Can Scotch Navigate the Low-ABV Trend?

A Time of Deliberate Actions

Scotch whisky, in particular, has been enjoyed by millions of people around the world for centuries. However, the beverage business has been pushed to evolve as people increasingly prioritise health. Almost every major beer brand has introduced alcohol-free varieties in response, and the spirits aisle has seen a boom in sales of brands like Seedlip and Ceder’s, which feature botanical ingredients to appeal to the “less is more” movement.

A Shift in Consumption Patterns: About four million Brits participated in Dry January this year, according to a YouGov survey. This data emphasizes the growing inclination towards health-conscious choices and potentially reduced alcohol consumption.

But despite all these changes, the Scotch industry has hardly reacted at all.

The Scepticism of History

Scotch, with its long-standing rules and devoted fans, is in a bind. David Borthwick, CEO of Glen Turner Co., maker of such storied labels as Cutty Sark and Glen Moray, emphasises the importance of legal restraints in making low/noABV exploration practically impossible. He claims that these rules are largely responsible for Scotch’s widespread renown.

Mainstream beer brands have nearly universally released alcohol-free versions, and spirits are exploring botanical blends like Seedlip and Ceder’s. The wide acceptance of these alternatives points to a market ready for change.

Pros and Cons of the Low-ABV Trend

Benefits of Low-ABV Drinks

  • Alternative for Health Conscious: With a societal push towards health and fitness, low-ABV drinks serve as a middle ground. They allow consumers to partake without the guilt or the heavy calorie intake typical of standard alcoholic beverages.
  • Increased Social Inclusion: Those who prefer not to drink or wish to limit their intake can still be a part of social events. They won’t feel out of place holding a low-ABV or no-ABV beverage in a gathering where others are consuming alcohol.
  • Safer Choice for Many: Reduced alcohol levels mean a lower chance of over-intoxication, making it a safer option for those who are still planning to drive or engage in activities that require coordination and judgment.
  • Broader Audience Appeal: With more varied products on the shelf, there’s something for everyone. The abstainer, the occasional drinker, and the regular consumer can all find something that suits their palate and preference.

Drawbacks of Low-ABV Offerings:

  • Perceived Value Concerns: Given that some low- or no-alcohol beverages are priced similarly to their full-strength counterparts, consumers might question the value they’re getting. Are they paying for the experience or the content?
  • Taste Variability: While strides are being made, capturing the essence of a full-bodied whisky or a rich wine in a low-ABV variant can be challenging. Purists might argue that these beverages can’t compare to their traditional counterparts in terms of flavor and depth.
  • Tradition vs. Modernity: Especially in industries steeped in tradition like Scotch whisky, there might be concerns about diluting brand legacy or heritage with low-ABV offerings.
  • Economic Implications: For manufacturers, striking a balance between producing traditional beverages and innovating with low-ABV versions can be economically challenging. The production, branding, and marketing of a new line can strain resources.

Technologies in Development

Some businesses have made tentative forays despite the difficulties. Whyte & Mackay, to appeal to a wider audience, has released “Whyte & Mackay Light,” a spirit with a lower alcohol content (21.5% ABV) than its original offering. The launch represents a first step towards recognizing shifting customer preferences, despite being priced similarly to full-strength competitors.

Fun Fact: A bottle of Whyte & Mackay Light, with 21.5% ABV, is priced around $12, which is nearly similar to its full-strength counterparts. In contrast, some non-alcoholic ‘spirits’ are sold at close to $30 a bottle. This indicates that consumers might be prioritizing experience and choice over cost.

David Borthwick sees this change as evidence that previously forbidden territories are now fair game. It’s interesting to see that the momentum isn’t exclusive to Europe. For instance, the Australian nonalcoholic spirits business Lyre’s has just released an American malt and a Highland malt in the UK, termed an “alcohol-free homage.”

Appealing to a Wide Range of Tastes

Mark Livings, creator, and CEO of Lyre, makes an interesting observation about the Scotch industry: the industry is full of fervent fans, some of whom could even consider a nonalcoholic equivalent an abomination. A change in drinking habits is evident, he says, and it’s due in large part to the popularity of CrossFit and other high-intensity workouts. Opportunities for both high-end whiskies and alcohol-free variants can be found in these shifting norms.

New entrants like Lyre’s have released non-alcoholic spirits such as an American malt and a Highland malt. This showcases the expanding market for no-ABV beverages, even within traditionally alcoholic categories.

Craig Hutchison of Ceder’s is one of the industry experts who has seen the increased demand for dark no abv spirits. According to Hutchison, the features of distilled spirits make it difficult to create nonalcoholic versions of dark spirits. Nonetheless, it hasn’t stopped him from working on a new black no-alcohol spirit’ that will be introduced very soon.

Besides The ABV

Hutchison claims that today’s drinkers care more about the overall experience, the ritual, and the adult price point than they do about being drunk. Will Meredith, the barman at London’s Lyaness, agrees with you and touts Scotch’s versatility in mixed drinks. Scotch has such a powerful flavor that merely a splash of it may make or break a drink, giving bartenders a wealth of options.

Daniel l’Anson of Pernod Ricard adds nuance to the conversation by noting that a drink’s alcoholic level is not necessarily related to the intensity of its flavor. As proof, he offers the Highball, a cocktail made with a low percentage of Scotch.

Curiously, the trend towards lowered spirits is not brand new anywhere in the world. South Korea has displayed a preference for spirits with a lower alcoholic content since around 2015, with brands like Imperial and Windsor catering to this trend. This suggests that the appetite for low-ABV drinks isn’t confined to Western markets but is a broader global phenomenon.

A Cautionary Hope

It is unclear how the Scotch world will strike a balance between its historic traditions and contemporary expectations, despite the industry’s clear intent in responding to this lowABV trend. Many businesses are taking a “wait and see” approach. As the business mulls over what to do next, longer mixed drinks may be the most visible answer for the time being.

The continuous changes create an intriguing junction of tradition and transformation for Scotch fans and the beverage industry at large. Scotch’s future direction in this changing environment can only be determined by the passage of time.