Whisky Advocate

Plenty of good new whiskies, but where are the great ones?

July 26th, 2010

First the good news:  I really haven’t tasted many new whiskies with flaws. My ratings of whiskies in the 70s and lower have been few and far between so far this year.

But, on the flip side, I haven’t been tasting many whiskies that have really blown me away either. (More whiskies like Glenfarclas 40 year old, please.) Most of my ratings have been in the 8os, and a lot in the low-mid 80s. This means that we have a lot of nice whiskies out there. 

Nice. Not  great!

Am I being too tough on all these whiskies?” (And maybe some of the whisky producers out there are beginning to feel the same way?)  But, looking back over the releases so far in 2010, I don’t think I am.

I wonder, though, if we might be entering a phase where we’re going to be seeing a lot of good whiskies, but not a lot of great whiskies (or even poor whiskies, for that matter).

Why? Well, the days of having large stocks of older whiskies for many producers are over. The whisky boom (along with economic problems back in the 1980s which reduced whisky production) has led to a reduction in many of these older stocks–many of which were great whiskies. (Remember all those wonderful old Springbanks from the 1960s and 1970s?) What remains from this era is being sold off at exorbitant prices. 

True, there are some exceptions. Some producers are sitting on older stocks, and they are poised to take advantage of it.

However, what we’ve been seeing, and will continue to see, are new releases at younger ages–and a lot more NAS (no age statement) whiskies, where producers will marry very young whiskies (less than 8 years old) with some older stocks.

Sure, some whiskies are great at a relatively young age, but it will be hard for most to develop the depth and complexity deserving “classic” status at such a young age. 

Likewise, whisky producers have gotten wiser. Wood management is better. They have great “nosers” on their staff. Even if producers release a whisky that’s fairly young, I think most are smart enough now to not release any new whiskies that are premature or flawed in some manner. (Note to the new, small, craft distillers: Be careful. Don’t rush it. Do it right the first time.)

There is more modernization, computerization, and homomoginization to the production process too, which makes whisky quality more consistent. But does that also suggest, for better or worse, the potential for less diversity?

So, what does all this mean? I think we’re going to continue seeing a lot of what I would describe as “80s” whiskies. And in statistical terms, I think there’s going to be a much smaller standard deviation in these whiskies than in the past (meaning not as many 90s and not a lot of 70s and 60s).

My feeling is that–generally speaking–the bourbon distillers have the advantage here in this new era, because bourbon (and other American whiskeys like Tennessee and rye whiskeys) matures quicker that Scotch whisky and can recover more quickly from unexpected stock depletions.

Fall is usually the time when the whisky producers release their good stuff. I hope my logic is wrong. For now, at least. I’d like to see more 90+ rated whiskies in the mix being released over the next five months. There were some amazing releases last fall, so there is reason for optimism.

What do you think?

40 Responses to “Plenty of good new whiskies, but where are the great ones?”

  1. B.J. Reed says:

    John

    Another excellent point – I am trying to think of great whiskies that I have and few have come out recently. I have some wonderful whiskies that were bottled in the 90s and a few bottled in the the early 2000’s but not a many sense. You noted Glenfarclas and it one of the few that have vast stocks of older whisky and they are masters at managing that stock. I suspect that G&M have some terrific casks sitting there somewhere. Duncan Taylor’s earlier vintages were usually very good but my guess is that stock is quickly disappearing.

    Maybe we will be surprised but it may have already seen the golden age of exceptional bottlings…

  2. Michael says:

    Very interesting posting. Someone had to say it!

  3. kallaskander says:

    Hi there,

    well John, were you speaking of whisky in general or were you talking about Scotch?

    If you talk about Scotch the development you startet to describe in your latest topics is only a small wonder. After 1983 the real industrialisation of Scotch whisky set in and in our time it comes to new heights. Overall it is not easy to find great Scotch whiskies anymore. And if you do to pay for them without going broke.

    When the Scots complained that the Japanese began to win all major whisky competitions and prizes in the early 2000s they were told: Make better whisky and you stand a chance to win again.
    Again overall speaking. There are still great malts in the casks that have not been released yet.
    But the trend is there as well.

    If you talk about whisky in general then we have a problem. There should be great American and Japanese whiskies out there, to a lesser extend Canadian and more exotic provenenaces.
    If they are not we are in trouble.

    Greetings
    kallaskander

    • Michael says:

      I think that the biggest problem of Canadian and American whiskey is that is not really associated with a place, history etc. Moving a distillery from Waterloo, Ontario to Manitoba (I am talking about Seagram) is like moving Laphroiag to France and expecting to maintain whisky quality and support of those to consider Laphroaig to me their favourite whisky.
      There are numerous examples of North American whiskey that does not belong to a place and cannot create the same emotions as Scottish single malt (Pappy van Winkle and Buffalo Trace Antique Collection come to mind).
      The classical case of this lack of “belonging” is the the recent case of WhistlePig Straight Rye Whiskey.
      I tried to get excited about Canadian Whiskey (I am Canadian after all) but it is difficult. I know that many would say that the only important aspect of drinking whisky is the taste but for many (me included), there is much more to it.

      Japanese whisky may be another story – I am focusing on Karuizawa these days.

    • John Hansell says:

      I was speaking of whisky in general terms. But, given the number of Scotch distilleries, compared to Irish, Bourbon, Canadian, etc., a lot of my referencing comes from there.

      And I still know what great whisky tastes like. I go down to my bar and taste my 1974 Longrow or my 21 year old Springbank or my 1966 Balvenie, etc., and I am blown away by their dynamic complexity. I am just not being wowed by new releases as much (last year’s Diageo limited release of Brora 30 being a shining exception).

      But this year’s new releases, so far, keep me wanting…

  4. Gal says:

    I dont think NAS is bad.
    some very interesting and great whiskies are NAS

    • Michael says:

      Why is everybody complaining about No Age Statement blended whisky then ;-)

    • John Hansell says:

      I have had some very nice NAS whiskies. Outstanding ones? Very few.

      My blog post is in reference to 2010. Name me an outstanding NAS whisky released this year. If one’s out there, I haven’t tried it.

  5. John says:

    This is a very interesting article, especially for a novice whisky drinker such as myself. A drop in the standard deviation on the ratings could definitely be viewed as a good thing for the average/ beginner whisky drinker, but eventually you want to expand your horizons to bigger and better things. If indeed it has arrived, I hope the Age of the 80s passes sooner rather than later.

  6. David says:

    I think I would agree with this, I am relatively new to whisky, 6 years, with 3 serious years. I don’t have the funds to buy those Glenfarclas 40s etc. But I see that there is a lot of experimentation and a lot of new bottling. My problem is that I am still in the experimental phase sort of, but there are a lot of bottles that I like but very I have few repeat purchases. Many nice whiskies, but not great.

  7. David D says:

    That’s the exact reason we are buying more private casks. The only whiskies I’ve been excited to tell my customers about are the ones I’ve had to search out on my own that are then only available to us. That’s disappointing to say the least. I think a lot of it has to do with the market and how producers want to take advantage of the resurgence of single malts. Let’s make as much as we can, and get as much money as possible while it lasts. That type of mentality inevitably leads to mediocre quality on the average. Glenfarclas is one of the few distilleries not run by a giant conglomerate, so they still have their priorities straight.

  8. James says:

    I’m going to get contentious here: have we all simply grown used to whisky, its flavour profiles, its marketing strategies, its history, its hype? Has the bar been set already at an impossible height; and that bar will be at different altitudes and be represented by different whiskies for each of us?
    I don’t have the means to taste anywhere near as many new releases as you, John, and perhaps many other WDJK readers can, and on top of that, like David, I am only just over the threshhold of the whisky world. In other words, I haven’t noticed this.
    However, from another angle maybe such a phase, if this present period can be called such, was inevitable. Whisky (and I’m taking about single malt Scotch) exploded as a drinks category over the last two decades, this begot more a focused yet also wide-reaching approach to making whisky and so, courtesy of the time delay on account of its very make-up and the mores of maturation, we are now encountering more and more malts distilled post-whisky rationalisation and the myriad alterations to the process that have occurred in that time: direct-fired stills to steam-heated, wooden to stainless steel washbacks, the loss of on-site floor malting, central warehousing. This has created a more consistent product, as has been mentioned above, but maybe a less surprising one. The chances of stumbling across a truly woeful malt are reduced now, but it must be reiterated that the 90+s from “the olden days” came with the 60s and 70s.
    Whisky’s popularity grew, became seriously big business and the need to control market share led to perhaps a more uniform product, controlled by those highly-skilled nosers. Suddenly the palates of the masses who are bankrolling it all become more important to the shareholders than the connoisseurs are to the distillers.
    As someone commented on another recent post, bad whiskies are good learning experiences, too. For those on a mission to find the best, the worst provides context. I worry that this is not an approach the big corporations are willing to pander to in their business models. Increasing proportions of those older, rarer stocks will sacrifice their greatness for the greater good: a perfectly pleasant, and indeed in some cases delicious, dram, but one unlikely to thrust its hand down your trousers.
    Two potential sides to the story: what is increasingly happening to those stellar, singular whiskies, but also that we might have our own previous experiences and perceptions (influenced by the industry, too, of course) to bear in mind.

    • John Hansell says:

      You make some very good points about the modernization of whisky-making. I didn’t point this out in my original post, but it’s another reason that supports my “good whiskies, but no poor or really great whiskies” thinking. We have a lot more consistency–a two edged sword, being both good, and bad in some ways. (I actually went back to my original post and added a small paragraph noting this. Thanks for sharing your viewpoint.)

  9. two-bit cowboy says:

    Certainly an interesting view point, John.

    I look forward to your impressions of Glenfiddich’s Rich Oak when it arrives. Sounds like just another NAS, but I believe it’s to be released as a 14 years old. If it’s anything like Project Indiana that Monique served at the Dell in May, perhaps it will come close to your standard as a great one. We’ll see.

    I haven’t tried the Springbank 18 (2010), but if it’s close at all to the 2009, it might approach greatness. And then — Simon’s latest newsletter suggests that some day this year we might get to try the Laphroaig Cask Strength Batch 1 in the USA. A great one?

    • Michael says:

      All the reviews, I saw show preference of older (red stripe) Laphroaig 10YO CS to the new release. I actually stocked up on that previous release.

    • John Hansell says:

      I rated both Springers in the high 80s. Good. Not great.

      • Texas says:

        Haven’t a clue how they compare to the classic Springbanks but the new 10 year old is amazing stuff. Serge at WF feels the basic character of the new 10 is very close to those of the 60’s and 70’s.

  10. Chef! says:

    I think you’re absolutely right and the distillers know this fact. I think it explains a lot of the experiments, too… Distillers make separate whisky by changing the way it’s made. And in most cases the whisky comes out consistently good meaning there are no flaws. In some cases even great whisky by comparison to their original inventories, but instead of a well-aged whisky we get another relatively young whisky but with a slightly different profile to tantalize our taste buds. But still, nothing that would knock your socks off like a classic with all the depth and maturity.

    I’ve never had anything close to a 40yr old whisky but am beginning to wonder if trying something so nice would spoil me based on what I can realistically afford.

  11. John Hansell says:

    Another point, which many of you have already raised: If you’re relatively new to whisky drinking and all you’ve tasted are “80s” whiskies, then that’s the perspective you have on whisky in general. Maybe you think they’re all great? I suspect that I was like that when I first started out.

    But, after more than 30 years of drinking whisky, I have tasted a broad range, from the really amazing to the really disappointing. And so many whiskies these days seem to be gravitating toward the middle somewhere.

    • David D says:

      “But, after more than 30 years of drinking whisky, I have tasted a broad range, from the really amazing to the really disappointing. And so many whiskies these days seem to be gravitating toward the middle somewhere.”

      I think that’s your answer. 30 years of drinking is bound to do that. :) I’m only 2 and 1/2 years into this business and I am already a bit jaded.

  12. Chef! says:

    I think it comes with your territory, John… Thankfully we have you to help identify the really good example once everything truly has become homogeneous in terms of quality. :)

  13. Lagavulin 1967 says:

    In 1976 Nadia Comaneci achieved a perfect 10. This is what occurs when someone produces something that is beyond the experience of those who are deemed worthy to judge.

    I have tasted well in excess of 5,000 different drams and have found a few that are so far in front of the rest of the field that there would be a real danger of me giving one (or all) 100points. Personally I don’t go down the classic ‘points scoring’ route as it is far too subjective, and I don’t generally trust the points that others have allocated, preferring to judge on my own criteria (after all, it’s me that’s drinking/paying for it!)

    IMHO, now that every aspect of production has become an exact science, the happy accident has been taken out of the equation and most of the truly stunning whiskies are now ‘just another asset’ in the bean-counters’ pile. I suspect we’ll never get a chance to taste drams to rival:-

    Springbank’s from the mid-late 60’s
    A Ledaig from 1972
    Brora’s & Clynelish’s ’67 -‘ 73
    Longmorn’s & Strathisla’s from the 50’s & 60’s – the list could go on for a while.

    The point that I’m trying to make here is that we need to get away from the ‘yeah, they’re ok BUT I prefer the early stuff (before they were well-known)’ mentality.

    On rare occasions something ‘new’ and wonderful comes along e.g. Lagavulin 21yo which reminds us that these things do exist, but for the most part, we need to re-tune our expectations and be very critical of poor whiskies and grateful that these are now becoming rarer too.

    To sum up, I was regularly asked “what is the difference between Scotch and Irish whisk(e)y?”
    My stock reply is that the Irish distill their whiskey 3 times and this produces a more consistent style. The Scots usually distill twice and this produces a more characterful whisky…..
    ….. and everyone loves a ‘character’

    Keep up the good work John

    Slainté Matt

  14. Louis says:

    John,

    Well put, this is exactly how I have been felling for the last few years.

    Obviously, it takes many years to make older whisky, so distilleries cannot just ramp up current production to meet present-day demand. But maybe they should think twice before selling all of their older stock as trophy bottles. When I got into single malt scotch in the late 1990’s, 20+ year old bottles could easily be found in the $80-100 range. That was a big jump from the $30 or so for 12 year old malts, but at least I could afford a dram or two every now and then.

    Nowadays, many 18 year olds are around $150, and I doubt in many SMS newcomers are willing to pay that much in a lousy economy. If the average SMS consumer can’t get beyond the basic 10-12 year olds (or NAS stuff), they they may be just as likely to switch to other things. The bourbon industry is already picking up some of the SMS market share, and other spirits may follow.

    But to give credit where credit is due, we did get the Ardbeg Uigeadail and Talisker 175th Anniversary which had some older malt in them. For the non-peated side, perhaps something like Johnnie Walker Blue, with older and not quite so old components. That would put a better spin on the NAS designation.

    Slainte.

    Louis

    • two-bit cowboy says:

      Louis, I’m neither an economist nor a pessimist, but how much in “the late 1990’s” dollars would that “$80 -100 range” whisky cost today? How much was gas then? A gallon of milk? A loaf of bread?

      It’s all a matter of relative perspective, isn’t it?

      Which beers did we drink then? Were they better than today’s? (NO, except the European beers; they were just as good then.)

      So let’s all stop buying today’s mediocre whisky and wait 20 years for the stuff to be great again, okay?

  15. Steffen Bräuner says:

    I had loads of really great drams lately

    Bitter Truth Rye
    Glengoyne 37yo by Nectar of the daily drams
    Arran Peacock
    Glenglassaigh 40yo
    Glen Moray 1973 cask 7037 from Duncan Taylor
    Bladnoch 8yo 55%

    and going back a couple of years :
    18 or 19yo Glenkinchie by Cadenhed

    But taste is different, I don’t rate that Glenfarclas 40yo, nor the latest Brora (prefers earlier editions 5+ years ago) amongst great whiskies

    I think as you get the numbers of malts tried in the numbers of thousands you’ll get harder to impress and great old memories will be having nostalgic values to you!

    /Macdeffe

  16. kallaskander says:

    Hi there,

    reading all the posts above another point occured to me. The other day we talked about cask management. Cask or wood management even is a recent thing. And if you look at all the other “progress” we have made on the way from whisky making to whisky production from arts and crafts to industry so to speak…

    Let me put it this way: Probably whisky lost its soul and that is what manifests itself in the lack of the outstanding whisky.

    What we get by scientification (is that a meaningful word in English?) is a mainstream movement of a certain level of quality. And this stream gets broader and broader.

    There is less lee-way for the odd cask out which is so outstanding that it beats all others. From the distillers view that is good because ther are less and less casks which go the other way and fall out because of lack in quality.

    But you get my drift… whisky was a craft in many ways and cases even an art and a distiller of the 1960s or 1970s would be shocked about what you can find in a modern distillery.

    It startet with Saladin boxes and giving up floor maltings. So malt began to become unified. Worm tubs were replaced by condensers. You have production control via computers everywhere today and I blieve that in the broadest sense there is a process of uniformity going on in the business. The need to control everything in the whisky making pushes you towards mainstream and if you are not very carful towards mediocrity. Not much chance for variation left I mean.

    There still are outstanding malts because of their unique characteristics such as the Islay malts or the Lowland malts.

    You wonder when I mention The Macallan? Now!

    It is a good example of tending rowards uniformity. Macallan stood out because of the first fill oloroso sherry maturation. Financial considerations brought that to its limits one day.
    So this unique charateristic was sacrificed and with Fine Oak Macallan moved into the middle of the mainstream of Speyside malts.
    They doubled production as others do and more and more machinery takes over. Small wonder that Macallan is the focus of so much negative comment. If you think of an outstanding Macallan there is sherry involved, lots of sherry. If you think of other Macallans Fine Oak comes to mind. And those lack soul compared to former years.

    Perhaps that is why we miss the really outstanding malt, the soul has perhabs gone out of (Scottish) whisky.

    Greetings
    kallaskander

  17. vince carida says:

    John
    I agree with your point on Bourbon having the advantage. I can think of two great bourbons I have had over the last 12 months. One was the Wild Turkey Tradition. I believe you gave this an 88-89? I would have given it a 93-94. I think it is a stunning bourbon. Also, the Golden Anniversary from Parkers was a stunning bourbon. I’m looking forward to the fall releases this year. I am actually heading to the International Bourbon Festival in Bardstown. (first time attending).

  18. Andreas says:

    Hi John,
    i think you`re right. When i see through the Whisky business a lot has chenged. I`m working in it, not as a distiller but as a wholeseller.
    When you look back, you had some real old good Whisky. This was the main focus. Old Whisky, old labels, old bottels. Then there came the big ones like diageo, Inver House, etc. The similiar differences between the distilleries were more and more assimilated to the demand of the owners. Also distilleries were clossed if they were not used for blendings or yust for fun.
    Also we have a very special new strategy in the distillerys. Every year we were blown away from new releases. Best seen by Bruichladdich. Every year we can see new finishes. These one you like, are not longer availlable next year, because a new finish is born.
    New bottles, new finishes, new whisky. There is no constant within. I know, that there are a lot of casks in stocks of the big sellers which are older than 15 or 20 years, but no one will bottle them now. I think that it is a passing decade we are going through. We`ll see what the future brings.

  19. Patrick says:

    I had the same feeling as you Jon.
    Plenty of very good whiskies, few bad ones but for the great ones, with the exception of the Caol Ila Manager’s choice, I would have to think hard to find a few.
    As you mentioned, it seems that a lot of companies (including IB) have emptied their stocks of exceptional casks

  20. Lawrence says:

    I think we’re all jaded. If we started again with a clean slate we’d be wowed. Again. Like a gold fish going around the bowl; every cycle is a new experience.

  21. Red_Arremer says:

    What we scotch lovers need is another whisky bust– An end to the potential of scotch to appeal to the millions. Only then will the tastes of fanatics like ourselves guide the single malt world for only then will our limited dollars mean more than the unlimited dollars of whisky novice potential customers in developing markets.

    We need a contraction of the industry. A weeding out of folks who have only jumped on the bandwagon for the quick buck they can make reforming things along the lines of the all mighty bottom line.

    • Michael says:

      I completely agree. Nothing good ever comes from mass market appeal. I value uniqueness and exclusivity.

    • mongo says:

      i don’t know–i also value being able to have access to things i like. i also think people all over the world should be able to be introduced to the things i like. and i also don’t think people should lose their jobs and family businesses over my tastes.

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