What would the world be like without Scotch? It’s a whisky drinker’s worst nightmare, but recent press reports have trumpeted such a doomsday situation facing single malt scotch. (A particularly important concern, since it’s Tartan Week—a celebration of all things Scottish.) The truth: You’re not going to go thirsty any time soon.
Yes, the consumption of single malt has taken off over the last 20 years or so. From 2002 to 2015, according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, sales of the spirit in America, alone, are up an astonishing 182 percent.
“The current global demand for Scotch is putting pressure on stocks of mature whisky,” says Charles MacLean, one of the world’s foremost Scotch experts and author of the Whiskypedia: A Compendium of Scotch Whisky.
The problem is that Scotch is an aged alcohol and what you’re drinking today was made at least a decade ago, if not longer.
Distillers, therefore, are always trying to predict what drinkers will want down the road. Such forecasting is, of course, not an exact science. I’m sure most of the brands wish they could go back in time 10 years or more and make additional barrels of whisky that they could sell now.
Instead they have done everything in their power to put more bottles on store shelves, including discontinuing or replacing older whiskies with younger ones that don’t list an age on the label. (A practice that has certainly helped spur the fear of an impending Scotch shortage and will become increasingly more commonplace.)
The brands are also making more whisky. In 2000, according to MacLean, Scotch distilleries were only working at 66 percent capacity and “the result is a shortage of whisky aged between 10 and 16 years,” he says.
But by increasing the number of hours and days they were open that figure rose to 75 percent in 2005 and it was more than 90 percent in both 2013 and 2014. So, in the next decade we’ll begin to see the result of those increases in capacity and there’ll be more mature whisky available.
There are now 20 million casks in Scotland aging and that number will surely go up, since there are also many new distilleries opening. “The last 10 years has seen an unprecedented number of new distilleries,” says MacLean.
He has counted 22 new ones that have set up shop since 2004 and, according to the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA), another 30 are planned.
And these aren’t all small boutique facilities. The Macallan is working on a new £100 million distillery that is supposed to open next spring and The Glenlivet announced several years ago a £10 million expansion, which is set to expand its capacity by 75 percent.
These spirits aren’t just copies of Scottish single malts but are interesting interpretations of the liquor and are building up a loyal following of their own.
Even if a single malt shortage were to happen, heaven forbid, in the short term there would be plenty of Scotch to go around—blended Scotch, that is.
While many connoisseurs have abandoned blends (which combine malts from several distilleries with aged grain whisky), according to the SWA, they still make up 90 percent of the volume of whisky produced by the industry. And since they have fallen out of fashion, stocks of blended whiskies are still plentiful.
MacLean’s outlook for the industry is in fact quite rosy. But he does see trouble on the horizon: “Although there may be a small problem of shortage, the likelihood is a problem of over-production in the coming years.”
That sounds like one problem drinkers can live with.