An interview with Katie Nagar, Australian Johnnie Walker Ambassador – by James Henderson.
There’s been a recent surge in interest for the Whisky Highball, a drink dating back to the 19th century (and therefore, long on the lips of bartenders), so what is driving the current trend?
We suspect that there may be deeper sociological, economic and psychological factors at play, so we engaged with Johnnie Walker (Diageo) in an attempt to understand why.
Johnnie Walker (who Katie represents) is currently running an Australian campaign on the Whisky Highball.
What’s special about this particular cocktail?
I think what makes the whisky highball so special is its versatility – the number of flavours you can choose to feature is only limited by your imagination.
The serve itself is so simple, yet the drink offers huge complexity of flavour – it can be as simple or as elaborate as you want. The classic whisky and ginger ale can easily be made at home, while on the other end of the spectrum, you see some of Australia’s most revered bars using advanced techniques to push the boundaries of creativity, combining whisky with exotic in-house produced ingredients (sometimes even using their own equipment to carbonate).
These drinks still fit into the highball category, but are completely different takes on it.
What’s driving that interest?
For a long time, a lot of people saw whisky as being rigid and exclusionary. Whisky was considered a spirit for one particular demographic of people, and only to be consumed in one particular way – neat, with perhaps a whisper of water.
Thankfully, now people are realising that that is a load of rubbish. Whisky has a huge range of flavour, and the people who enjoy drinking it are as equally as diverse.
Furthermore, drinking whisky should be an enjoyable experience, and if you don’t like having it neat, then you are well within your rights to add whatever mixers will enrich the drinking experience for you.
When people tell me that they don’t think they like whisky, I usually respond to them with: “Do you like flavour? Then you like whisky. It’s really just about finding the whisky that speaks to you, and the style of drink that suits your palate.”
Where are trends like this emerging from? Is it a location, a person or particular demographic?
There is research indicating that lower ABV drinks are becoming increasingly popular, internationally [see: ‘YouGov / Portman Group Alcohol Alternatives Survey of 2004 UK adults: The Low and No Alcohol Boom is Here to Stay – January 2019’].
The highball is perfectly positioned within this global trend as it usually contains only one measure of spirit as a long drink, meaning you can enjoy a lighter style, lower ABV drink that still offers amazing flavour.
What cross-industry factors (from the culinary, cultural or other worlds) have contributed to this cocktail trend? Are there demographic shifts or larger inter-industry variables forging this change?
The versatility of whisky highballs allows it to be a drink that holds relevance across a variety of cultures and nationalities.
A great example of this can be seen in Dave Broom’s book ‘Whisky: The Manual’, which evaluates 202 different whiskies based on the world’s five most popular mixers: soda water in the US and Canada, ginger ale in the UK and Ireland, cola in Eastern Europe and Russia, sweetened green tea in China and Taiwan, and coconut water in Brazil and Central America.
These are all whisky highballs, each celebrating a different mixer which embraces the flavour preferences of the peoples of that place.
I think this reflects a greater global trend of pushing for inclusiveness across a plethora of industries.
Given that Diageo also owns Starward Whisky – a leader in the domestic market – how are other Australian whiskies holding up to compete with this trend?
To clarify, we don’t actually own Starward. Distill Ventures is a Starward investor and Diageo is an investor of Distill Ventures.
It is apparent via our investment in Distill Ventures that Diageo views the local whisky market as having great potential. Local whisky brands help drive interest and relevance in the entire category, and that helps drive growth for all brands.
Do you see a permanent place on the menu for the Whisky Highball or will it come and go?
I believe it is here to stay. Top bars around the world are increasingly allocating more of their menu space to highball offerings.
From the conversation with Katie, the forces that are driving recent interest in the whisky highball include: a broadening of whisky understanding and adoption in the mass-market, a drive for low-ABV consumption and the Australian palate, interested in long, refreshing beverages.
As an additional note, given the prevalence of mixers here, I’m interested to know if there’s an upward-trend in carbonated drinks (including sodas, tonics and seltzers) and where they might ultimately fit in the future of both alcoholic and non-alcoholic and beverages.