Jim Beveridge’s taste buds are in demand like never before. The aptly named master blender of Johnnie Walker has been in the Scotch whisky business for more than three decades.
He has seen trends boom and wane but the events of the last few years have been something else entirely.
In the last year, a string of excessively wealthy drinkers, predominantly from Asia and North America, have been willing to part with a small fortune to spend just a few hours with the softly-spoken Scot.
Demand for new and rare expressions of Scotch is so high among the latest breed of affluent whisky enthusiasts that Diageo, the FTSE drinks giant that owns the Johnnie Walker brand, has branched out into personalised products, which allow aficionados to walk away with several barrels of their very own blend.
“There have been five in the last year and there are more in the pipeline,” says Beveridge. When asked how much the experience costs, he smiles: “It’s a commercial discussion.”
Diageo is investing £1bn over the next five years in Scotch whisky production in an effort to keep up with the seemingly unquenchable thirst for the centuries-old spirit among emerging market drinkers.
Scotch and Irish whiskies account for 35pc of Diageo’s global net sales, which reached £10.8bn in its last financial year.
Sales of Johnnie Walker, the world’s best-selling blended Scotch whisky, surged 15pc last year and Beveridge and his 12-strong blending team are flat out looking for ways to evolve the brand without compromising on quality.
“I’ve been doing this for, I think, 33 years,” says Beveridge. “I’ve experienced a lot of change in that time. The last five, six years you have seen the biggest set of changes.”
Drinks giants such as Diageo have always been searching out new ways to appeal to their customers, but staff at its European Technical Centre in Clackmannanshire have never been busier.
“We used to do small numbers of events, like the 200th anniversary of Johnnie Walker [in 2005],” says Stephen McDonald, technology manager at Diageo, the man who oversees the luxury packaging around the latest products such as The John Walker, which sells for £2,000 a bottle. “There wasn’t a pull from the market [for new expressions] now it’s all a pull from the market.”
Diageo isn’t the only distiller experiencing booming demand. Rival Pernod Ricard, which owns brands such as Chivas Regal, also announced earlier this year that it was investing £40m to boost Scotch production by 25pc in 2012-13.
Chris Pitcher, analyst at Redburn, believes the industry is entering a
“super-cycle” of demand driven by new generations of wealthy middle-class
drinkers in Asia, Latin America and Africa.
But it’s not only in the emerging markets that Scotch consumption is booming, according to David Gates, Diageo’s global director for whiskies.
“In some [developed market] territories there’s a renaissance,” he says. “The US for us would be the most interesting one. We saw really strong growth in the US last year. We have had good growth in Johnnie Walker for some time in the US but this was a completely different level.”
Endorsements from celebrities including Mad Men actress Christina Hendricks probably help the appeal of Diageo’s products in developed markets but Mr Gates believes Scotch, once considered a fusty drink for fathers, is attracting a new generation of “millennium consumers”.
He says: “New millennium consumers don’t know who to trust any more. Once trust in established figures tends to erode, they look for authentic brands.”
Although he believes it will be a while yet before the trends seen in the US are mirrored in the UK, Mr Gates says there are encouraging signs of a resurgence in Britain as well.
Drinkers in their late 20s are showing more interest in Scotch whisky at bars and specialist retailers.
“There are people in their mid to late 20s who are coming in [and asking for Scotch] you wouldn’t have seen that five years ago,” he says.
As part of its £1bn investment, Diageo is expanding about half of its 28 malt whisky distilleries in Scotland.
One, and perhaps even two, new distilleries are also on the cards.
But one major game-changer could be India, where Diageo has just agreed to pay up to £1.28bn for a majority stake in Indian drinks tycoon Vijay Mallya’s United Spirits . The deal will allow Diageo to push its brands through United Spirits’ vast distribution network, which stretches to 64,000 retailers.
The City cheered the deal but the real game-changer, according to Gates, will be if India liberalises its punitive 150pc import tax.
The import tax on Scotch is one of several measures under discussion by India and the European Union. If agreement can be reached, analysts expect India will quickly become the biggest Scotch market in the world.
For now, Diageo is confident £1bn is enough to keep up with booming demand from the new generation of Scotch drinkers.
But Gates admits: “India is the big potential swing factor. It there was the kind of liberalisation we all dream of, we would all need to have a rethink.”
It’s a potential outcome to which all of Diageo’s 4,000 employees in Scotland are prepared to raise a glass.