Archive for the ‘Opinions’ Category

Beam Inc. buys Cooley Distillery: good or bad?

Friday, December 16th, 2011

The news is out. Beam Inc. has purchased the Cooley Distillery in Ireland (makers of Tyrconnel, Kilbeggan, Connemara, Greenore, and a slew of private label whiskeys). Details here. Now, all the major Irish whiskey distilleries and brands are owned by companies located in foreign countries. (Diageo owns Bushmills, Pernod has Midleton, and William Grant owns Tullamore Dew.)

John Teeling, Cooley’s founder, was quoted saying that it will allow the brands “to reach their potential.”

What do you think? Is this good for Irish whiskey drinkers worldwide or not? And why?

Whisky as an investment: are we in a bubble?

Wednesday, December 14th, 2011

The cover story for the new issue of Whisky Advocate (pictured below) is on whisky auctions and whisky collecting. We like to show both sides of a story. Ian Buxton has a feature in this issue that takes a more contrarian approach to auctions and collecting, discussing a whisky’s “soul.” Below, in this guest blog post, he goes into even more detail.

Read what he has to say below. Do you agree with him? Disagree with him? And why?

 

WHISKY  ‘INVESTMENT’

By Ian Buxton

Can one invest in whisky?  And, if yes, should you?

There’s certainly a lot of excited chatter about this right now, perhaps a measure of the troubled economic times in which we live.  The idea seems to be creeping into the popular imagination that picking the right bottle is a worthwhile, not to say near essential part of your financial planning.

We can argue about the figures.  Elsewhere I’ve taken exception to sloppy journalism and the casual quotation of potential investment gains that ignore transaction costs – and can thus never be achieved in real life.  Call me old-fashioned but I believe readers should be able to trust what they read and citing illusory and unattainable rates of return is misleading at best.

What’s more, simple common sense suggests that returns of over 100% in just two or three years are never going to be sustained in anything but a feverish bubble. When you appreciate that those figures are being most enthusiastically trumpeted by people with a vested interest, such as distillers with a brand to promote, retailers with stock to move or auction houses keen to drum up business you might just want to look twice before committing your 401(k) pot.

But there’s a more fundamental philosophical point that the money men, with their hard, cold souls don’t seem to get: if the whisky you buy is just for investment, then – since it’s never going to be opened – the bottle may as well contain cold tea.  Today whisky; tomorrow pork belly futures.

Whisky is a drink, but it is more than that.  It is a metaphor for the spirit and soul of the people and place that produced it. The distillers of Scotland express part of the austere, Calvinist personality of their land; in Kentucky (as for Rabbie Burns) “freedom and whisky gang  the’gither” and for the brave new distillers in Brittany, France it encapsulates their Breton identity and culture, even their language.

Buying and hoarding bottles like some latter-day Ebenezer Scrooge while poring over spreadsheets to measure RoI and capital growth tears out whisky’s heart and spirit; confounds its generosity and desecrates the memory, skill and craftsmanship of the people who made it. And, call me a romantic, but that’s just wrong.

If you love whisky, set it free.  Mark my words: this ‘investment’ bubble will end badly and people – and whisky – are going to get hurt.

Some new whiskies I’ve been enjoying

Thursday, October 13th, 2011

I was in San Francisco most of last week hosting WhiskyFest (More on that in a bit). We’re gearing up for our New York WhiskyFest which is only a couple weeks away. In the interim, we’ve got to put together the Winter issue of Whisky Advocate. So, if you’re wondering where I’ve been lately, now you know. This is the busiest time of the year for me. The moment I get some free time, I will post something up here.

I’ve been tasting a lot of whiskies lately. Formal reviews will follow for most of them. But, in the interim, so you can get a jump on your autumn whisky-buying, I’ll let you know my informal thoughts now.

I was able to taste the new Bruichladdich 10 year old at WhiskyFest. (It’s not in the U.S. yet, but the importer brought me a sample.) As you may know, this is the first 10 year old whisky being sold that was produced by the current owners. It’s a new dawn for Bruichladdich, and I am happy to say that this whisky is very good. Most of it is from bourbon barrels, but there’s some sherry casks thrown in too. I just hope they can keep this profile consistant going forward. If they do, it could become the go-to entry level non-smoky Island whisky (competing with Highland Park 12 year old and Bunnahabhain 12 year old  for that honor). To me, it tastes like a 12 year old whisky.

Another whisky that surprised me was the Kilkerran WIP (Work In Progress) 3rd release. If memory serves me correctly, it’s 7 years old and tasted surprisingly fresh and also nicely mature for its age.

Dr. Bill Lumsden, after his Ardbeg seminar, let me sample a 1975 Ardbeg from a sample bottle (Cask #4714) from a refill sherry cask which I thought was outstanding! My favorite whisky of the night. He said they’ve been using so much from this cask at whisky shows, they won’t have much left when it is bottled. But let me put it this way: when it’s bottled, I am buying a bottle (if it doesn’t cost me an arm and a leg).

I tried some of the Samaroli releases. This independent bottler is new to the U.S. I tasted a 1967 Tomintoul and a 34 year old Glenlivet which were delicious. (The Glenlivet was not identified as such–it had a false name which I didn’t write down. I’ll try to dig that one up and let you know what it was called.). I’m not sure what the prices and availability of these whiskies will be at this time. Details to follow.

I have a bottle of the Shackleton whisky, which I have really been enjoying over the past couple of weeks. Very distinctive for a blend, and with plenty of character. Dominic Roskrow rated it in the lown 90s for us, and I would probably have given it at least a 90 myself if I formally reviewed it.

Another new blended scotch I really like for its drinkability and versatility is Compass Box’s Great King Street. It’s not going to set your world on fire, but it was never intended to do so. That’s what whiskies like Peat Monster are for. Whiskymaker John Glaser continues to impress me.

For the bourbon enthusiasts out there, I’ve been through the new Buffalo Trace Antique Collection a few times already. It’s just hitting the shelves now. The entire line is stellar–as it was last year, and they taste very similar to last year’s release. So, if you liked last year’s offering, you can be confident that you will like this year’s releases if you have a chance to buy them. (They are always hard to come by.)

Heaven Hill has two really nice whiskeys that just came out. This year’s Parker’s Heritage Collection is a 10 year old, 100 proof bourbon finished in Cognac barrels (similar to the old Beam Distillers’ Masterpiece bottling). The cognac doesn’t dominate, adds intrigue, and this whisky is dangerously drinkable for 100 proof. But, if you are a purist (dare I say stubborn?), and don’t want people meddling with your bourbon, you might think differently about this offering.

The second whiskey from Heaven Hill is a Elijah Craig 20 year old single cask bottling (Cask #3735). The good news: I love this whiskey, and will be rating it in the mid 90s. The bad news: it’s only available at Heaven Hill’s Bourbon Heritage Center in Bardstown, KY, and it will set you back $150.

Finally, for those of you who are budget-minded, I tasted my way through the Pappy Van Winkle line of bourbons (12, 15, 20 and 23 year old). My favorite? The 15 year old. Save your money and get this one!

The next scotch distillery to be sold?

Thursday, October 6th, 2011

I was thinking about this on my plane ride to San Francisco to attend WhiskyFest tomorrow night. It’s a pretty dynamic time in the industry right now, with new distilleries being built, distillery expansions, etc. I wouldn’t be surprised if a distillery changed hands sometime in the near future too. It’s pure speculation on my part. I have no insider information or anything like that.

The first one that came to my mind: Bruichladdich. I don’t know if the owners even have an interest in selling (I have never asked), but now that they have ten continuous years of whisky production behind them (which hasn’t happened in a while), it sure makes them more attractive.

What do you think will be the next distillery to change ownership? And why?

Is there a Robert Parker of the whisky world?

Monday, August 8th, 2011

I don’t think so. (Although, there might someone out there who thinks he is.)

I feel that Michael Jackson was the person who came the closest. He was one of the the first to write prolifically about the subject, and he was very good at it. (Perhaps if he devoted more of his time to whisky rather than beer, and if only he stayed with us another decade or two?)

Right now, it seems like there are at least several individuals who are really doing great work covering whisky in their own way. There might be one or two people leading the field, but I don’t think anyone is so far ahead of the pack to have the power and influence of a Robert Parker.

What do you think? Do we have the equivalent of a Robert Parker in the whisky world? If so, who? And if not, why do you think there isn’t one?

Are craft distillers creating a whiskey crisis?

Thursday, August 4th, 2011

An article in The Atlantic last week suggests that a “whiskey crisis is looming” because craft distillers are aging their whiskey in small barrels in a (failed) attempt to accelerate the aging process, and then they are putting the whiskey on the market at a young age and calling it “bourbon.” (The issue here is that these bourbons aren’t as mature and complex as the straight bourbons being put out by the larger distillers and it’s going to drag down the reputation of bourbon.)

The author says they are cutting corners to save time and suggests that it could lead to a decline in the entire industry.

Read it here.

What do you think?

P.S.  I think this article is significant because it shows that the issue is now being picked up by mainstream press, not just bantered about by us geeky whisky bloggers.

Have a dram for me, please!

Thursday, July 28th, 2011

The bad news: a root canal procedure I had done last year has become infected.

The good news: my dentists thinks 10 days of antibiotics will get rid of the infection.

The bad news: He told me “no alcohol while you’re on the antibiotics.”

The good news: I just might lose (what I jokingly refer to as) those “five pounds of fun” around my waistline.

The bad news: I’m going to miss drinking my whisky (and beer, and wine, and cocktails) for the next ten days.

The good news: I can still enjoy whisky over the next ten days (until August 6th) vicariously through you!

So, please feel free to post what you’re drinking here for the next ten days or so. I would appreciate it!

John

P.S. Fortunately, I reviewed a bunch of whiskies last week and will still be posting more reviews while I’m “on the wagon.”

My #1 Rule to keep my whiskies from oxidizing

Friday, July 22nd, 2011

When a bottle of whisky in my bar gets down to only 1/4 full, I invite a friend or two over and we finish the bottle. No more worries about oxidation, and it guarantees a good stable of friends.

That’s what happened this past Saturday night when I noticed this bottle of 1974 Longrow getting that low. As you can see, our mission was accomplished!

My #2 Rule is to use an inert gas spray to displace the oxygen in my open bottles. (I use a a product called Private Preserve.) It’s probably more important than my #1 Rule, but it’s not nearly as much fun. That’s why it’s #2. :)

These two practices combined work really well for me. I have not encountered any problems at all.

How about you?

The 100 point scale: maintaining some perspective

Thursday, July 14th, 2011

Let me start by saying that I like the 100 point system. I use it. It’s the most commonly used system by the most highly regarded wine and spirits reviewers, and it’s the scale that most people are familiar with.

But, looking at some of the comments over the past dozen or so whisky reviews (by me and the other Malt Advocate reviewers) here on this blog, I noticed something I felt I need to bring up and discuss.

Some of you seem to be making a big deal over a whisky review that is, say, 3 or 4 points higher or lower than what you feel you would rate it. You’re acting like you and the reviewer are so divided in how you both feel about a whisky.

In reality, you have more in common with the reviewer than you think. For example, if a reviewer rates a whisky an 83 and you think it should be an 87, they would both get an 8 on a ten point scale. And if it were a five point scale (or five diamonds or five stars or whatever), which is used by some reviewers, a whisky rated by one person as a 91 and an 80 by another person on the 100 point scale might both get 4 points. Instead of discussing how much we disagree with each other, we would probably be talking about how much we agree with each other.

I guess what I am trying to say is that, while I really enjoy using the 100 point system and am glad we can discuss and debate about whisky based on the 100 point system, let’s keep the proper perspective when when you and I (or one of the other MA reviewers) are four or five points apart in our rating of a whisky.

In fact, I think someone mentioned in my Ardbeg Alligator review, that ratings of 88-89 and 92 are effectively the same. (I’m not a statistician, so I don’t know for certain, but I think you get my point.)

I’d rather we discuss what we like (or dislike) about a whisky, and why. That’s when we all learn, grow, and mature as whisky enthusiasts.

Do smaller whiskey barrels mature whiskey faster?

Monday, June 27th, 2011

Or do they just make whiskey taste woody faster?

I’ve been thinking about this recently because I’ve tasted a lot of whiskies over the past couple of years that were matured in smaller barrels. While it’s true that the big distillers are using them (e.g., Laphroaig Quarter Cask), their use seems to be more prevalent with the smaller, craft distillers. Why? They want to mature their young whiskey as quickly as possible and get it on the market.

Let me be clear right now and say that I have absolutely no scientific evidence to support what I am thinking. Indeed, I can’t even cite specific examples, because it’s not something I have been really taking notes on. So, take what I have to say with a grain of salt.

Still, what I have noticed on several occasions when tasting young whiskey aged in smaller barrels, is that the whiskey didn’t seem taste mature. It just tasted woody. The smaller casks provide for more contact with wood because of the larger surface area for a given volume of whiskey. But it still tasted “green,”  somewhat harsh, and very youthful in character.

So, I wonder: are we trying to cheat mother nature by using smaller barrels? Does it actually work, or are we just fooling ourselves?

Again, this is just a general observation. I have no facts to support my thinking here. But, I can tell you this: I was speaking with a very high official of a highly respected distilling company who is doing research on this topic, and their preliminary findings seem to support my thinking. Stay tuned for more information on this in a future blog post.

I respect (and embrace) the craft distilling movement and everything they do. I don’t want anyone to take this post the wrong way think I am accusing them of trying to pull a fast one on us. There are a lot of distillers using smaller barrels, not just the small guys. And like I said earlier, this is just a gut feeling of mine.

I do think that the use of smaller barrels as part of a mix of smaller and more standard size barrels can add a new flavor dimension and inject some extra wood influence into the whisky. Laphroaig Quarter Cask is an excellent example of this. But, I wonder what Laphroaig would taste like if all Laproaig was matured in quarter (or even smaller) casks?