on this matter. Instead I believe it maintains a standard of quality globally with all of the other countries looking at Scotch as a benchmark of quality.  It may not be as easy to innovate in Scotch but the bottom line is that it is always going to be a measure of quality.

It is in line with younger consumers and what they are looking for, and there are more innovations coming through. It is a brilliant time right now for whisky.

And how can retailers encourage consumers to explore and learn about the category?

The diversity of retailers that sell whisky is terrific, including specialty retailers, convenience stores, premium supermarkets and mainstream stores.

What I am seeing more of now from buyers of bigger stores is they are really starting to understand advocacy and using their assets to the best of their abilities. This includes monthly magazines and websites, where they are communicating with their customers to demystify the category. These are not complicated messages but more flavour-led, such as serving suggestions encouraging people to play with it.

Historically it has been seen as more challenging in terms of a mixing spirit, which is nonsense. But now there have been concerted efforts to broaden out the usage of whisky, and retailers are starting to align themselves with experts to help educate the growing number of consumers in this category.

What are the strengths of the whisky category in the UK?

It is difficult not to compare it to other spirits and in the past there were a lot of people who thought they might not like whisky but one of the things that is in-built with this drink is there is always something for everyone.

I have been involved in the industry for 12 to 13 years and most of the time it just requires finding the right serve to help get people to enjoy whiskies for the first time, and often it’s just a case of starting out by substituting other spirits with whiskies in cocktails, such as the Old Fashioned. The latter is very easy to make and although it is traditionally made with American whiskey or Bourbon, it can also be made with Scotch or Irish whiskey, and it just needs people to play around with it. It is important people don’t fear making mistakes.

There has never been a better time for whisky.

What are the weaknesses of the overall category, particularly for the off-trade?

This has obviously been one of the challenges of this sector in the past, the idea that it can’t be mixed with anything. So that is a weakness of the category, but it is definitely changing, so I think really there is still plenty of opportunity there to help grow the category and introduce new consumers to this drink.

In the past it has felt like quite a cliquey spirit, especially Scotch. But there are more well-educated and savvy audiences for this category now, as well as soon good brand ambassadors.

Gone are the days that Scotch is seen as just a Dad’s drink.  

At the end of the day there are some unbelievable sipping whiskies from places like Ireland, but you can also add mixers to them, which removes the barriers to entry.

Why should spirits buyers attend an event such as Think Spirits?

Think Spirits is a great opportunity for retailers to speak directly to brands and to ask the sort of questions they really want to ask.

Buyers can explore all across the category. It is a good opportunity to start to look forward and to seek out the next big things, especially in whisky. Buyers can ask what are the next big trends and how can we react to that with our purchasing decisions? It’s an exciting event for that reason. 

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