2020 Vision (Trends in Spirits): No Experience Necessary

The new decade and sense of what 2020 will bring is everywhere. People are still singing the praises for pioneers and distilling disruptors. Some of the most esoteric spirit achievements in recent times are finally getting recognition as discerning drinkers seek out the stories and the people behind daring distillates. I have been out and about and asking better questions.

I have been asking and tasting at specialist whisky shops such as the Little Whisky Shop in Stockbridge (Edinburgh). It stocks special bottles aimed at collectors, including private bottlings such as the Bruichladdich 17 years CGW, a limited run of just 75 bottles, as well as having around 80 bottles open for sampling at any one time. This will surprise a lot of people, but despite being a small niche retailer on a typically expensive High Street, they are very competitive on prices. They try to match and occasionally actually beat, the two largest online retailers whilst also saving you on postage costs when buying in the shop. Supporting the local high street is part of the 2020 feel. When you buy from a small business an actual person does a little happy dance.

In 2020 flavour is still king, as producers combine the ethics of sustainability while exploring spirits outside the confines of strict categories. Expect whisky that might not seem like whisky, and spirits that have yet to be defined. Amongst the most ambitious exponents of flavour experiments, is the Copenhagen-based Empirical Spirits, set up by Lars Williams and Mark Emil Hermansen. The pair have created a base spirit from fermented barley with koji (a fungus used in Japanese cooking) and Belgian Saison yeast, building different flavour profiles by distilling and macerating ingredients as varied as pasilla chillis and oysters.

Then there is the wild world and new flavours of the Helena Spirit. There’s also the Fallen Pony, made with distilled quince kombucha tea, diluted with unfermented kombucha to reduce to 35% abv. Thought-provoking but far from a novelty, any spirits fan would do well to embrace this creative concept in 2020. Elsewhere the family-run Japanese whisky distillery Fukano is worth exploring – here they distil from fermented rice to make sochu but use the ageing techniques of whisky to challenge the parameters of the category. 

Sustainable distillers who promote biodiversity and regenerative agriculture will earn a deserved focus as we all seek out ‘purposeful’ drinking options. Closer to home, I recommend taking a gander at the Greensand Ridge distillery, where heat recovery systems and chemical-free production are employed to make spirits using surplus farm produce shunned by curiously fussy supermarkets. 

And in Scotland, the remote organic distillery Nc’nean in Drimnin, by Lochaline, is powered entirely by renewable energy and runs a biomass boiler. It will bottle its first whisky this year.

2020 will see the rise of new flavours in gin. The botanical category is driving growth, so expect more brands to dip into, or at least dip fruit into their gin variant. New and disruptive is not always to be celebrated in gin though, so many people will be drinking a lot of proper gin in the form of the excellent Plymouth (which I loved visiting and seeing how they go about their business as a heritage brand) packed with gorgeous quality, still my go-to in a martini and a gin that deserves a renewed focus in 2020.

One of the bartenders I spoke with claims the new trend for 2020 will be white Port and tonic (let’s call it a P&T). It is, of course, a wine rather than a spirit, but it’s fortified with grape spirit. The P&T isn’t an entirely new revelation but will change this year, because the grapevine hints at some new mixers coming to market to ignite a real drive to get this drink into more hands. The P&T is a magnificent mix, sweet enough, but not too much, refreshing and refined, and the Graham’s White Port Blend No.5 is a useful acquisition ahead of the spring,

If you want to create your own whisky collection for 2020, whether to drink, collect, or as a short- or long-term investment, what should you buy? My goal for 2020 is to visit the distilleries and buy the distillery exclusives. I will be reporting from particular regions, such as smoky Islay or honeyed Speyside and from specific distilleries, including Glenfarclas, Glendronach and Ardbeg. This is where my collection for 2020 will really start.

I have been watching for new distilleries that have launched whisky this year. These include (and are on my list for 2020) Bimber, the first single malt distilled in London for over a century. 

Yes, London. Their first release is known as The First (of course) and is already doing well on the secondary market with many buyers ‘flipping it’ – buying it for short-term profit at the expense of longer-term investment; definitely a distillery to watch. The other big trend is for independent bottlers, often with great design and stylish bottles with funky labels such as Chorlton, Claxton’s and That Boutique-y Whisky Company. They will appeal to new and old collectors, not just for investment reasons and for the quality whisky within but as objects of art. Art and whisky for the win!

One final tip for 2020, buy a bottle to sell and one to drink. Whisky is made to be enjoyed after all.