Respected analysts have sounded a warning bell over the production of our national drink. Are they right to be worried?
The Scotch whisky industry, an emblem of Scottish enterprise and excellence in global marketing ingenuity, prides itself on business planning as smooth as the finish on a 12-year-old malt.
Which is why industry eyebrows were raised last week by a new report from respected analysts at Rabobank that came up with friendly but unsolicited advice on how the industry could better manage its affairs.
The new report on the state of the industry from analysts at the Netherlands-based global bank tut-tutted at the "lumpy" production cycle, warning companies to avoid the temptation to ramp up production when demand is high, and to consider launching more innovative products.
It was published last week at a time when, according to the report, many distillers are increasing production in an effort to replenish depleted stocks of longer-aged whiskies.
The industry note from Rabobank - which specialises in financing the global food and agriculture industries - warns that whisky producers should step off the "Scotch production rollercoaster" of peaks of excess supply followed by troughs of cut-backs and shortages.
In particular, it warns that the Scotch whisky industry should avoid any repetition of mistakes made in the late 1990s and early 2000s by wine producers in Australia and California, who suffered years of low prices as a direct result of boosting production to unsustainable levels.
Winemakers responded to global demand for Australian wines in the 1990s by increasing production by 75% between 2000 and 2004. But this decision was followed by dwindling demand, which led to chronic oversupply for most of the last decade, in turn leading to discounting and prices for US imports of Australian wine falling by about 30%. According to the Rabobank report, this discounting "undermined the image of what was becoming an increasingly prestigious wine region".
Instead of discounting during periods of low demand, producers of Scotch whisky should "innovate" and consider following the example of whiskey producers in the United States and Canada who have increased sales by producing a variety of fruit-flavoured whiskies, among other novelties.
The Rabobank report says many in the Scottish whisky industry fear that introducing "flavour variations" could undermine the long-term prestige of their brands.
But it adds: "In the future, should over-supply return, expansion into flavour extensions would be a better response from a strategic perspective than the discounting seen in the past. Scotch producers need to become more comfortable with the idea of flavoured brand extensions.
"These kinds of innovations are not appropriate for all brands, but for blended whisky brands in basic and premium price segments, that may be necessary to retain their relevance with consumers in the face of increasing competition from other types of whiskies. We are not recommending black cherry flavoured 18-year-old single malts, but flavour extensions and other new product developments could play an important role in some cases.
"Innovations could strengthen brands that lack a more prestigious image and could protect the Scotch category from losing future consumers to more innovative segments such as bourbon … Chasing fads may pose risks to the long-term prestige of the Scotch industry, but lessons from the wine industry also point to the risk of failure to innovate."
That failure to innovate could already be costing the industry dearly. The report point out that while consumption of Scotch whisky in the UK fell 5% between 2011 and 2013, US whiskey imports to the UK grew 35% during the same period.
A spokesman for the Scotch Whisky Association said that, as it takes a minimum of three years and often longer to mature Scotch, one of the particular challenges for distillers is making production decisions based on forecasts of evolving demand in 200 countries.
He said: "That is a well-known challenge that has always faced the industry. Today's distillers are systematic in their planning and assessment of market potential, aiming for stable and sustainable production growth levels."
He said that, when it comes to innovation, Scottish whisky has been used as the base for liqueurs for many years. "What is essential is that the labelling and marketing of new products based on Scotch whisky make it clear for consumers that they are not Scotch whiskies."
He added: "What is encouraging is that, despite some international economic and political headwinds, the growing demand for Scotch whisky overseas appears more broad-based than in previous decades. Aspirational consumers in the US, South America, sub-Saharan Africa, India and south-east Asia all offer new opportunities for long-term export growth. That suggests the increased investment across the industry in production capacity is well-founded."
And drinks industry analyst Alan Gray rubbished the suggestion that the Scotch whisky industry needs to be more innovative. On the marketing side, he said, recent advertising campaigns for blended whisky have been original and creative. On the production side, Scotch whiskies are now produced in a far wider variety of finishes than previously, with consumers now able to choose between single malts that have been matured in sherry, Madeira and port wood casks rather than the more traditional bourbon casks.
Despite a slow-down in demand in the last couple of years in Asia, particularly in China, global demand remains strong and "overall the industry has been doing reasonably well", Gray added, admitting: "There is no doubt that economic circumstances have changed a bit because of the slow-down in Asian markets, and that has been reflected in recent results from Pernod Ricard and Diageo."
And he agrees that there is a danger of over-production in the future, with the industry in the past having experienced "cycles of production being stepped up and getting ahead of sales".
Gray emphasises a clear distinction between capacity and production, saying that over the last few years substantial investment has been put into extra production capacity, particularly at small distilleries.
"I do agree that too much capacity has been put into the industry, but actual production levels are not alarming at the moment," he said. "Because of the market slow-down in Asia, the growth rates we were expecting two years ago are now lower and we will have to be a bit more cautious moving forward.
"It is very difficult to get these things absolutely right. It's always been a challenge getting production in line with sales. Ultimately, the industry has an excellent product. There is no need to tinker with a tried and trusted recipe."
However, Donnie Blair, a former whisky industry sales executive and arch-critic of the corporate interests he sees as dictating industry policy, endorsed the critical tone of the Rabobank report.
Blair repeated his fundamental disagreement with industry and government assumptions that the Scottish whisky industry is performing well. Over the last 40 years, he said, global sales by volume of Scottish whisky have increased by just 14%, a far slower rate of growth than non-Scotch whiskies, during which time global GDP has increased by 160%. But this fact does not take into account the tiny size of some of these competitor sectors in Japan and England and elsewhere, or the massive gains in value caused by effective premiumisation.
Given this "flat-lining" and lack of volatility, there is no reason why making decisions about production on the basis of predictions of future demand should be difficult.
"There is a huge disconnect between London and Paris-based executives, who tell the people working in distilleries in Scotland how much to produce," Blair said. "Getting supply right is not that difficult, given the fact that demand is pretty steady."
He said if there was over-production in any one year, whisky companies always have the option, as has happened in the past, of re-distilling the whisky into other spirits, such as vodka. Other options including maturing whisky, particularly single malts, for longer or shorter periods.
In addition, it is hard to obtain completely accurate figures about whisky production as an unknown amount of whisky is exported in bulk from Scotland each year to be mixed with local brews overseas.
"If you are building a Rolls-Royce, it is better to concentrate on making better and better Rolls-Royces," he said. "I am not sure that we want to degrade the concept of Scotch whisky. I think we should concentrate on what we do best and simply do a better job in terms of selling it."
The flavouring of whiskies has been one of the most commercially successful,talked-about and, for purists, controversial trends in the global spirits industry in recent years.
But the Scotch industry itself has been overwhelmingly content to sit it out.
These new tipples – mostly targeted at a younger, more female consumer base – usually involve sweetening or flavouring whisky or bourbon by adding honey, herbs, spices, citrus fruits or berries.
Last year, production of Jack Daniel’s Tennessee honey reached one million cases, becoming the first flavoured whiskey to achieve the milestone.
More recent launches include the first ever flavoured Irish whiskey, Bushmills’ Irish honey. This was followed by the release of two extensions of Pernod Ricard’s Paddy Irish Whiskey brand with honey and spiced apple variants.
At the time of the launch, Pernod Ricard Irish Distillers said it wanted to “challenge the traditional perceptions of whiskey”.
Other new drinks include Crown Royal Deluxe, a Canadian blended whisky matured in maple-toasted oak barrels, and Ballantine’s Brasil, a lime-flavoured “Scotch” that is carefully described by Chivas Brothers as a “spirit drink” and directed largely at the Far Eastern market.
Peter Moore, global brand director for Ballantine’s, has predicted that demand for flavoured whisky will continue to grow and the category is not just a “short-term fad”.
Particularly controversial was last year’s launch by Bacardi of Dewar’s Highlander Honey, which is marketed in the US as a “Scotch whisky infused with Scottish heather honey filtered through oak cask wood”.
Strict Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) guidelines and european Union law stipulate that no ingredients apart from caramel colouring and water can be added to Scotch whisky. But, according to the SWA, no rules have been breachedif the resulting concoction is labelled as a liqueur or spirit drink.
Despite the controversy, drinks industry analysts believe such creations are poised for further growth in the coming years.
The Scotch industry is likely to watch from afar, content that the traditional marketing cues that have served so well over the decades may need occasional refreshing, but you overhaul them at your peril.