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SPECIAL REPORT: World Whiskies Conference

If there was any question that the robust global whiskey market is continuously picking up steam, the World Whiskies Conference, which took place at Manhattan’s Chelsea Piers on 8 April, the day before the 10th annual WhiskyLive NY, cleared up any doubt. The event, organised on the US side by Dave Sweet for Paragraph Publishing, featured an illustrious lineup of industry players who collectively provided a comprehensive look at whisky’s global high impact. Talks offered everything from hard data to discussions about flavoured whisky, package design, social media and the market effects of craft spirits.

After welcoming remarks from Damian Riley-Smith, managing director of Paragraph Publishing who founded the conference in 2006, Mike Keyes, North American Regional President of Brown Foreman, set the tone in his keynote talk. He chronicled whisky’s decline into the “dark ages” in the 1970s to its current boom. The last few years have seen an average annual growth of 6%, making it the top performing spirits category. The reasons why amount to a winning formula that generates engagement and enthusiasm: tradition, heritage, quality, a broad price spectrum, craftsmanship and the fact that it’s an acquired taste, which gives it cache.

Yet opportunity for growth is still immense. He noted that Brown Forman’s Jack Daniel's clocked in at 11 million cases last year. That’s only a 3% share of the category. David Ozgo, chief economist for the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, elaborated further. He’s been crunching the spirit industry’s numbers for 13 years and in that time, he said, he’s never seen growth across every category in the segment – from bourbon to Scotch to Irish whiskey—like he did last year.

Part of that growth has been due to legal and policy-related matters. Eric Gregory, president of the Kentucky Distillers’ Association, noted that Kentucky has gone “from sin to signature” as the state’s legislature has loosened tax laws. Participants in a panel entitled Reaching Out to Luxury Markets presented a global outlook, chalking up vast jumps in sales to policy changes. Frank Coleman, senior vice president of public affairs and communications for DISCUS, noted that thanks to the World Trade Organisation’s shaking up tariff regulations and a DISCUS program that involves going overseas and educate the trade (a partnership with the United States Department of Agriculture) consumer access to and interest in American whiskey has skyrocketed. How much? A lot. The export of American spirits to China, for instance, has increased 319% since 2004.

One of the more buzzed about seminars was Traditional Marketing in a Social Media World. David Gerzof Richard, professor of digital media and marketing at Emerson College and founder of BIGfish Communications, addressed how an old-school industry can harness new world platforms like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. Social media, after all, is 24/7 access to an attentive focus group.  Alan Kropf, director of education for Anchor Brewers & Distillers, gave an animated presentation that focused on how a company like his, which has over 400 products, can run a marketing company with only six people through savvy social media negotiation.

Ralph Erenzo, co-founder of Tuthilltown Spirits, and David Blackmore, master brand ambassador for the Glenmorangie company, went head to head on the impact of craft whiskeys, arguably the industry’s most contentious topic. Erenzo maintained “craft is not a threat to big brands, they’re an incubator”. Blackmore was not easily convinced, and had none-too-subtle judgments on the quality of many craft spirit.

The boom in flavoured whiskies also elicited staunch opinions. “There is money to be made in the flavored whiskey category, but there’s a distinct line and it can be crossed, just as it has been with the ludicrous vodka flavours, like marshmallow and pumpkin pie and bacon,” said Lawson Whiting, senior vice president and chief brands officer for Brown Forman. “We have to be cautious to make sure that fatigue doesn’t happen with whiskey. Authenticity is the key to whiskey’s success. We don’t want to lose that.”

Daniel Fisher, senior vice president of the spirits portfolio at New York’s popular Astor Wines, provided a dissenting opinion: “Once you’ve made every flavour, then where do you go? Sales of flavoured whiskies are diminishing, yet there’s more available,” he said. “I don’t see flavoured whiskies having longevity. They’re best for opening up new markets. If whisky was meant to be flavoured, distillers would have been doing it for generations.”

The panels were broken up by a lunchtime ceremony at which Parker Beam, Heaven Hill master distiller, and Edwin Foote, longtime distiller at the old Henry McKenna Distillery, Stitzel Weller and more, were inducted into the Whisky Magazine Hall of Fame. The day wrapped up with an engaging blind tasting led by Richard Paterson, Whyte and Mackay’s dynamic master blender and Heaven Hill brand ambassador Bernie Lubbers, who challenged guests to determine the priciest whiskies. It was no easy task.

14 April 2014 - Liza Weisstuch Freelance Writer & Editor, The Boston Globe, Whisky Magazine