Whisky Advocate

Whisky distillers: listen up!

July 22nd, 2010

I’ve said it before, but I feel I need to say it again.

I’m not picking on one distiller here, so please don’t interpret it this way. Rather, this is my reaction to the current state of the whisky industry in general right now.

In this very interesting and exciting era of mushrooming new distilleries and unprecedented experimentation (both of which I am thankful for), I am asking distillers to keep one thing in mind:

While you’re trying to “one-up” your competition by using the newest barley strain, the newest grain(s), the highest peat level, the newest type of wood, the most distillations, the oldest whisky, the fanciest packaging, the most esoteric wine barrel, etc., please remember that all we really care about is that your whisky tastes good. And that it is fairly priced.

Enough said!

67 Responses to “Whisky distillers: listen up!”

  1. magnus says:

    I fully agree with you here John!

  2. Texas says:

    Thanks, John! Well said.

  3. Steffen Bräuner says:

    Well said, nothing beats simple unchillfiltered maltwhisky from a good ex-bourbon cask

    /Macdeffe

    • sam k says:

      Unless of course it’s the bourbon that originally came from that same cask…er, barrel!

      • Steffen Bräuner says:

        heheh – You got me Sam, I need to broaden my horizons for sure :-)

        Macdeffe (been nosing around the Kentucky scenes lately thou for some things)

        • sam k says:

          No worries, Macdeffe! I’m guilty of more narrow horizons myself, and am attempting to go farther as we speak. The best to both of us on that journey!

    • MrTH says:

      Hear, hear. Let’s make good, basic whisky at a fair price. Experiments are fine, but I think we’re all being led astray, and we’re losing sight of what makes whisky the amazing drink it is. Done properly in the first place, it doesn’t need all that gussying up.

  4. Gllaguno says:

    Hell yeah!

  5. DavidG says:

    I think you are preaching to the choir, but what brought this on?

  6. sam k says:

    Way to sum it up, John!

  7. Louis says:

    Well, everybody wants an edge, so they try all of these things. After a while, the tail starts to wag the dog.

  8. Luke says:

    It needed to be said John! Amen.

  9. lucky says:

    Agreed John. HOWEVER it should be noted that some consumers are eager to spend lavish sums on anything that is new/exotic/different or promises to be very limited distribution. A fact that hasn’t been overlooked by distillers and marketers.
    We have seen the enemy and it is us.

    • TheMandarin says:

      Saying that the enemy is us, is of course too broad. The enemy, and victim, is the scotch drinker who buys, and continues to buy whisky based on poorly understood gimmicks, inane advertising, weird constructions of luxury….qualities less and less related to the drinking experience. That person might not have the opportunity to taste before he buys, his trusted retailer be unable to, or not care enough to help the drinker find something he’ll like, or his circle of scotch drinkers may not be very independently minded…if he is even lucky enough to have a circle of friendly scotch drinkers.
      Having access to these sources of information also helps the buyer/drinker/appreciator identify good deals…such as a great 8 year old McPhail’s bottling!

  10. two-bit cowboy says:

    Great new (repeat) topic, John.

    Try this example.

    A few years ago Glenlivet’s bottles were shorter than Glenfiddich’s. When I received a new order of Glenlivet’s bottom four core expressions (12, 15, 16, 18) last year, I noticed taller boxes and bottles. These new ones were almost exactly the same height as Glenfiddich’s. Coincidence? Gimmick? And the real question: who cares, except the marketing geeks at Pernod Ricard?

    • DavidG says:

      I think Compass Box was a leader in the tall bottles. But they make a great product – I hope you can bring in their full line in Wyoming.

      • Louis says:

        Much as I enjoy CBW and Macallan whiskies, those tall bottles are a real pain to find a spot for in my cabinet. And I have a couple of shelves that are perfect for the likes of the current Springbank and Four Roses bottles. While bottle size is not my criteria for purchasing, it might make the difference for ‘that one extra bottle’.

      • Send me an email with your thoughts, DavidG.

  11. Mark says:

    Vox in, frater!

    (Latin: Right on. brother! — I just wanted to add dignified emphasis.)

  12. deansheen says:

    I’m with you. More bottles for drinking please.

  13. Fair price is always an issue. Those zany marketing execs know they can make anything exclusive with a story and a fancy label. There are too many companies thinking, “hey I am as good as Macallan, why can’t I charge that much”. Just because you put a fancy metal deer on the bottle or some other such gimmick, don’t expect the the bulk of whiskey drinkers to fall for such trappings. You just may lose a loyal drinker for life…

    Thank you John for writing this.

  14. James says:

    I agree with you, John, and can very plainly see Lucky’s point, too: distillers would soon stop pumping out these esoteric offerings if we weren’t buying any of them.

    The situation has mutated into something akin to a whisky space race, though. Does it taste good? That’s all we want to know!

    Also, with so many words now being squeezed onto the latest labels to qualify their credentials of rarity, innovation and drama, aren’t the distillers exterminating the mystery which shapes whisk(e)y like almost no other drink? I dont know about anybody else, but I quite like to mull over all the tiny factors, so little-understood, which affect some of the most breathtaking-tasting drams. Effectively having the recipe in front of me is somewhat lacking in romance, non?

  15. Alex says:

    Focus on the fundamentals! Well said John, anyone listening?

  16. David Stirk says:

    Hi John,

    other than a few distilleries (Ardbeg!!!! for one) I think the industry as a whole is continuing to offer great whisky for reasonable prices – at least on the continent. I am no expert on the US side of things but wonder if there is a considerable difference. Last time I lived there (nearly 10 years ago) I would have expected to pay about $30-$35 for a good bottle of whisky – it seems now that this figure is more like $80-$90 (perhaps I’m wrong – let me know). I can say, without fear of contradiction, that if you want choice and have a limited budget then the US of A is not the place to buy your whisky. Perhaps this is the reason for your post. All of the enormous US restrictions, State laws and, to some extent, stupidity and greed are barriers for your cheaper, but still outstanding, whisky. I can not complain from a UK standpoint where distillers such as Arran, Springbank, Bowmore, Laphroaig (etc) all have malts under the £30 mark (and not just a NAS bottling). Even with some of the highest duty prices in Europe, we still manage in the UK to get a huge choice under £30 (which is currently about $45US).

    Perhaps some of your post is directed at the state of things in America?

    Regards,

    David

    • David Stirk says:

      And yes – I’ve just realised that Arran, Springbank, Bowmore and Laphroaig are all available in the US (are probably not expensive) and were bad examples… but hopefully you get my point :o)

    • John Hansell says:

      David, relative price between the US and other countries was not one on my mind at the time. But I don’t think anyone in the US is happy when a bottle of whisky costs significantly more here than in other areas, like the UK.

      • smsmmns says:

        I am not sure I agree here.
        I think domestic goods should be cheaper in the country of production, but in this case are they?
        David, John, I was in the UK three times this summer and absolutely did not find it cheaper. Sure availability of variety was greater, but I didn’t think it was cheaper.
        The UK has single buyer entities like Tesco, Sainsbury and the like that drive prices down but we have the exact same thing here, often resulting in cheaper whiskies (Total Wine, Trader Joes, etc.) … even after being shipped across the ocean and sold to a consumer via a three, even four, tier system.
        I dunno. My two cents on a sideline topic.

        • Kutter says:

          You think whisky is expensive in USA. Try to live in Quebec. For Example, Ardberg Ugueidail is 145$ in Montreal and half this price in New York. We have not access to independent bottlings or very few and not the best ones. Only the state-owned society (SAQ) is allowed to sell spirits in Quebec. They decide what they want to sell and there is a lot of taxes since it is owned by the government. In addition, it is impossible to buy whisky online and make it shipped in Montreal because it needs to go through the SAQ. I envy you guys in USA because you have a lot of choices at still fairly prices.

          With that said, great post John! I don’t want a war of peat between Supernova and Octomore until they both suck. They should try to leave the right amount of peat so it tastes good and still satisfies all of the peat lovers out there.

          • Michael says:

            We have it even worse in Ontario, Canada :-) Have you tried LCBO lately? I am not buying whisky in Ontario at all (there are ways to import whisky even to a tightly controlled Ontario with its absolute monopoly of LCBO).

  17. bgulien says:

    Well said, John.
    I used to have a modest collection of 100 bottles. But now I am scaling down, because it is financial impossible to keep up with the interesting bottles.
    So now I buy the bottles I really like. No experimenting and no committee bottlings or “distillery only” bottlings.
    Exception is the Cairdeas Feis Ile range from Laphroiag, because they persist to offer the special bottles at a reasonable price.
    And the bottlings of Raymond Armstrong from Bladnoch, which forum bottlings of special casks of different distilleries are very special and dirt cheap.

  18. mongo says:

    i just want murray mcdavid to stop with all the exotic wine finishes. if just reading the label in the store makes me grimace the odds of my buying a bottle are very poor. also, i would like online whisky stores to have a separate listing for bruichladdich so i don’t have to scroll through pages after pages of all their various bottlings to get to what i want.

    • James says:

      i have a love/hate relationship with bruichladdich. these days it’s more of a hate/hate relationship though. very similar dislike of all their gimmicky bottlings and pricing.

  19. Jimmy says:

    Right on, John. And perhaps it’s worth saying that the best way to avoid gimmicks is to seek out trust-worthy opinions, so keep those reviews coming! You’re doing new(er) whisky drinkers like myself a tremendous service.

  20. Michael Z says:

    Right on my brother…’on we go’…

  21. Michael says:

    Thank you John. As others said, it is extremely important that whisky reviewers bring these issues not only to the distillers but to the readers as well. It is so easy to fall into the trap of chasing elusive uniqueness in anything we do.
    I even started to think that it would be so much easier to just pick the blends I like and forget about this constant struggle to find an even better (and rarer) malt ;-)

  22. JWC says:

    absolutely! it’s EASY to market good tasting stuff that is fairly priced – the product sells itself. limited stuff that doesn’t taste good but is overpriced – roll out the gimmicks.

  23. JWC says:

    john, i also have a gut feeling that your need to post this does not bode well for the short term future. i’m assuming that the btac collection will be going up in price this year – again. the pappy’s and orvw stuff is getting more difficult to purchase (and pricier). the “limited” editions seem to be unlimited.

  24. Thomas W says:

    OK, so if each distillery offered only two or three “purist” whiskies – wouldn’t we
    a) complain that there was too little variety
    b) claim that there was barely any innovation
    c) have a setup where a lot more single malt would be put into blends?

    Honestly, I feel that this discussions just shows what the current state is – and I did anyone congratulate Diageo for keeping the Classic Malts (more or less) intact for decades? There are so many “standard” whiskies that I really don’t see the point of this discussion.

    • Michael says:

      As I said before, I like that Diageo offers relatively few expressions for every distillery represented in their Classic Malts. Lagavulin is one of the examples. I would never complain if distilleries focused on perfecting the (short) line of expressions they have. I avoid distilleries with more that 4-5 single malt expressions (unless they are releasing single cask vintages).

  25. B.J. Reed says:

    This is where I think the production/marketing dichotomy comes in ( I know I harp on this all the time) but who is in control here? For some few distilleries (Glenfarclas is my best example) I know who is in control – John and George Grant. I know that production and marketing are on the same page so you get innovation or experimentation but within very tight parameters – They are true to their core expressions.

    With other distilleries I think the marketing, promotion and sales side of the world is in control and you get crazy products, crazy prices and I think you sacrifice quality and consistency of product. Sometimes you see this because a distillery simply has to generate cash, but in other cases its because of short sided short term decisions that will cause long term damage.

    I think its risky but The Malt Advocate should call out distilleries when they start veering in this direction because it damages not only their product line but it also will affect the industry in a negative way over the long haul. Everyone is allowed a bone head decision from time to time but the pattern is detrimental and needs to be called to task.

    • Steffen Bräuner says:

      I sometimes catch myself thinking that a marketing department has to justify themselves being on the paylist. Especially a company like Edrington group with Macallan, HP, Tamdhu seems to be very confused on where they want to go, or they seem to be going in new directions a lot in some kind of panic, same, but to a lot lesser degree can be said about the Chivas Group

      /Macdeffe

    • Thomas W says:

      I also think the dichotomy you mention is crucial to what we are seeing.

      The funny thing is how fast things change: In Jackson’s Guide Ardbeg was “considered the most traditional of all scotch whiskies”. Today a lot of it is marketing-driven. I mean have you TASTED the new “Supernova”? I know John liked it – but it is just overly young, and tastes verrrry soapy – like Blasda with peat. Not that good at all IMHO, there’s little depth to it. So basically a product purely born out of marketing…. hey, if it got a good “grade” in Jim’s Bible, there must be a follow-up, even to a once “limited committee release”!

    • sam k says:

      The pricing and packaging of the recent Glenfarclas 40 year old is a reflection of your observation re: the Grants judicious handling of their entire product line.

      • Michael says:

        I was to ask this question earlier but now you are giving me an opportunity to ask why they need 43 different expressions/vintages in their Family Casks line? How much flavour difference is there between 40YO expression and 1967-1969 range?

        • B.J. Reed says:

          I think the family casks are true to the core of what Glenfarclas does – These are single casks of the Glenfarclas that in combination makes up their core expressions. When they decide to “explore” in most cases its doing things like their 105 40 YO, again consistent with their cask strength 105. Also, even if they do something experimental I know that the family is making the calls and that marketing and sales folks are operating within that context.

  26. Henry H. says:

    Industry lurkers, please wade in. The water’s fine – if, that is, you like it a tad hot. Thanks, John, for your straightforward call for straight-up excellence at a fair price. Let’s see who all is listening, along with what they have to say for themselves!

  27. mongo says:

    i’m trying to think back to my own introduction to the world of single malts about 10-11 years ago. i was given a bottle of the glenmorangie sherrywood for my birthday. i knew nothing about wood finishes or glenmorangie, but it was an attractive bottle and the whisky tasted fine and different from the blends i’d mostly had until that point. i know that my inner obsessive was intrigued by the fact that there was a whole series of these finishes and even though i’d not had an interest in single malt whiskies before this i wanted to have the whole set, almost as much as a conversation piece than out of real interest in the whisky itself. the next whisky i really liked was the balvenie doublewood and there too i suspect i was drawn as well to the “cool” idea of whisky matured in two different kinds of wood. so i guess i have to admit that my own now serious interest in single malts arose from the gimmickier end of the spectrum, and if nothing else it may have that going for it: that it may bring in new people to the fold, whose tastes may then evolve (or even simplify in a good way).

  28. Ian Williams says:

    Have to say that I agree with you John. Quality must never take second place to marketing.

  29. David D says:

    I’ll name the distillery, at least for me: Bruichladdich. These guys are not getting it. Cuvees A-F in Bordeaux casks for $140 each is insane. The young organic for $80+? Seriously? I’ve stopped carrying their new releases for the first time in the history of our store because our customers are so annoyed.

    • Texas says:

      The fact we have you folks that are actually selling their product here is huge. Your testimony right there hits them in the pocketbook..maybe that will wake some of them up,

    • Thomas W says:

      I fully agree with you.

  30. H.Diaz says:

    I’ve been sipping on the new Maker’s 46 for the last week. Get this, it was priced the same as the regular Maker’s Mark! Holy cow – what were they thinking.

    Many other brands would have raised the price for such a new expression / experiment, I’m almost certain. You know, trying to cash in while patting themselves on the back.

    Nice job, Maker’s. Hope many others follow your lead.

    • John Hansell says:

      They did, actually. You got lucky. I think the new Maker’s is supposed to be priced at about a 20% premium or so. (I think…)

      • Kevin says:

        I wish it was only 20%! In California, in one of the main liquor store chains we are seeing over a 60% mark up! MM is at 23.99 while M46 is at a whopping 37.99! Luckily, I was able to track down a freebie…

      • H.Diaz says:

        You’re right. The price was a little higher than regular Maker’s, about $5 – a very modest increase for such a new kind of bourbon – with French oak staves added-in and everything. The bottle made no mention of the word French, only oak staves. I paid $30. It was the only, or maybe the last, bottle on the shelf.

        Other brands of whisky, starting with Scotch, would have likely doubled the price from their standard bottling for such a newbie.

    • M.R.McGuire says:

      A part of the reason that MM 46 is close to the same price as standard MM may be that there was an ‘offloading’/’sale’ of MM for @$35.00 per 1.75L here in Oklahoma City about a month ago.

  31. Pino says:

    Sometimes I think many people take it to serious. Let the market decide …;-)

  32. smellmyskunk says:

    I agree completely. Taste and price are the two things that are most important to me when considering whether to buy a bottle. I think it is also important for the new distillers to send samples to Malt Advocate for review. I am far more likely to buy a bottle that gets a good MA review.

  33. John,
    I agree and yet I have some fairly highly priced whisky on the market, although they have not quite made it to the USA yet. (They are coming though as our labels have now been approved (eventually))
    Quality for us is number one and once we sort out some younger whiskies ( a 22 year gap in production gives us certain challenges) and can sell in higher volumes then we will be able to provide less expensive products.
    We also have a range of younger products, 12months maturation or less, which are less expensive and again we would not release these unless we felt that the quality was good enough.
    Personally I think that there will always be a place in the market for the extra special packaging of products, aimed at the gift market, because there are consumers who want this. However the majority of whisky drinkers are not in that category and as you say want good quality whisky at an affordable price.
    All the best, and keep up the good work
    Stuart Nickerson
    Glenglassaugh Distillery

  34. Mr Claw says:

    Rah! rah!

    I would almost recommend a boycott, but I wouldn’t be able to maintain it…

  35. Chef! says:

    I understand everyones frustration on the matter but this is why I have John review the whiskies before I buy them. As said before here, his palate is pretty in-tune to what I like. When I first started into whisky years ago I bought-up a ton of different expressions and still have about 30 bottles left from that original inventory I built-up years ago. That being said I know exactly what I like and will buy again. And while I will try something new or out of my comfort zone, if it doesn’t come across as something I would be willing to spend good money on (via review) then I won’t bother.

    I do agree with the need for new distillers to evaluate what they’re putting into the bottle and crawling before learning to walk. As mentioned in the last issue of Malt Advocate: If distillers simply tell us it’s experimental then I’m okay with that.

  36. […] publisher and prolific blogging voice has to say, for it oft times applies equally to beer. As in this recent post, read by me only today on account of my having ignored the blogs I follow during my recent travels. […]

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