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The globalization of whisky

Until fairly recently, making whisky was the province of only a handful of countries. In recent years, whisky making has become more global. No less than 32 countries have active malt distilleries. To be more precise, whisky is now made in Argentina, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, the Czech Republic, Denmark, England, Finland, France, Germany, India, Iceland, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Japan, Liechstenstein, The Netherlands, New Zealand, Northern Ireland, Norway, Pakistan, Scotland, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Taiwan, the United States of America, and Wales. This list holds true with a strict malt perspective on whisky. Many, alas, have tried ”whisky” from Thailand (made from molasses and rice, so that’s a no to being on the list), to name but one country not on the list. Countries making only grain whisky or whisky which would not legally be whisky from a EU perspective are not inlcuded among the 32 nations just mentioned.

I have attempted to place these countries in chronological order, from when whisky was first being produced in a given country. That is something of a challenge. Several countries – Wales, New Zeeland and Sweden are examples – have ”broken” histories of whisky-making. For such countries, where whisky was once made, and then there was a gap, and production resumed much later in new distilleries, they have been chronologically placed at the point where modern production started, with very brief information about the prior history of whisky-making within a parenthesis. Also, early distillers wouldn’t necessarily distill according to modern understandings of what whisky is. However, we can hardly fault the makers of poitín and usquebaugh back in the day for not complying with things like The Immature Spirits Act of 1915 or the Scotch whisky regulations of 2009, can we now? Therefore, I count the history of whisky production as beginning when distilling of malted barley began, whether or not other things were also included in the mash bill, or added later, and independently of whether the product was matured in oak casks before consumption.

The globalization of whisky: alembic whisky stills at Myken distillery, north of the polar circle, Norway.

But wait. Does it really have to be malted barley? My knowledge of early American and Canadian distilling enterprises is scant, but with a strict malt perspective on the world, saying that production of whisk(e)y began around the early 18th century in these countries is to predate the beginning of production. Their distilling histories began with rye and, a little later, maize (corn, if you’re American). Again, I find it a little ahistorical to fault early American and Canadian distillers for not using malted barley, so I loosely placed them as beginning in the early 1700s. However, this is a point where I need to spruce up on my reading. It might just be that America should be placed at the end of the 17th century, and that whisky-making in Canada began rather towards the middle of the 18th century.

So, the table below is not without its problems. As I said, distilleries making grain whisky are not counted, and what’s worse, distilleries making rye or bourbon or wheat whiskies – grain whiskies, when viewing all whiskies from a Scottish perspective, but that would be a bit strange a choice – are also absent. This means that the number of distilleries in, say, the U.S. and Canada is greatly under-appreciated. However, until someone writes the equivalent of Malt whisky yearbook for all distilleries on the planet which make other types of whisky, researching the exact number of distilleries in all countries is simply too Gargantuan a task for me to handle.

I only know of two countries which used to make whisky but where whisky is no longer produced today, Hungary and Greece. In both countries, production levels were infintesimal. They are therefore not in the list below.

As a bonus, I have added an estimate of the number of active malt distilleries in all countries. Nuff said: bring on the list!

Whisky-producing countries. Chronological order.

Country Production first started (Estimated) number of active malt distilleries today*
Ireland 11th–12th centuries 15
Northern Ireland 11th–12th centuries (naturally at the same time as in Ireland; Northern Ireland did not exist prior to 1921) 3
Scotland Cirka 14th–15th centuries around 136
United States of America Early 1700s? Late 17th century? slightly over 100**
Canada Early 1700s? Mid-1700s? 10**
Japan 1924 16
India 1948 4**
Spain 1962 2
Pakistan late 1960s 1
Brazil 1972 1
New Zealand 1974 (mid-1800s–early 20th century) 4
Germany 1983 56
South Africa 1990 1
Australia 1992 (first half of the 19th century–early 20th century) 37
France 1994 37
Austria 1995 20-ish
The Netherlands 1998 5
Switzerland 1999 9
Sweden 1999 (1890s–? and again 1950s–70s) 10
Czech republic cirka 2000 (1870s–?; again in 1989, though at those points in time, the country did not exist) 1
Wales 2000 (1780s–early 20th century) 1
Finland 2002 3
Belgium 2003 5
Denmark 2005 (1947–1977) 12
England 2006 (mid-1800s–early 20th century though not malt) 11
Liechtenstein 2006 1
Taiwan 2006 2
Norway 2009 5
Argentina 2011 3
Iceland 2012 1
Italy 2012 2
Israel 2013 2–3

Sources: Malt whisky yearbook, all editions; Moss & Hume, The Making of Scotch Whisky; homepages for distilleries; several blogs such as Whisky Science, Whisky Saga et cetera; the not-always-almighty Google; several distillery maps on Google maps.
* The word ”estimated” is to be emphasised.
** As explained above, saying that Canada has 10 distilleries and that there are only a little more than 100 distilleries in the U.S. is ridiculous. Remember, these are malt distilleries we are counting here.

Reflections

Looking at the table, two things stand out: whisky has become more or less global, certainly, but it is only fairly recently that many countries have joined the race of producing the world’s finest spirit.  If whisky is in the process of becoming global, this development is both, in some cases, older and younger than one perhaps thinks. Older in that whisky has been produced in Spain since 1962 and in Germany since 1983. Younger in that only 12 countries were making whisky as recently as 1989 (OK, 13, that particular year whisky was made in what was then Czechoslovakia). In the 90s, that number jumped to 19; nine more countries followed in the first decade of the 21st century, and the 2010s have thus far given the world four new entrants. Whisky is a global thing, yes, but geographically and historically speaking, the explosion of countries where whisky is made is a very recent phenomenon. One can compare with Arran in Scotland, which is still considered a new distillery. They have been on stream since 1995. That’s ”only” 23 years ago. Austria joined the group of whisky-producing countries the same year.

In many countries which were quite early ”on the ball”, as the German Blaue Maus in 1983, the style of production and not least the choice of stills is quite different from the whisky produced in whisky’s stronghold, Scotland. Also, plenty of countries have distilleries which are just too small to make an impact on the whisky business as such; the aforementioned Austria springs to mind. Even for countries with somewhat bigger distilleries – the absolute majority of which would be considered teeny-tiny in Scotland – it’s going to be quite a while before the new entrants can release whiskies which will be more widely available that are, say, 15, 20 or 30 years old. The real boom with about a dozen new countries has only really occurred in the 21st century. And remember, it’s not like Scotland is idly standing by; if anything, the new boom of distilleries is strongest in Scotland and in the U.S.

Early entrant: German distillery Blaue Maus came on stream in 1983.

Another reflection: can it really be that no new country has become a whisky-producing country since 2013? It seems odd and unlikely. Surely, there should be distilleries out there making (malt) whisky but which are operating a little under the radar? Zero malt distilleries in countries like Mexico and South Korea, can this really be?

Finally, some food for thought. Looking ahead at the coming 10–20 or even thirty years, will we care as much about the country in which a particular whisky was produced? With the market being absolutely flooded by products from all of these countries in the years to come, is it possible that that we will be speaking more about brands, but less or not at all about countries? I don’t know; I do think people still tend to ”think in countries” rather than in styles of whisky. Even for me, I still think ”Australian whisky” both about Hellyer’s Road and Lark, even while I know that their styles and their modes of production are completely different. Millstone remains primarily in my mind ”a great Dutch whisky”, and I think of the beautiful unpeated whiskies from Glann ar Mor as ”French whisky” even while knowing that they basically are Scotch made outside of Scotland, in terms of the stills used et cetera. But maybe, given time, strong ”new world” brands such as Amrut and Kavalan will just be ”good whiskies”, without the added ”it’s from India” or ”it’s actually made in Taiwan, imagine that”. Perhaps, with whisky just beginning its stride down the road towards globalization, we will care more about what a given whisky tastes like, and less about where it’s from. Who knows, maybe all these countries producing whisky will also help Scotch shed its imagery of kilts, glens and little lochs? I don’t know, but I can’t wait to see what will happen.

*

I normally do this blog in Swedish. For other posts in English, check here.


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2 Kommentarer

  1. Björn Scholz 27 februari 2018

    Ireland 11th–12th centuries ???
    They distilled something, but were are the evidence that is was from malt and not wine? Lot of old references about distilling but that does not mean that it was from malt….

  2. David Goldsmith 28 februari 2018

    Great article. I did not know about Sweden in the 1890s. What was that?? I hope you don’t get this type of response though….
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hOSYiT2iG08

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