Patience Gould on honeyed whiskies

Former Drinks International editor Patience Gould gets a bee in her bonnet about honeyed whiskies

I’m watching this latest flavoured craze, namely adding honey, spice and no doubt all things nice, with growing apprehension. Apart from anything else I cannot get that ghastly Mary Poppins song, A Spoonful of Sugar, out of my head! Ghastly, because it’s absolutely true sweetening up a tincture does “help ‘it’ to go down”.  

All of which makes this latest aberration, which I put on a par with alcopops, coolers and the like, questionable marketing practice. Fundamentally, producers are saying their drinks are hugely improved with a dosage of sweetness, and it doesn’t matter where the honey comes from or on which plants the bees have grazed. At the end of the day these drinks – the likes of Jim Beam’s Red Stag, Jack Daniel’s, Bushmill’s and (shock horror) Dewar’s – are being sweetened up in order to appeal to a wider audience. 

It’s no good wringing your marketing hands and saying this is an excellent way of introducing new consumers to your brand because it ain’t going to wash and, furthermore, it demeans the brand’s overall proposition. Jack Daniel’s has a tough, all-American image which conjures up the likes of John Wayne and the Rat Pack headed up by Ol’ Blue Eyes himself. It’s really hard to see any of these American legends in their lifetimes smacking back a few shots with a spoonful of honey, and Western movies would have to be remade – imagine the shot glass whizzing along the bar with a jar of honey in its wake?

There’s a natural cycle when it comes to taste, and when you’re young there’s a definite bias towards sweetness. It’s estimated that nine times out of 10 around the world Coca-Cola is the preferred mixer with spirits, and the reason it is preferred – particularly among younger consumers of legal drinking age – is because it is sweet and acts as a foil to the chosen spirit. 

The perceived wisdom is that as you get older your palate changes, and finally you prefer to put the cola on hold and add a splash of soda or water instead, and really enjoy and appreciate your chosen elixir in its natural state. So adding this ‘sweetness’ early on just spoils it – everyone looks forward to enjoying something they didn’t in their youth, whether it’s alcohol or food.

After all it would be awful if everyone immediately liked everything. I mean, you’d have six-year-olds demanding vindaloo curry after school is out – and it’s true to say no amount of sweetening helps a vindaloo go down. I was well into my late teens before I could look an avocado pear in the eye, and my first introduction to Scotch was with the mixer Canada Dry. But now, several years on (!), when it comes to the noble spirit it’s either water or soda for me. And, while on the Scotch whisky front, I have to say I think the Scotch Whisky Association’s attitude to Bacardi’s launch of Dewar’s Highlander Honey is, to say the least, ‘wet’.