Dark spirits are rising.

Over the past couple of months I’ve been part of The World Drinks Awards judging panel for packaging design. The judging takes place at The Caledonian Club in Belgravia, a private Scottish members club (no jeans or trainers allowed here). We gather in the ornate Morrison Room to debate structure, substrate, typography, finishing techniques, craft and concept.

It’s usually quite lively with many arguments on what makes a worthy winner. During this process the bottles are laid out on the grand dining tables by variety of liquid. What struck me this year was just how many Whiskies there were crammed onto the dark wood 8 seater, you could hardly see a square inch of mahogany. By comparison the Vodka table could be seen in its full french polished splendour with only 6 entrants spread across its surface.

We all know and can bear witness to the rise of Gin (Gin had 2 tables) over the last 6-7 years but Whisky surprised me with how many entries there were and how the traditional Whisky codes are starting to be broken and reassessed. In the main craft values were still present but less repressed or dour, not taking themselves quite so seriously. Some you would be hard pressed to recognise as a Whisky at all.

15 years ago I was getting briefs on how we could make Whisky more like Vodka, shrug off its dusty image, make it more appealing to the yoof (sorry, legal aged drinkers). We even looked at white whiskies, so we could move away from the baggage of being a brown spirit. But times change and dark spirits are interesting again; as well as the whisky entrants there was a good turnout for Rum.

I’m not surprised by the decline in Vodka brands during the renaissance of cocktail culture. Sure you can mix it with lots of stuff, but it doesn’t bring much to the party, it’s just not that interesting; how many different ways can you tell a purity story?

Gin, and now Whisky, seem to be a better fit for cocktails with what new consumers are looking for – authenticity, craft values, production techniques, ingredient stories and flavour experiences all chime with our legal aged drinking millennials.

Whisky production is no longer the preserve of Scotland and Ireland, producers are cropping up all over the world; we even had entries from Tasmania. And because of this they are not bound by convention and are doing things their own way.

I think we are witnessing the beginnings of whisky design reinterpreting those old values and stories in the same way that craft beer has done with ale. And similarly to how craft left CAMRA behind to become meaningful, Whisky is starting to leave (ironically) the old boys club behind; breaking down those pretentious barriers to entry and making the stories more relevant.

With this in mind maybe next year we should pick a more contemporary venue for the judging (jeans and trainers encouraged).