Whisky Advocate

Is it the beginning of the end of reciprocation?

January 8th, 2008

It’s a well known fact that the Scotch whisky industry reciprocates with each other. Companies with blended whiskies (which is just about everyone) need certain whiskies from their competition to formulate their blends, so they buy or trade for them with money or stocks of their own whisky which their competitors need for their blends.

Buying whisky from your competition? No one wants to buy whiskies from their competition if they don’t have to. And they would certainly want to keep the whisky they make for their own blends, rather than supplying their competition.  Especially now, when supplies are tight and demand is up. 

You can bet that, as these companies crank up production and look at their estimates for the next few decades, they will want to factor in enough production to cover what they need for their blends too. But, they will have to do more than just crank up production. They will need to devote a certain portion of their production to creating experimental whiskies that will mimic the whiskies that they currently don’t make and must procure from their competition.

Of course, it’s not like this sort of thing hasn’t been done before. Seagram experimented with making smoky whiskies (i.e. Glenisle) from their non-smoky Speyside distilleries decades ago because they didn’t have any Islay whiskies in their portfolio. United Distillers (now Diageo) cranked up the peating level for Brora back a few decades ago to take some pressure off of Lagavulin.

When Burn Stewart took over Bunnahabhain (and the Black Bottle blend) just this past decade, they started dedicating a certain portion of their production to making smoky whisky–which Bunnahabhain normally isn’t! They need smoky whisky for the Black Bottle blend and the more smoky whisky they make “in house”, the less they have to buy from their competitors. Indeed, they have already released a bottle of smoky Bunnahabhain for a recent Islay Whisky Festival (Feis Ile), and I now see smoky Bunnahabhain whiskies available through the independent bottlers.

The desire to not reciprocate bodes well for us, the whisky enthusiast.  It forces whisky companies to experiment, and hopefully some of these experimentations will eventually show up in a bottle in one form or another.

And here’s a little secret for you: when it comes to experimentation driven by a lack of reciprocation, the Japanese have the Scots beaten hands down!

The Japanese whisky industry, while only a little more than 80 years old, doesn’t reciprocate. This has forced each whisky company, like Suntory, to experiment right from the beginning. Let me tell you, I can only think of one Scotch distillery (Bruichladdich) and one bourbon distillery (Buffalo Trace) that comes close to what Suntory has been doing for a very long time.

Don’t believe me? Just spend a day or two with Suntory at their research lab, and visit their two distilleries, Yamazaki and Hakushu. You will be very impressed.

I don’t know how all this will play out over the next few decades. This will largely be a “behind the scenes” sort of thing. After all, Burn Stewart isn’t going to be sending out press releases telling everyone that they cut back Lagavulin, Laphroaig, and Ardbeg by 15% in their Black Bottle blend and replaced it with a peated Bunnahabhain. We will just have to wait and see if the personality of blended whiskies (like Dewar’s, Chivas, J&B, etc.) change in flavor or complexity over the next few decades.

If it means that we’ll be enjoying some new, exciting and “untraditional” malt whiskies in the future (brought on by a lack of reciprocation), then I’m willing to take that risk.

4 Responses to “Is it the beginning of the end of reciprocation?”

  1. JON HIEB says:

    interesting-no one commented on this in over a year-why???–because MOST japanese beer is budweiser by any other name; MOST apanese whiskey is glenlivet by any other name…japanese take an idea and run with it….yes there are exceptions….but ,really,most of us don’t care about oriental beer and whiskey.yes it’s nice to have as many potables as we can to try…but america and scotland is better…who needs japan?

  2. John Hansell says:

    Jon, I must disagree. You are over-generalizing. There are now some amazing craft beers being produced in Japan–of the same quality as our craft beers here in the US. And I have visited Japan and its distilleries, and I have tasted hundreds of their whiskies. There a many whiskies that I tasted that were far superior to most Scotch whiskies. The fact that Japanes distilleries do not reciprocate forces them to experiment and be creative. The problem is that most of the great beers and great whiskies that the make aren’t imported to the U.S. We don’t NEED Japan, but we would be far worse off without them.

  3. JON HIEB says:

    i’m sure you’re right…sometimes i get pissy about certain things at certain times…sorry….philly beer week will make us all well….see ya later….

  4. John Hansell says:

    No worries Jon. Hopefully I’ll see you at Philly Beer Week.

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