Millennials and Single Malt Whisky might not seem like an obvious pairing. Younger people, it’s often assumed, are more concerned about the cheapness of spirit than its quality. Older generations and marketers envisage us drinking in clubs and crowded bars, or, if it’s a beer commercial, on a New York rooftop softly illuminated by fairy lights. Personally, this doesn’t really mirror my drinking habits, or my friends’, especially the rooftop bit. In fact, there are many purchasing preferences shared by millennials, that make Single Malt Whisky very appealing. We’ve shifted our focus away from large, global brands, towards brands tied to a particular place, that have a story to tell. We prefer our products to be crafted and artisan, and we try to consume less, consciously. Millennials also go out less and drink less than their parents’ generation. In sum, we care about quality versus quantity, which explains to me, at least, why so many of my friends and I, who try to make the most of the money we have to spare, are avid Single Malt fans.
My love for whisky began when I was a first-year university student. Coming from the US, where the drinking age is 21, the only alcohol I could get my hands on before coming to university was the Blue Curaçao my parents kept in the liquor cabinet above the fridge, which they never touched, unsurprisingly. My beverage preferences were immature, to say the least. During fresher’s week, I exclusively drank vodka lemonades, following the example of an older Norwegian girl who took me under her wing.
But one Tuesday night, early in the first semester, I asked my friends whether they had any plans for the evening (only a first-year student thinks about going out on a Tuesday night). I was right to ask, my friends did have alcohol-related plans, and they invited me along – to a whisky society meeting. I was apprehensive at first, but I quickly gained cred among my friends when I said I got coconut in one of the whiskies we tasted. ‘Pffft…’ they all said, but then the president of the society stood up and shared his thoughts on the whisky. As he was finishing up, he said ‘And I don’t know about any of you, but I got a bit of coconut in this one.’ I totally ruined my moment of vindication by letting out a loud ‘yeah!’ -- excitable American that I am. In any case, I was hooked.
I have great memories from my year at that UK university, but my favourite memories invariably include whisky and those friends who invited me to the whisky society. There weren’t many other students who preferred sipping Caol Ila from a plastic mouthwash cup (not condoning), accompanied by a Guy Ritchie film, to a night out. Even so, enough of us formed a whisky clique so that there was always a new single malt to try. If any of us ever received a bottle for Christmas or a birthday, we would share it with each other. I once got a bottle of Jura 12 in duty-free on my way back from the States, and it seemed like, within 24 hours of returning to the halls, word got round and eight people showed up at my door, waiting for me to serve up some whisky.
I decided to return to the US to finish university. After my year of whisky-drinking in the UK, it was very odd to suddenly be categorised as a minor again, in terms of alcohol laws. For two years, before I turned 21, I had to drink whisky on the sly or be written up by the RA (resident assistant) in dorms. I really missed drinking whisky in a sociable atmosphere and discussing whisky, dram in hand, with people who shared a passion for it. I was always happy to share my illicit dorm whisky with other students, and although they mixed my single malts with ginger ale and coke at first, gradually, some of my friends took an interest in whisky. I started to think that students at my university might join a whisky society if I started one. However, It wasn’t until my final year of university that I finally got the society off the ground.
Starting a university whisky society allowed me the chance to cement a lot of what I had learned about whisky in the few years I had been drinking it. It was also a unique experience because I attended a women’s college (an American anomaly) and all twenty of the women who joined the society knew nothing about Scotch whisky at the start. However, I couldn’t have asked for a more enthusiastic group. At the first tasting, I chose a single malt from each of the recognised whisky-producing regions in Scotland. To my surprise, the finale of the night – Caol Ila 12 was the group’s favourite, by a mile. I had wrongly assumed that a group of young women, all new to whisky-drinking, would not enjoy a smoky, peated single malt. It was moments like that, which made the whisky society so enjoyable. I’m quite glad I started a society when I knew relatively little about whisky myself, because it meant that I was learning about whisky along with the other members. It was also a great way to make friends quickly because we were discussing an intimate and yet universal experience – smell and taste. Two members who might never have spoken before would be the only people in the group to pick out honey notes in a whisky, and suddenly they would feel a sort of taste-bud affinity with each other.
I got back in touch with a few of the members from the whisky society to ask them about their current whisky-drinking habits and what they enjoyed most about the society. Almost everyone said that learning more about how whisky was made; where it came from, and how the flavours in whisky developed, were the most enjoyable aspects of the society. Gaining knowledge of a spirit was really valuable to them, and increased their enjoyment of drinking whisky. I was so happy to hear this; it underlines the traits of millennial drinkers I mentioned before. The presence of story, origin, craft and quality in Single Malt Whisky, is what has the potential to draw millennials in.
The profile of the Single Malt Whisky drinker is changing in tune with the growing presence of millennials in the food and drink sector. Whisky is no longer exclusively the drink of older men, sat in leather chairs. The more whisky education provided to millennials, the more likely they are to take an interest in whisky and enjoy drinking it. Everything millennials want to see in their food and drink products, is echoed by the Scotch Malt Whisky industry. This is why it is so exciting to work at the Edinburgh Whisky Academy, where creative education is taking place, with experts from the industry leading courses. EWA’s focus has always been on whisky education rather than Scotch Malt Whisky’s image, and I think this where millennials see value.
So, I think we should raise a glass to the generation often viewed with apprehension by marketers: the whisky industry is in good company.