Whisky Advocate

Why are there still disappointing whiskies?

January 22nd, 2009

This is my “Worldwide Whiskies” column for the next issue of Malt Advocate, due out in about a week.  I’m posting it up here early for two reasons: 1) As a teaser to for those of you who aren’t subscribers to consider doing so. because you’re missing out on some great information (find out more here), and 2) I thought it would make a good discussion topic, so feel free to comment.

Whisky companies are much smarter these days. They know more about the science behind whisky-making now than ever before, and they’re using this knowledge to improve their whisky. I’ve met many of the people in charge of making the whisky. They’re really smart.
So why are we still drinking whisky that could be—and should be—better?

I just took a look at the whiskies that I have tasted and reviewed over the past couple of years that disappointed me, and I found a common thread with just about all of them. It seems that they were all trying too hard to be different or distinctive.

Call me a purist, but I thought the goal here was to make great whisky, not to be unique. If you can do both, great. But don’t be different just for the sake of being different. Here are some examples of what I’m talking about.

You are getting older
Just because you have a 50 or 60 year old whisky doesn’t mean you should bottle it and charge an extreme price for it. The goal here is to make a good whisky, not to see who can bottle the oldest whisky. I’ve had some older whiskies that were great, but I’ve had others that I would have been very disappointed with if I spent thousands of dollars on a bottle.

Déjà ew
There have been several replica bottlings that distillers have put out over the past decade, both in Scotland and the United States, attempting to replicate a bottle (or style) of whisky that was produced during a previous era. But what if the original bottle or style wasn’t good? Do you really want to replicate it?

I’ve been in whisky-makers’ blending rooms and had the privilege to taste some of the original bottlings, dating as far back as the mid 1800s, that were going to be replicated. Some were quite tasty. Others had serious flaws, like being too young, too woody, or too oxidized. Why would you want to replicate something like that?

Smoke for peat’s sake
If you make a Speyside whisky that isn’t peated, that doesn’t mean that you have to. Sure, smoky whiskies have been all the rage, and Speyside whiskies have been sorely lacking in smoke. I’m happy to see more peat smoke-infused whiskies on the market—from Speyside or anywhere else for that matter. But if you’re going to experiment and make a smoky whisky, give it enough time to age and mature properly, rather than rushing the product to the market just to follow the crowd. There have been a lot of new releases of smoky whiskies over the past few years from brands that never were smoky before. Some have been good; others have tasted too young and immature. Patience, guys! We’ll wait for it to get good.

(I would like to add the new record-breaking peated whiskies from Islay to this discussion: Bruichladdich’s Octomore and Ardbeg’s Supernova. I haven’t tasted either of them yet, but I sure hope that the purpose for doing this was to make a great whisky, not to see how smoky we can make a whisky.)

More wine-ing
I think it is great that so many distillers are thinking outside the box (or should I say outside the barrel) when it comes to the type of cask you’re aging or finishing your whisky in—especially all the new wine-finished whiskies. These days you really need to know your wine to be able to know your whisky. That’s fine. I’m game. I love wine, and I love whisky.

But it seems like for every good whisky I’ve tasted that was aged in an esoteric wine cask, there has been one that I was disappointed or indifferent with. And it’s not because it’s a new flavor that we just need some time getting used to. The flavors just don’t work. No one wants to spend their hard earned money being a guinea pig.

Amber waves, or was it chocolate?
I see the next trend coming. All the cutting edge distillers are now experimenting with the types of barley and the types of malted barley they use. Get ready for words like crystal malt, chocolate malt, roasted malt, and just about any other type of malt that brewers have been using for decades, if not centuries, but have been largely ignored by distillers.

I have just one word of advice for all of you distillers exploring this new frontier: don’t try to make a whisky that is different than everyone else’s. Try to make a whisky that’s better than everyone else’s. Then we’ll all be happy.

22 Responses to “Why are there still disappointing whiskies?”

  1. Pete says:

    Amen! However, they’re all businesses and often the dollar drives decisions not the tongue. Caveat emptor as always. Thanks to you and others for helping us decide which to buy.

  2. sam k says:

    May I echo your comment to the blog, John, that non-subscribers to Malt Advocate are truly missing out on the preeminent whisky publication in the world, in my humble opinion. It contains truly even-handed and thoughtful discourse on the subject (much like this blog), and features the worldwide diversity of the glory that is whisky.

    Great effort here.

  3. Rich says:

    i think there are a number of factors here, but for me the core of the issue is: whisky is currently experiencing a boom time. gone for now are the days of brand loyalty, and drinking nothing but your Lagavulin 16 or Glenlivet 18 day after day as your “dram of choice”, simply replacing the bottle when you run out.

    in a seller’s market, with competition everywhere, you market differentiation, not quality — especially when targeting newer and less experienced customers. (look at what happened to cigars in the 90′s for comparison; all sorts of infused and flavors brands cropped up, clamoring for attention…)

    just for example, if you’re Bowmore competing with, say, Lagavulin for someone’s $70, you say “two years ago, our 16 year release was bourbon cask only. last year, our 16 year release was finished in port, and this year, it’s a Bordeaux finish.” publish reviews and tasting notes on each, and there are now three different Islay whiskies to consider, compared to the single, stately Lagavulin 16.

    perhaps the extreme example of marketing differentiation is Glenmorangie, who by all accounts recently took the same spirit, changed the bottle and added a box, and raised the price by 66% or so. the message: “if you have money and are interesting in trying a luxury scotch, look to us.” never mind that you can still dig up older bottlings for half the cost.

    too old? too young? too woody? that’s for the customer to decide, after they’ve purchased the bottle. and if the Glenwhatsit 18 Claret finish is your first stab at the market, how would you know it pales in comparison to a lovely, albeit unassuming Glenfarclas 21?

    to conclude, i remember reading some tasting notes a while back, which concluded “they should have had the courage not to bottle this.” i thought that a very poetic way to sum it up.

  4. Tony Menechella says:

    I think Pete summed it up. Whisky makers should be the one deciding what whisky gets bottled, and when it gets bottled, but I wonder how often that actually happens anymore. John mentioned trying to be different and unique, but I’d be curious to know how many samples you’re getting that are too young, or immature, just to put something out on the shelf??

  5. Sam S. says:

    With the downturn in the world economy, I’m seeing more bottlings with unique names, and no age statements.
    I guess that’s one way to get something to market earlier and not having a number to have an effect on perceived value, which it never should anyway IMO. I’ve had some wonderful 10 year olds, as well as 30 yr. olds.
    I’ve been fortunate enough try certain 20+ yr. olds before spending the cash on them. I can only assume the guy who said “OK, bottle it” knew what he was doing, and it was me who couldn’t appreciate it. Personal taste, I guess.
    I’m relatively new to whisky, and I’m glad I found this blog and someone with passion willing to share his knowledge. Thanks John.
    By the way, I’m anxiously awaiting my first MA issue.

  6. Don Mowat says:

    I’ve seen this before, when the marketing “geniuses” have control of a company’s R&D and production. It’s no longer about the product, but how they can get over on the public by making them think that there is all of this valuable variety in the brand name. Really it’s all just puffery and fluff.

  7. Jim says:

    Thanks for the sneak peak. I received a subscription for Christmas and eagerly await my first issue! I couldn’t agree more with the sentiment in this thread; the shear volume of new bottlings has turned me cautious against the marketing spin that they all have.

  8. Red_Arremer says:

    Rich, your words ring true:

    “…if the Glenwhatsit 18 Claret finish is your first stab at the market, how would you know it pales in comparison to a lovely, albeit unassuming Glenfarclas 21?”

    The popularity of whisky is growing fast– not because of increased demand from oldschool connoisseurs, but because of demand from new drinkers with minimal knowledge and undeveloped palates. The structure of these new drinkers’ relationship to whisky is revealed by the humongous and still rising interest in heavily peated whisky.

    To the new drinker, peat stands for everything unapproachable, idiosyncratic, authentic, and truly hardcore– in short everything that anyone aspiring to take something seriously hopes that that thing will be. It is not an accident that Ardbeg and Bruichladdich are known both for making super-peated whisky and uncolored non-chillfiltered whisky. Neither a well advertised 50 parts per million plus of phenols, nor a well advertised abstention from coloring and chillfiltering necessarily attract a well developed palate. But they certainly appeal to the imagination of an aspiring whisky afficionado.

    Wine finishes, increase in brand variety, general rise in the number of new bottlings, and greater focus on packaging are all part of the same pattern. As these strategies succeed or fail, new aspects of the new drinker’s constitution are revealed and the nature of the whisky world, which Don’s “marketing ‘geniuses’” see as nothing more than business, changes accordingly and, possibly, forever.

    Unfortunately, John, many of the whiskies that you find dissapointing, probably sell just fine to the new drinkers whose interests drive the market. We all want the increase in the power to make things better to be followed by things actually being made better, but many examples show that it’s usually not that simple.

    Go out and pick yourself up a bottle of Laphroaig 30 while you still can.

  9. John Hansell says:

    Wow, lots of great posts while I was out taking the day off with my daughter. Thanks, keep it up!

    Tony, Sam S.: I wrote about the what you are saying in my column in Malt Advocate about a year ago. I called it the “New age of no age.”

    Companies are scrapping age statements and giving them interesting names instead. It allows them to bottle whisky at a relatively young age or blend the whisky in with older aged whiskies. This will continue over the next several years as a lot of younger whiskies become legal and the companies look for ways to get them on the market without jeopardizing their integrity. Some will work, some won’t.

    To put a positive spin on this (as much as possible), there are still a lot of whisky producers out there that focus on making GOOD whisky more than UNIQUE whisky. So, we’ll (fortunately) always have good whiskies to drink.

    And finally, Sam S.: thanks for the kind words. There are several reputable whisky writers out there. I always felt that I’m a whisky enthusiast first and foremost–much like everyone reading my magazine and this blog. I want to always be approachable and helpful as much as I can. This blog is a big time commitment. But as long as I think it has a purpose, I will keep it going.

  10. lawschooldrunk says:

    John, the inherent symbolism of your article rings true to my ears…er…eyes. Let me explain…

    Malt Advocate could surely be published 10 to 12 times a year. Yet, Malt Advocate chooses quality over quantity; it comes out 4 times a year, but every issue is packed with substantive and informative articles that are long, entertaining, and written well. This is unlike “other” whisky magazines, which come out every month and are filled with nothing but advertisements and puff pieces that last for 2 pages at most.

    Malt Advocate could be likened to the distilleries that are “doing it right,” aging their product as necessary, and releasing quality. The “other” magazines just want to get their inferior product out to the masses, contents be damned.

    Here’s to the aging and properly-timed releases of Malt Advocate.

    L’chaim!

    LSD

  11. John Hansell says:

    LSD: Thanks. We’re not a big publishing company trying to make money by publishing a whisky magazine during a whisky boom. We’re whisky enthusiasts who share our passion in many ways–one of which is by publishing Malt Advocate. Consider us a whisky magazine by the people and for the people.

    Who knows? Maybe we will bump it up to 6x/yr. in the future. We have an amazing stable of writers now across the globe who know what we’re about and what we’re trying to accomplish.

  12. Louis says:

    Hi John,

    Agreement with everything that has already been mentioned, but I’d like to add one more thing. Go back and read Mike Miamoto’s closing comments in the Vol 15 Number 3 issue. While first Japan, now India with some well recieved Amrut malts, and who knows what else is aging nicely elsewhere in the world, many distilleries outside of Scotland are working really hard to produce better malt whisky. And in Scotland, they are looking for gimmicks and marketing tactics, as you described.

    Slainte.

    Louis

  13. kallaskander says:

    Hi John,

    well said and very true and it all comes down to mechanisms and circumstances at the very core and structures of the whisky industry.

    You know craftsmanship is abandoned for efficency marketing is more important than the product itself and greedy shareholders shape the quality of products in the end and all will go downhill eventually. That last is not ironic.

    In this spirit the following what Ulf Buxrud has to say about Japanese whisky in comparison to Scotch might be of interest.

    http://nonjatta.blogspot.com/2008/09/industrial-processes-are-being.html

  14. I have studied philosophy, so maybe that explains my take on this: I think what happens in the whisky industry is the same thing that has been going on on a global scale for almost a decade now: In a globalized world, quality alone is not enough anymore.

    Imagine yourself applying for a job: Being a great worker won’t do it – unless your appearance at first sight is stunning and shiny and communicates success (there is much less time for depth these days).

    “Yes, I am the best – and above that I am non chill filtered, and I am a tough guy, as I am heavily peated”: Maybe all those things will help to get you through tough times. There’s no age anymore: Not a problem in a world where age is more of a burden than anything else.

    I think that work environments have gotten a lot tougher over the last 5 years, and the competition has been increasing steadily. Which might also explain a bit why peated whiskies are booming: In difficult times I suppose you feel more “understood” by a dark, heavily peated whisky than a lovely but seemingly more naive Speysider. Hard, ageless times require a “scarred” flavor profile.

  15. Red_Arremer says:

    Nice post, Thomas—a poetic and disturbing account of the appeal of peat. I think your comments on the age statement issue are to the point as well.

    Concepts which relate advanced age to value such as tradition or the idea of something being venerable have been decreasing steadily in importance for a long, long time. The concept of luxury, defined as something that most people can’t afford however, has been on the rise.

    First we saw the commercial explosion of Johnny Walker Blue, an extremely pricey no-age-statement blend. We probably found it relatively easy to dismiss this. “Just a bunch of people who don’t know whisky, dancing to the tune of a well orchestrated marketing campaign,” we might’ve said. But when we saw The Macallan 1824 Collection, which included no-age-statement expressions priced up to 1500 dollars and more, we had to stop pretending.

    Age was never a reliable indicator of quality, but it was associated with an idea of luxury, which wasn’t grounded in priceyness and, to use your word John, uniqueness. Now, priceyness and uniqueness are taking center stage in the luxury act. They’re given to us literally in compensation for the immaturity of the whisky. In theory we’re being sold just as much luxury as ever. But in practice we find ourselves spending more and getting less.

  16. Gary Gillman says:

    John, I’d like to suggest a different tack on this, which is that possibly we may be seeing, withal, the limitations of the single malts, no matter how well they are made. (I am not saying they cannot be improved, sometimes. Sometimes a whisky is too woody, too young, too clumsy due to hasty wine-treatment, etc. but I am making a point beyond that).

    I think in the end a whisky from one distillery will have a certain monochrome character – no matter what you do to it. Let’s recall that for the first 100 years of international Scotch whisky development, blends and (to a much lesser degree) vatted or so-called pure malts were the ticket. And I think very validly. That is how Scotch was made a complex drink of high quality and whence its international reputation arose.

    To increase the chances of seeing more overall better whisky in the market, we need to see more examples of very good vatting and very good blending.

    Example in point: a recent Famous Grouse 30 year old vatted blew away IMO most of the great malt whiskies I’ve tasted in recent years. For under $200, it was a superb value. I’d say something similar in the blending area with e.g., Johnnie Walker Gold or Cutty Sark 25 years old. We need more of these latter types IMO to make a real overall difference in the market.

    Gary

  17. Don Mowat says:

    John, I wanted to compliment you on the balance in the content of your publication and website. I’m located in the panhandle of Florida. In your content, from time to time, there is talk about a special release of one product or another or the import of new whiskies or product from the smaller U.S. Distilleries. In my area, we might have, say, Talisker 17 or 20 or the same for Laphroig, but never anything beyond or any special releases. So, while you do have reviews of and talk about what I call “aficianado” whiskies that I’ll never see; you have plenty of other info for a guy like me who doesn’t live in major U.S. city.

  18. John Hansell says:

    Louis, kallaskander, Red, Gary: All very good, well thought out comments. Everyone sheds a light on the different reasons behind what might be driving the whisky market right now.

    Gary, I haven’t had the pleasure of tasting the Grouse 30, but I thoroughly enjoy my bottle of Cutty 25 which I brought back from Scotland last year. Too bad they don’t sell it in the US. And I just spoke with the US brand director and he told me that (sadly) we won’t be seeing Cutty 25 here in 2009.

    Thanks Don for your vote of confidence. We’ll keep ‘em comin’.

  19. Bryan C says:

    Nice article John. It is a shame that some “bad” whiskies make it to the market, but I fear this may be more of a problem into the future. As we see more and more large corporations take control of distilleries I fear the pressure from Wall St and other financial institutions will make profit the primary measure of success. And if a company is under financial pressure to make a big new release and they have nothing “good” to offer at the time, they may have to release something less than ideal to meet this pressure. This may come at the expensive of the overall brand, but sometimes when an executive is under pressure to make his mark those are the kind of sacrifices that get made. I sure hope I am wrong, but this could be a contributor to the problem.

  20. John Hansell says:

    We’ll see how everything plays out Bryan. I’m hoping for the best, preparing for the worst.

  21. Yaniv says:

    Thanks for all of your thoughts John. Although I agree with you concerning the dangers of experimentation for the sake of strict novelty, I disagree with your statement, ‘No one wants to spend their hard earned money being a guinea pig.’

    First, of course, by being guinea pigs we get to try rare and unique flavors, discovery for ourselves what we do and do not like in whiskeys.

    Further, By being guinea pigs, we get to spur and encourage innovation, opening the door to the future.

    There is also strong evidence that we are in fact choosing to be guinea pigs in the massive success of the self described, Buffalo Trace Experimental Collection. You, of course, wrote an excellent article lauding this particular experiment a few issues ago. These bourbons sold very quickly, and while you rated some below the standard Buffalo Trace brand, I believe you rated just as many above.

    Cheers to finding what works (for consumers and distillers), improving our whisky options, and enjoying.

    -yaniv

  22. John Hansell says:

    Yaniv, I agree that being gunea pigs will defintely “spur and encourage innovation, opening the door to the future.” However, had I spent thousands of dollars on the Macallan 55 year old in the Lalique decanter, I don’t think I would be happy. That’s a steep price to pay to “discover for ourselves what we do and do not like.”

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