It’s a downright awful time to be a consumer if you’re interested in Scotch whisky.
There’s a lot of underlying causes that have made Scotch an absolutely horrible buy lately, especially for Americans, and I won’t rehash exhaustive analysis by others or my thoughts on the latest whisky to be sold in an imitation boat or the constant and ever more garishly nouveau-riche eye that guides brand identity these days. The fact is that two things have just utterly decimated my interest in Scotch these days – and as an enthusiast with some disposable income I suspect I am late to the party on this one.
The first is selection. What’s that? Isn’t choice great? Of course it is. However, “selection” has become just a proxy word for a ceaseless stream of one-offs released in stunt casks with novelty finishes. You only need to have so many wine finishes before you realize that a great many of them add very little to the underlying spirit. So much attention is delivered to single-cask releases or one-off limited runs or something similar and there seems to be virtually no attention given to distillers’ core range, short of tarting up the packaging every couple years and maybe bumping ABV up a hair. If you were one of those who felt they had to catch every new experience, it wouldn’t take long before you were tearing your hair out in despair of ever trying to try everything.
Even more tiring is the ceaseless stream of bullshit that accompanies these releases. If it’s not some impenetrably bizarre “legacy of stone” pitch (I’m sorry, what in the actual fuck was that supposed to mean?), then it’s something that tries too hard, like a hashtagged whisky. Intrepid distillers, take note: the correct answer is not to next release a QR-coded whisky. Here’s a general bit of advice – if you need three paragraphs to explain why you named your whisky “Dawn” in Gaelic and how that relates to what’s in the bottle, you are too clever by half.
For me, the breaking point came – to my surprise – from Glenlivet, of all distilleries. “Alpha” was first. $150 for a black bottle of… who knows what? Legally speaking it’s probably whisky, so we can guess at 3 years and at least 40% ABV, but who knows beyond that? What a tempting pitch.
I can have blind tastings with friends for less out of pocket and a higher likelihood of a fantastic whisky. If you see Alpha and think, “AT LAST! I, TOO, CAN HAVE A BLIND TASTING!”, I urge you to log off your computer right now and go meet people. This is a product that acts as a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist for most reasonably well-adjusted people.
The last straw though was only a couple weeks later with Glenlivet’s Quercus. A 17 year old single cask – breathlessly and reverentially noted for its maturation in an “American white oak cask”. You know, a bourbon cask. There’s at least a million of them made a year in America and Scotland buys them by the shipping container. There are distilleries that use them exclusively for all new spirit maturation. Almost every distillery uses bourbon casks, and they are a common sight on the independent bottler market. Hell, even Glenrothes did this as a groundbreaking concept in their Alba Reserve and had the decency to charge about 60 bucks for it. Glenlivet has decided somehow that a single cask of 17 year old whisky in an industry standard cask now somehow merits $300. Three hundred dollars. What cast-iron balls!
That’s a perfect segue into the other side: price. In the last three years or so, prices have increased by 40% or more on some really standard malts. I remember buying Laphroaig 10 for $29. Today, you’d be hard pressed to find it much under $45. Macallan 18 went from $130-140 to now over $200 in the last three years. These are serious, serious increases in price. Certainly some of the old, closed distilleries will only rise in price, but when the bread and butter malts continue to skyrocket or get replaced by NAS editions, it’s hard to swallow. Apparently this is being driven by the East Asian market – best of luck to the distilleries of Scotland; I hope for your sake they can maintain that demand level. “Emerging markets” are also cited as a cause for why prices skyrocket – I guess that’s a good thing, but when customers in the US are starting to get uneasy, I wonder how it’s easily justified in these markets.
The price to consumers is only one aspect of this problem. The other is the up-until-recent practice of ordering direct from the UK. Due to local changes in UK law, shipping through Royal Mail is no longer possible and you’re limited to other carriers – which has made the cost of single bottle orders nearly prohibitive and more at risk of being held by customs.
Perhaps if the US adopted the 700ml bottle standard we’d see a wider variety of bottles and perhaps at a lower price due to Scotland being able to streamline bottling operations and by keeping a single range of labels as well. I’m not holding my breath though.
So what’s an enthusiast to do?
For now, the answer seems to be to focus elsewhere. I’m not a brandy guy, so don’t expect me to follow that recent trend; as far as whisky goes, my attention increasingly will focus on the US, Japan, and Ireland, with other international options here and there. In the meantime I will enjoy the bottles I bought when they were far less expensive. Hopefully by the time I’m done, things will come back to earth a bit. (Edit: Now I’m seeing Yamazaki 12 in a couple places for $80 and Nikka 15 for over $100 – maybe it’s already too late for Japan?)
I certainly won’t be buying much Scotch whisky for a while. Maybe some here or there, but at today’s prices, my purchases will be far less. I hope you’re not feeling the squeeze, but if you are, hopefully things will correct sooner rather than later. If not, I hope you have a stockpile you can work through! I do, and I will.