© 2024 WGLT
A public service of Illinois State University
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Scotch Whiskey Gets A Run For Its Money From Global Distillers


Last week, the world's top whiskey was crowned, and it was not scotch. It was a Canadian rye made by Crown Royal. Surprisingly, not one Scotch whisky even made it into the top five. But despite the competition, scotch is selling better than ever in this country as NPR's Jackie Northam discovered.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: It was a tough assignment.

So you're going to have to guide me on this one. What do I want?

A lunchtime tasting fine Scotch whiskies.

RICHARD LOCHHEAD: Do you normally drink whiskey?


LOCHHEAD: Have you had whisky before? And do you like it peaty or smoky or...

NORTHAM: I settled on a Macallan Rare Cask for my first tasting.

Cheers to health.

LOCHHEAD: (Foreign language spoken).

NORTHAM: My guide is Richard Lochhead, a member of Scottish parliament.

LOCHHEAD: So I'm cabinet secretary for Rural Affairs, Food and the Environment, and that includes food and drink, which is huge in Scotland.

NORTHAM: Lochhead was in Washington to promote Scotland's most popular export. But it hardly seems necessary here in the U.S., the biggest market for Scotch whisky.

LOCHHEAD: Scotch whisky has grown phenomenally over the last few years. And in the U.S. alone, there has been a massive increase in single malts in particular over the last few years.

NORTHAM: Lochhead says that interest has helped spur nearly $3 billion worth of investment in new and refurbished distilleries in Scotland. He says while Scotch whisky is popular, the industry can't sit on its laurels because other distilleries around the world are coming after it. On the other side of town, a few days later, I caught up with Jeff Faile, the bar and spirits director for the Neighborhood Restaurant Group, which has about 15 restaurants in D.C. and Virginia. When the lunchtime crowd thins out at the partisan restaurant, Faile and I scoot around behind the bar for a closer look. There are multiple shelves bearing whiskeys from all over the world.

JEFF FAILE: So the Japanese are really doing some fantastic whiskey. They really are doing some very nice, subtle flavors.

NORTHAM: Faile says everyone is talking about a whiskey from Japan, Suntory Yamazaki, which won whiskey of the year last year. He says many people didn't realize Japan even made a whiskey until the movie "Lost In Translation." Bill Murray's character was doing a Suntory commercial. Faile says the company creates wonderful whiskeys, but the stocks are limited.

FAILE: You may get a shipment once every three or four months if you're lucky, whereas, you know, as a buyer, I can order scotch pretty much without any sort of issue.

NORTHAM: Faile says his restaurant group stocks many types of U.S. bourbons. He says independent bottlers are experimenting with ryes, malted barley and wheat, trying to create a distinctive taste. Faile says artisans here in the U.S. are also buying whiskey from Scotland and aging it themselves.

FAILE: You can age whiskey in anything, whether it's a bourbon cask and a rum cask, bourbon and port. You have this one that's aged completely in rum cask.

NORTHAM: Faile says the Glenlivets, Laphroaigs and Macallans of the world don't need to worry about being overrun by competitors anytime soon. He says only whiskey made in Scotland can be called scotch, and there will always be a market for that. Jackie Northam, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jackie Northam is NPR's International Affairs Correspondent. She is a veteran journalist who has spent three decades reporting on conflict, geopolitics, and life across the globe - from the mountains of Afghanistan and the desert sands of Saudi Arabia, to the gritty prison camp at Guantanamo Bay and the pristine beauty of the Arctic.