Innovation and Tradition

“Innovation” and “tradition” are words that are bandied about in press releases regarding whisky at an alarming rate without much thought as to what they mean in relation to whisky.  It’s right up there with other go to phrases such as “unusually unique” etc…

Anyway, these points got me thinking and have led to me writing this blog post, a post that will probably end up being me ranting, arguing with myself and then coming up with no answers at all – so pretty much like any of my tastings!  What I would like to see is your opinions on the subject – let us know in the comments below:

What is traditional?

Landseer, Edwin Henry; The Illicit Highland Whisky Still

Can someone tell me when tradition began?  How far back do you have to go to be able to state that something is traditional 25, 50,100, 200 years?   

The first alchemist were not distilling for drinking pleasure but looking for the elixir of eternal life? So, traditionally, distillates were not supposed to be drunk for pleasure – so traditionally should we drink whisky at all?

Is the use of casks traditional?  The first distillates would not have been put into casks – this came much later – so should we be using casks?

Traditionally, all whisky would have been made in some form of crude Potstill, so column distilled whisky didn’t exist. Blended whisky isn’t traditional, nor is single grain whisky.  Let’s be honest though, without blended whisky where would the world whisky market be today?

Traditionally distilleries didn’t bottle and market their own whisky, this was done by Independent bottlers so should we stop distilleries from bottling there whisky and make it that all whisky has to be bottled by independent bottlers? (I like this idea!)  Okay, I am being facetious but I hope that you get my point.

So what is Innovation?

So, the flipside of the argument – what is innovation?

The definition of innovation is the introduction of something new or different.  Now let’s think about what has been truly innovative in terms of whisky recently?


Putting whisky in alternative casks, wines, beer, rums etc? – all been done many times before.

White Wine Matured Whisky – 12th October 1853 Image from

Blending different whiskies in an innovative way?  Blending has been around for quite a number of years.

Drinking whisky in cocktails?  Whisky cocktails have been around as long as cocktails have.

Whisky Cocktail In Mr Boston Official Bartenders and Party Guide – Published in 1935
Whisky Cocktail from the Savoy Cocktail Book – Published 1930












Rebottling an old bottle of whisky and putting a new label on it and selling it for much more than its original cost?  Been done before!

Whisky Bottled in 1840 rebottled in 1932 and sold at Auction in 1945! Image from


Releasing age statement whiskies, releasing non-age statement whiskies?  Mixing whisky with other spirits? Using different woods? It’s all been done before!

Perhaps in terms of production some things have been more innovative, particularly in terms of yield and or ease of work.  Saladin maltings, and then drum maltings, certainly made things much easier – but then again so did the introduction of steam coils and gas/oil fired stills.  

New strains of barley (whether genetically modified or not) made a huge difference to the yields achievable from a ton of barley.  But is creating newer and newer varieties of barley innovative or just continuing the original innovation of creating a new strain of barely specifically for distilling?

I would say innovation has been much more prevalent in production rather than in terms of maturation or marketing of new releases.  Personally I would say that the last truly innovative jump forward that the whisky industry has had was the invention of continuous distillation. This, and then subsequent blending in bond rules etc, helped shape the whisky world – nothing else has revolutionised the whisky industry as much!


In conclusion I have probably added nothing to the debate other than to argue with myself but I look forward to your views below, all I can say is that I still think that the words tradition and innovation are used far too often in ill thought-out, soundbite heavy press releases – which got me thinking…  with all of the changes that have been happening in the whisky industry over the years, does that make Springbank innovatively traditional! (I’m off to trademark that!).

Let’s hear your thoughts?


Mark Watt


Mark Watt

Mark is the Director of Sales for WM Cadenhead, responsible for cask management and selection as well as our continuous sales strategy. He has worked for the company since July 2012 having previously been involved in the industry throughout his working life. He can proudly state that every job he has ever had has been whisky related; from the bar in the Craigellachie Hotel to a variety of retailers through to his current job. Mark has seen all sides of the industry.

3 thoughts on “Innovation and Tradition

  1. The “innovation” today is moving whisky to more active barrels. I don’t like that. Whisky takes time. All great whiskies I have tasted has been in not that active casks in plenty of years

    Hurrying whisky seems to be the thing these days, which is probably why I drink a lot less whisky today than 10 years ago


  2. Thoughtful writing Mark – couldn’t agree more. In the rush to make money, MBAs will say anything 🙂
    Truth be told, whisky and distilleries are different enough on their own without the need for all the marketing rabble.
    I toast you & Cadenheads with this new innovatively traditional Kilkerran sherry cask!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *