OK, you got me: a deliberately overly dramatic title. But the idea behind it speaks, I think, for itself. Just in case it doesn’t, please allow me to elaborate. Whisky seems a pretty straight forward product: all natural, made from just 3 ingredients – water, yeast and barley, right? Not quite. You see, whisky is, I believe, quite a confusing, layered and complex concept. Already the assumption that it’s made just from 3 ingredients, is up for debate. Wood and time can and should be added to the list in my opinion. And if you really like to get down to the nitty gritty, you could argue the human factor – skill, experience, vision of those making the whisky, could or should be added to the equation as well. A stance which will likely lead to further debate. So a confusing concept after all then.
Even if I try and step back and see the thing for what it is, it still doesn’t become ‘easy’. Whisky is, essentially, an alcoholic beverage meant for consumption. Except that it isn’t. It’s so much more. It is the topic of columns, blogs, YouTube channels, stories, legends, encyclopaedia, history books, novels, legislation, documentaries and even movies. Entire online and offline communities are built around it, connecting people from the far corners of the globe. Entire festival are dedicated to it. It’s the facilitator of many conversations, and even heated discussion and debate. It also has almost magical abilities, as a good whisky enjoyed in good company has the potential to make those gatherings and meet-ups even better, amazing even, with the whisky lifting itself up in the process.
It is also, love it or hate it, collectible. So much so, that it has taken a grip on the entire industry. People with a broad collection going back decades would and could make a nice profit from putting bottles from long closed distilleries, discontinued whiskies, or just plain older bottles on auctions. But apart from these long term investments, more and more people seem to be in it with the sole purpose of buying and then selling almost immediately with a quick buck in mind, and it seems like those flippers are here to stay. So forget about that 1960’ies bottle of Bowmore, now almost any whisky that’s not core range and/or readily available gets targeted by ‘investors’ . It’s the (inevitable?) result of a globalized online market, where the demand for harder to find whiskies has led to, quite frankly, insanely inflated prices on secondary markets. Ardbeg’s committee releases and any bottle with the words ‘Feis Isle’ somewhere on the label are a prime example, but it has become equally valid for core range whiskies released in smaller batches –the likes of Springbank, Kilkerran or Daftmill . And don’t get me started on inaugural releases from young distilleries. I’ve seen Ardnamurchans on secondary from anywhere between €120 to even €350 – I kid u not.
It’s the economy stupid!
Yes, whisky is booming. The demand, and the supply, of whisky, particularly Scotch, has never been higher. Dare I say, the quality is up there as well. And obviously, high demand leads to higher prices. Resources like quality barley and quality casks are, alas, limited, so with many people craving for a drop or two of the golden nectar, this will result in prices slowly, yet inevitably, going up. I can live with that, as probably can you. We might not be happy about it, but it’s a sort of logical, natural evolution. Where a bottle of Laphroaig 10 cost me €30-ish 6 years ago, today it will very likely be closer to €40. Even independent bottlers, for many years the go to option for the true anorak after a harder to find or older whisky from popular and more ‘obscure’ distilleries alike, are not necessarily the cheaper alternative these days. Not even a decade ago, you could quite easily find a bottle of 20 yo Glen Keith/Dailuaine/Teaninich/or even Clynelish… for €70 or even less. Today: not so much.
The entire boom has some quite unpleasant little side effects as well. We get that. It’s nothing new. The biggest one probably being people turning to whisky to make a fast buck. Preferably a big, fat, fast buck at that. What started with a bunch of flippers ruining it for dedicated bottle chasers (whisky enthusiasts with a severe case of fomo), has unfortunately caused a trickledown effect throughout the entire industry, ruining it for, well, everyone. And indeed, can you even blame a distillery for bumping up the prices for their single cask whiskies or their limited releases? In a way, if you see your whiskies going double the price at auctions within a week after you’ve released them, is it not but sound policy and even common sense to release that next limited release or single cask at least 30% more expensive than the previous one? After all, why would the flippers have all the fun (and the money), right? While this affects a lot of distilleries and a lot of whisky enthusiasts, It’s interesting to see how it affects some (a lot) more than others. Equally interesting to see, is how different distilleries (or rather, their owners) deal with the whole aspect of desirability/collectability/premiumization. Whether this inflation is sustainable in the long run, is up for quite an interesting debate, but that’s not where I want to go.
What I do want to talk about, is: is there another way? Where can we turn to for good quality whisky, offered in a natural presentation, at reasonable, affordable prices? Of course, there will “always” be the good, reliable, solid classics like Glenfiddich 12, but let’s not call each other Shirley here: while it’s good to come back to the classics and enjoy and appreciate them for what they are, once you’re in the rabbit hole, we ‘ll be looking to broaden our horizon. And isn’t it a damn shame when that horizon at the same time turns out to be a really high set bar, financially?
-Wow, Lagavulin 16: great whisky, I’ll be looking for more from that.
-Ah, may we perhaps point out they recently released this 11 year old Lagavulin Offerman edition, finished in Guinness casks?
-Sounds wonderful. Uhm: quanta costa?
-Oh, around €110. I know, not cheap, but it’s a limited release, you see.
-Fair enough. Where can I buy it?
-Well, you can’t. It sold out in about half a day. But there’s several auctions running right now where you might fetch one for €200.
And while this of course (and may I add: fortunately) doesn’t apply to all whiskies from all distilleries all of the time, there is no denying the general trend going on right now.
But! While the current boom is making whisky more expensive, it’s also creating some wonderful opportunities. Opportunities in the form of new players on the market: the young distilleries. We’ve been spoiled for choice as in the past 5 - 10 years, several new distilleries started up each year. And that’s just Scotland. The bit about almost all of them being independently owned (as in: not owned by Diageo or Pernod Ricard, Edrington… Coincidence or not, quite a few of the new kids in town are in fact owned by independent bottlers, branching out), is quite a significant one, in my opinion. Because, rather than having to cater for massive brands the likes of Johnnie Walker, Chivas or Grant’s, these distilleries are, for now and the foreseeable future at least, aimed at the ever growing market of enthusiasts out there. Those who don’t mind buying a bottle of 3, 4 or 5 year old whisky retailing at some €45, or up to €60. Because they (as in: we) know what these new distilleries are about: producing a quality product, where integrity and natural presentation are cornerstones on which their brand and marketing are built. I’m talking about Nc’Nean, Isle of Raasay, Lindores Abbey, Kingsbarns, Torabhaig… and outside of Scotland there’s Cotswolds, Stauning, Gouden Carolus, Teeling and many others. They’re out there, and while not always readily available at this moment, they do produce and release enough to prevent them from becoming fodder for flippers, and more importantly: they produce good to even excellent quality whisky at affordable prices. We don’t care that it’s young whisky, we want it to taste good! There’s plenty of 18, 20, 25… year old whisky out there, and once you get past the 18 yo mark, prices are getting eye wateringly expensive really quick. But just because your bottle of 20 yo whisky is out there, retailing at €200, doesn’t guarantee it will be delivering good value for money, on a quality to cost ratio.
And despite an abundance of whisky available, there is no sign of market saturation, quite the contrary. Surfing that big whisky wave, we now find ourselves in a position where products will sell, regardless the price tag that comes with it. There is a certain level of cynicism to profit maximization when you find yourself in a market where an 8 yo special edition of Talisker is costing more than their regular 18 yo, even if the former is bottled at cask strength.
While the young ones: they don’t have the depth of stock to release 15 or even 10 yo whiskies at the moment, but while their releases are indeed young, it’s also quite impressive quality. Why? Because, now more than ever, they know more than ever about how to make good whisky, what to do and how to do it and equally important: what not to do. It’s quite hard to believe that up to the 1980’ies, there was a general consensus that character and quality of whisky could be attributed to 4 elements - water, peat, air and barely. No mention of things like wood policy, distillation, fermentation, maturation… Obviously, water, yeast, peat and barley do play a part when it comes to the quality and character of whisky (some a very significant part, others perhaps not so much), but with all the knowledge we now have at our disposal about yeast, fermentation, distillation process, the impact of the size and shapes of the stills on the character and flavour of the spirit, cutpoints, worm tubs vs. ‘regular’ condensers, the importance of maturation and quality casks… making whisky maintains to be an art, but up to a degree it's also very much craft, based on knowledge and science.
The inevitable cask gone bad left out of the equation, it’s safe to assume distilleries are very much in control when it comes to guaranteeing good quality. People working in the industry, making the whisky, controlling the stocks, finishing and blending the whisky, have a very firm knowledge and understanding of how to run their business. I’m not suggesting that in the olden days people didn’t (I wouldn’t dare), but I AM saying that today the understanding and knowledge of the whole whisky process, from grain to bottle and everything in between, are unprecedented. Roughly 200 years of experience to lean back on, pays off.
Furthermore, there's a fairly recent tendency to put younger whisky out on the market. The fact that we see well established distilleries like Ardbeg, Lagavulin, Glendronach, … tap into that market with whiskies carrying single digit age statements, should tell you all you need to know. Yes, to a certain degree it’s catering across the board – not all of us can happily spend a few 100 quid on a bottle, but remember where we’re coming from. For years and years, it was all about the age statement, the older the better. It was the only way out of the whisky loch from the 1980’ies, but the days where you could by 30 year old Springbank for less than €100 are well behind us. Glendronach’s 8 year old 'the Hielan’ has been around since 2015, pretty much paving the way for other distilleries to boast that single digit age statement on the label, and I welcomed it as a breath of fresh air after we’ve been through decades of ‘older= better’. Don’t get me wrong, there are very few things more rewarding than kicking back on a Sunday evening with a nice dram of Bunnahabhain 18 or Glengoyne 21, but it’s not always Sunday evening, and I’m not always in the mood for a Glencostly twentysomething. There are more occasions where something crisp, youthful and vibrant are what I reach for.
But don’t take the word of this grumpy middle aged bastard for it. There is a whole new audience finding their way into whisky (chances are even hipsters will at some point get bored with the 'infinite' variations of gin), a bunch of well – informed, strapping young lads and lasses, yet budget conscious, on the lookout for affordable, well crafted, naturally and honestly presented whiskies. So if you want to build a customer base for the long term, that’s where it’s at. Brands still thinking they got it covered with the same old clichés of century old traditions and craftsmanship, the purest of water sources and ‘the finest oak casks’ or other meaningless clichés, while at the same time presenting their whisky at minimal strength, coloured and chill filtered, might very well be in for a bit of a shock. Tradition, provenance, history: all good and fine, it’s great in fact, and we wouldn’t be where we are today if we didn’t respect them, but they can be like a millstone holding you back. The big brands of today – or at least quite a lot of them – built their reputation as cornerstone whiskies for the blend industry, meaning that they thrived and grew because they were able to produce a consistent profile. Especially if you’re a part of a multinational conglomerate that has the manoeuvrability of an ocean liner and where consistency is key, chances are those actually creating the whisky have very little to say when it comes to making ‘important decisions’. Sometimes, what may well be considered an asset, can proof to be a bit of a burden as well. A burden none of the new kids, slick and agile like a laser sailboat, have to bear. So while the big boys, the big conglomerates, might still have a firm grip on the world of whisky, if they know what’s good for them, they might want to sit up and pay attention to what the new kids in town are doing, how they’re doing it and how they’re selling it: full of knowledge and with a pioneering spirit, ready and able to challenge and push the boundaries and, perhaps most important of all, by engaging and interacting with those buying their product, and doing so without taking the piss at the customers by slapping a premium price tag on everything just because they can.