Whisky Advocate

My new Malt Advocate editorial: You spoke. I listened, and I’m spreading the word!

November 28th, 2009

 The new issue of Malt Advocate just mailed. Over this past year, I listened to your concerns and gripes, summarized them, and wrote them up in my “From the Publisher” column. You DO have an impact. Don’t ever forget it!

For those of you who still are not subscribing (don’t forget that I offered my “two for one” deal here recently), I have included my column below.

—————————

You’re Mad as Hell…

 

It’s the perfect storm for whisky. A full-throttle whisky boom that’s decimating the worldwide whisky stocks confronts the nastiest global recession in our lifetime—head on!

The aftermath? Skyrocketing whisky prices at a time when whisky enthusiasts can least afford it.

The bloodshed is splattered all over my blog, What Does John Know? (http:/blog.maltadvocate.com) with pages of gripes and frustration. Sure, escalating whisky prices got their share of the ire. But there’s more.

The best whisky you’ll never have…
There’s nothing like reading about a whisky you can’t buy and you’ll never see (outside of pictures on whisky companies’ websites and whisky blogs, that is) to get your whisky-deprived blood to boil. It’s happening a lot these days. Caveats like “Travel Retail Only” and “Committee Members Only” are appearing a lot these days in press release. Sure, it’s nice to have access to a really nice whisky when you’re traveling overseas, but the majority of us aren’t traveling anywhere except to our local retailer.

And the only committee we’re a member of is the one our boss volunteered us for at work (assuming you’re lucky enough to still have a boss).

Then there’s the issue of bottle size and labeling approval. The U.S. bottles at 750 ml, while the rest of the world bottles at 700 ml, and label approvals (and associated fees) are required for individual states in the U.S.

The consequence? Many whisky companies outside the U.S.—especially those with smaller production runs—won’t even bother exporting their whiskies to the U.S. They’ll just stick to 700 ml bottles. In case you’re thinking about it, don’t even try to buy one of those bottles from an overseas retailer and have them ship the bottle to you here in the U.S. Our Customs officials will stop those shipments at the border.

Even if a limited-edition whisky does find its way to the U.S, if you live outside of a major city, good luck finding a bottle. You better start scouring the internet for retailers in big cities and become good friends with the spirits manager at one of the stores lucky enough to get a few bottles.

…And can’t afford
Dalmore “Sirius” will only cost you about $16,000. The new Macallan Lalique 57 is listed at $15,000. Gold Bowmore will set you back a mere $6,250. That makes the new Highland Park 1968 Vintage look like a steal at $3,700!

Sure, there will always be “trophy” whiskies on the market like these that only Wall Street executives can afford. As long as the whiskies that we commoners buy stay reasonable, right?

Well, unless you just started drinking whisky last week (poor soul); you know that prices, across the board, have far outpaced inflation over the past several years—and much more than your salary increases. In fact, prices have gone up so much lately, I’m struggling to determine what a whisky “value” is anymore.

…and may never even know about
Is it that whisky companies are so busy with bottling, labeling, distribution, and calculating their profit margins that they neglect telling us about the whisky they are trying to sell?

In all fairness, some companies do a great job of informing—and educating—their sales staff, press, retailers and consumers about what’s inside the bottle, what it tastes like, and where you can buy a bottle. Still, I still think it’s the minority of producers, not the majority.

The more a whisky company can tell us about their whisky, the greater the chance that we’ll buy one we like, which will increase their sales. Hello out there whisky industry! Are you listening?

…or is adulterated
Why make a whisky taste worse or blander just so it looks pretty? Drinking the whisky the primary objective? So why chill-filter it (stripping out flavor) just so it doesn’t get a little hazy when you add ice cubes or cold water? Why pollute it with caramel coloring just so every bottle looks identical? Fine leather, hand-crafted woodwork, and even my favorite hand-rolled cigars all vary in color and texture. That’s part of the charm. It’s not a disease!

…with marketing-driven names instead of age statements
At the same time prices are going up, many companies are dropping their age statements and giving the whisky (sometimes thoughtful, sometimes quite silly) names instead. Why?

One reason is to cover for gaps in production. For example, during difficult economic times (like the 1980s), many distilleries cut back on production or stopped altogether.

Another reason is to blend in the young new whiskies that are coming on the market with older stocks. Selling a three year old obviously has its risks, given that it probably isn’t fully mature yet. Blending it in with some older whiskies can breathe life into an older whisky if done properly. But, they’re not going to put a 3 year old label on a whisky that has a lot of 10 or 15 or even 20 year old whisky in it, are they?

So, there’s much to be frustrated about. Hopefully this is just a phase. It probably is, as a brief look at history will suggest.

Looking for the silver lining in this cloud, there are still a few things to be grateful for. Selection is better than it’s ever been, and I honestly feel that the overall quality of whisky is the best it’s ever been.

 So be patient. Savor what you have. Look for the bargains. Most importantly, realize that you are more powerful than you think. Ultimately, whisky companies will listen to your pleas—and your purchases—and adapt. That is, the successful ones will.

32 Responses to “My new Malt Advocate editorial: You spoke. I listened, and I’m spreading the word!”

  1. I feel quite like you, John. On one hand, there are plenty of things to be worried about, but on the other hand there are so many excellent whiskies available right now.

    Fortunately, quite a few distilleries counteract the trends that the big conglomerates have set. So I have no doubt that whisky in general will have a great future.

  2. H.Diaz says:

    Great editorial, John. I agree with you 100%.

    $100 or more for non-aged stated malt sounds crazy, whatever the brand and hyped-up marketing behind it. It wasn’t long ago when a great tasting 18 or 21 year old single malt was pushing $100.

    And speaking of “look for bargains”, last night I paid $80 for the 18 year old Glenmorangie. I believe it originally sold for nearly twice the price.

    Initially I thought it had been mispriced. But when I asked I was told it was priced to move. Maybe it has something to do with the world wide global recession you mentioned and lack of sells for higher priced whiskies.

  3. Louis says:

    Hi John,

    It’s great to see the views of whisk(e)y enthusiasts get such prominent coverage. Hopefully, the industry will pay attention, and realize that there is money to be made giving the customer what the customer wants.

    Meanwhile, I would like to pass along a few of my sanity-saving tips.

    1) Just when I was getting going with single malt scotch, a wise friend came up with the line: ‘so many bottles, so little money’. Even with all of the stuff I can’t get hold of or afford, I never have trouble blowing my budget.

    2) Be flexible. Just as an example, while the Macallan and Glenmorangie 18 year olds go for $125-150, Glenlivet and Glenfiddich 18 year olds go for $75-80. And Johnnie Walker Gold and Chivas Regal 18 year old blends are even cheaper. So even if you really like the more expensive malts, you can save them for special occasions, and drink the cheaper stuff the rest of the time.

    3) And yes, there are bargains to be found. Not everybody shares the exalted opinion of the distillery and/or importer of everything, so some bottles don’t quite jump off of the shelf at the inflated prices. Some stores don’t want to keep their capital tied up in stuff that doesn’t sell, so they will cut prices to move them out of the door.

    Slainbte.

    Louis

  4. Peter Benkoczki says:

    Let’s hope the distilleries read this blog, and think about it. I strongly agree to miss the chill-filtration and caramel, we don’t need them, but we do need lower prices, so we could by more bottles. Or the distilleries don’t need us to buy their products? :)

  5. lawschooldrunk says:

    Hey John. You touched on something that has been bugging me: “What is ‘value’ these days?” Like dalmore, that used to cost $27!, there are still SOME bottles that are a steal.

    I’d love to tell my fellow whisk(e)y appreciators about them but I’m afraid that distilleries manning the blogs may read and say, “hmmm, seems we are undervaluing our malt…,” instead of saying, “by golly, let’s keep our malt at this cheap price because the customers love it, and by selling quantity, we’ll make up what we’d make by jacking the price up like they did with dalmore 12yo or the old cigar malt (15yo).”

    how do you think distilleries respond when they read on-line that their malts are ‘values’? do they want to maintain the price or start seeing dollar bills (or pounds)?

  6. Whisky Party says:

    Well said.

    I agree that these are all troubling trends in the whisky business (and if I never hear about another special release one-off whisky from Whyte & MacKay it will be too soon). I hope you are right that it is a minor blip in the overall history.

    Nevertheless, I also agree with some commenters that there are still bargains to be found. I can get both an Ardbeg 10 and Lagavulin 16 for $50 a bottle – that’s a steal for us peat-heads

    The problem lies in that greater degree of variety that you cite. My interest lies in trying older bottles and these new varieties of expressions. And when it comes to expanding outside the 10 or so bargains you can always find locally, price is now a killer.

    One solution I’ve been embracing lately is a greater reliance on local tastings. I’m fortunate enough to be in NYC, and whenever there is a free or cheap (~$50 or less) tasting, I try to go. Usually you can get up to 4 decent drams at a free tasting, and 10 – 14 at a paid tasting.

  7. Red_Arremer says:

    This is a good editorial, John.

    In the mainstream whisky press, one hears about a distillery closure here or an expensive bottle there. These reports are often accompanied by gripes, laments, or criticisms. The big picture of consumer morale, however, comes rarely into focus. Here it does.

    When an influential figure like yourself defines and legitimates consumer dissatisfaction, the industry takes notice. Also, because this article is aimed at mainstream rather than hardcore whisky enthusiasts it’s more difficult to dismiss. Good Job

  8. Chef! says:

    Last week I decided to hit BevMo to snag a bottle of Airigh Nam Beist that had been sitting in their cabinet for at least a year. The bottle was unmarked and they had no price in their system anymore. I offered to buy it at the same price of the Ardbeg 10yo and used the fact there was no box as leverage.

    The manager agreed and rang it up at $65! A bargain for this particular bottle but even the 10yo is getting way too high to consider.

  9. David D says:

    As the relatively new spirits buyer for a major national retailer, I can tell you that it gets harder and harder not to raise prices. I usually eat the margin and try to keep things as stagnant as possible. Malts like the Tamdhu 10 have kept my base happy at less than $25, but now they are closing their doors. I will give Ardbeg serious credit however, the sale on the Uig, Beist, and 10 going on nationwide was due to them lowering their prices. I love their malts and I really love how they do business.

  10. John Hansell says:

    Thanks Red. I appreciate the vote of confidence.

  11. B.J. Reed says:

    Very good points John – There is tremendous turmoil right now and I think it is a combination of trends:

    – Even more centralization of ownership

    – Growth in single malt market and attempts to make it a “luxury” product

    – Tremendous challenges in managing stocks when changing tastes and market demands are more turbulent than can be anticipated with a product that ages for decades in many cases.

    – Green shade ascendancy in the market where attempts to squeeze the profit margins potentially impinge on the potential quality of the product (e.g. shrink wrapped barrels)

    – Collectors growing in number and clout and willing to pay increasing amounts for rare whiskies which filters down to the single malt market as a whole

    All these environmental shifts along with the downturn in the global economy have put intense pressure on the industry. Its not the first time this has happened but the range of factors make it one of the most complex in memory.

  12. Bruichladdict says:

    John,

    Well done. You are not just pandering to advertisers but rather binding your readership to the publication by implicating them in the content. This type of independence will further build your credibility, drive up subscriptions, and the advertisers will have no choice!

    Keep paying attention to the people that count, your readers.

  13. Red_Arremer says:

    Here’s Chris Goodrum writing in Gauntleys Whisky Newsletter for April 2007. The “doesn’t anybody else see what’s happening?” that concludes the paragraph is even more chilling today because, of course, we all do.

    “Will we soon start to see and end of the reasonably priced, esoteric bottlings that these companies release, and will be held to ransom by the big boys like Diageo and LVMH who will be content to ‘whoops happen find’ another few casks of ancient whatever and slap a ludicrous price tag on it, putting it way out of the reach of us ordinary mortals. Mentioning no names but do you ever get the feeling you’ve being fleeced??, surely I can’t be the only one who feels this way. I may not be the only one in the industry to feel this way, but how many others are saying it? I wonder why?”

  14. Cary says:

    Hi John: Well said! I think you speak for most of us & I hope some of the distilleries take note.

  15. John Hansell says:

    Bruichladdict, maybe it will help with the subscriptions, but I’m not sure about the advertising. Still, that’s the risk I’m willing to take to do the right thing.

  16. Maltakias says:

    Very well said John.

    It’s very nice for us fans of whisky to feel that we have an “insider” who hears what we say and stands up for our rights!

    Thank you again,keep up the good work.

  17. Robinski says:

    With regards to increasing prices for quality malt whisky these days, let’s consider a few facts; the cost to produce malt whisky has risen exponentially in recent times. When I started out in the industry 15 year ago the price of an American whiskey barrel was $50. It now costs around £150. Farmers demand more for their barley and fuel tand transport costs have risen. Add the swings in exchange rates, of course prices have gone up. But the quality has dramatically improved and their is much more choice. As John says, there has never been a better time to drink single malt whisky.

  18. [...] been some buzz around the editorial and blog post that appeared in the recent (2009 winter) edition of the US publication Malt Advocate and it has [...]

  19. Sorry, it’s taken so long John but I’ve posted a reply to your comments here – http://www.themasterblender.com/2009/12/07/reply-john-hansell-malt-advocate/ – and I’ll let people read that there and make their own minds up, but basically remember that most of the time we are replying to consumer demand – there is a market for the upmarket whisky.

    I’ve also covered off some of the issues raised here in the previous guest blog spot I did for you here: http://blog.maltadvocate.com/2009/07/31/guest-blogger-richard-paterson-master-blender/

  20. John Hansell says:

    You’re right about simply responding to demand regarding upmarket whisky. As long as you have good, affordable whiskies for us regular folk–which you do–then I personally see nothing wrong with bottling some whisky for the ultra-wealthy too.

    And you’re also make a very good point about whiskies without age statement. It does give you more flexibility to make good whisky, but also gives you (and other producers) the opportunity to charge a lot of money for younger whisky. As long as it’s the former and not the latter, we’ll all be happy and no one will be complaining.

  21. B.J. Reed says:

    I see Richard Patterson has responded to your editorial John:

    http://www.themasterblender.com/2009/12/07/reply-john-hansell-malt-advocate/

  22. John Hansell says:

    Yep, BJ, and I already responded. So nice of Richard to take the time to do this and let us see his perspective on some of these issues.

  23. Red_Arremer says:

    I posted a reply up on Richard’s entry. But I have no idea if it will make it past moderation so I’ll publish it here too. I really don’t want to be hard on the guy, but these things just have to be said. Once you read his post, then mine will make sense:

    You really defend yourself here, Richard, and I understand why you or any corporate whisky ambassador would feel the need to.

    If you really want the negativity to stop, my sincere recommendation is that you stop sending press releases regarding hyper-expensive whiskies to media outlets that serve people who aren’t hyper-wealthy. Here’s why:

    You justify your hyper-expensive whisky with a gesture to your hyper-wealthy clientele. You praise economic diversity as if it were ethnic diversity.

    As compelling as this argument is, most folks experience it as both overwhelming and irrelevant. No sooner have whiskybloggers sworn to eachother that they simply must agree with it, than they have furiously banged out a hundred comments expressing their disapproval of the absurdity of the pricing on recent bottlings from Dalmore and other distilleries.

    Why?

    The reason is that most whisky bloggers are strictly middle class and half the bottlings that they hear about are aimed strictly at the hyper-wealthy. The dissonance this produces is too overwhelming to be brought back into harmony by the reminder that “these bottles were never meant for you.”

  24. John Hansell says:

    Red, I’d like to chime in here on your last comment. I don’t think that it’s fair that Richard take all the heat here. I think in many ways he’s just doing the job his company is asking him to do.

    Richard is the Master Blender and ambassador. He’s not Whyte & Mackay’s marketing director (or CEO). Keep this in mind. Yes, I’m sure he has imput on all the new whiskies that come out, but maybe you’re “shooting the messenger” just a little bit?

  25. Red_Arremer says:

    Fair enough, John, criticism accepted.

    I aim for the message itself, but that mark can be hard to hit– Especially when, as a whisky brand ambassador, Richard is part man part message. As a figurehead, he catches the flak for what his company does, and of course what he’s able to say is extremely limited, which is a shame.

    In the spirit of conciliation, I’d like to mention that I do respect Richard. I have a high opinion of the Dalmore from the several that I’ve tried– And I’m sure that there’s much more of the man in the whiskies he creates than in the posts he publishes.

  26. John Hansell says:

    Well done, Red, well done.

  27. As one who will likely never taste a 40 or 50 year old whisky, I continue to be interested in them. I am as intrigued by them as I am, say, the new Bentley Continental Flying Spur ($191,000 MSRP), as Richard suggests. And I find the decanters iconic.

    At a tasting I attended last April I was fortunate enough to sample several malts that retail for between $500 and $800 (I know, a mere pittance to some here). My favorite of the evening out of 20 samples? Uigeadail (with apologies to others who have grown tired of that annual story).

    I wonder, though, as consumers, should we, to avoid hearing about the prestigious bottlings, ask the distilleries to cast the whiskies into the sea so we’re not taunted by their existence? Better yet, if the distilleries so irreverently allow some whisky to age to the point of being prestigious, should we demand that they vat it with some barely legal whisky, give it a worthy name, and offer it a price that fits our purses. Oh, no, can’t do that, we don’t like that concept, either, do we?

    Perhaps we should pine for the days when most countries’ economies were strong, when there were fewer than a handful of single malts on any market’s shelf, and when there were no electronic media that allowed us to so easily air our thoughts? Gosh, I just looked. My Glenfiddich bottle in its holiday tin from the early 1980s has no age statement, and I remember, it was double the tarrif of a good 12 year old blend. Ah, the good old days. How ever did we manage? But look how far we’ve come.

  28. John Hansell says:

    Yes, Two-bit, we have come quite far since those days back in the ’80s. In so many ways.

  29. René says:

    Nicely spoken, John and Richard and all the other whiskylovers here, but will it help to get prices down to a more acceptable level? I doubt it, but we’ll see! I personally think that the ‘big’ ceo’s rules the waves and the the rest follows.

  30. Davindek says:

    I have a hard time seeing these outrageously priced whiskies as anything other than publicity stunts. And they work really well too. They grab lots of press, get the distillery name in front of the public (especially good when Christmas is approaching), and get the bloggers repeating the distillery name over and over. A year from now all the average person remembers is the distillery, with a vague recollection of it being something special. Can’t hurt sales.

  31. Tony Perpignano says:

    John:
    Very timely and accurate piece of writing, bravo! At this rate many of us will be drinking more beer and wine to weather this down turn. I suppose affordable and single malt whiskies are no longer words that belong together in the same sentence. A good example of that is the Dalmore 12 year old, once a very classy and affordable brand. “Nomore”

    But what I wonder about is if this industry over the long run might lose some of the more “average” consumers who are not fortunate enough to work on Wall Street. If the current high demand, low stocks and global recession linger for any period of time, I could see where some people might permanently move away from whisky.

  32. John Hansell says:

    Tony, time will tell. I bought a lot of whisky back in the 1990s and am very glad I did. The quality of the product varied more, but whiskies sure were a lot less expensive back then. I recall Dalmore 12 and Aberlour 10 year old both being below $20 a bottle.

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