Is this the Golden Age of Whisky?
I asked a veteran and well-respected whisky manager this question two weeks ago when I was in Scotland, and he said yes. He was looking at it from his company’s perspective. They can’t make their whisky fast enough, and to him that’s how he defines the Golden Age.
Scotch Whisky Association Chief Executive Gavin Hewitt posed the same question at the Keepers of the Quaich banquet, which I attended while I was in Scotland. His response what that the Golden Age of Whisky is yet to come. He described what we are currently experiencing as a “renaissance.”
Still, some whisky enthusiasts who have been drinking whisky for a long time (like me) believe that the Golden Age is behind us. One blogger in particular (Sku) argues that the golden age was from the late 1990s and lasted about a decade. Follow the link to understand his logic. I, for one, have a tendency to agree with him on most points. Whisky prices were reasonable, quality improved overall from the early 1990s, and rare whiskies were plentiful–and affordable.
However, if you didn’t start drinking–and buying–whisky until the late 1990s, you missed out on an era that was almost as good: the early-to-mid1990s. Many of the now legendary bottlings were from that time, including the Black Bowmores, some amazing Springbanks, and 1973/1974 Longrows, just for starters. Plus, whiskies were ridiculously under-priced. How about $300 for Black Bowmore, $65 for Springbank 21 yr., and Macallan 18 yr. (from the great 1970s vintages) for under $50. Many whiskies from that era are fetching up to ten times as much these days at auction. Good single malts like Dalmore 12 yr. and Aberlour 10 yr. were under $20. Plus, if you knew where to shop, independent bottled whiskies (like Gordon & MacPhail, for example) that were really nice and/or rare, were dirt cheap (albeit often at 40-43% abv and not chll-filtered).
The one main factor is stopping me from saying that the early-to-mid 1990s was also a Golden Age of Whisky: quality control. While it’s true that some amazing whiskies came from that era, I would have to say that the worst whiskies I’ve ever tasted also came from that era. These were whiskies so bad, that I dumped them down the drain. Many were from independent bottlers who should have known better. Many times industry reps told me back then that there are no bad whiskies; some are just better than others. They were wrong.
What about the future? Could there still be a Golden Age of Whisky in front of us? Well, there’s one main factor stopping me from saying yes: price. While I honestly believe that the overall quality of whisky will be better in the future than in any time in the past–and all the new craft distillers around the world will energize the whisky industry the same way craft beer has done for brewing–it’s going to come with a higher price tag. The days of undervalued, under-appreciated whiskies (and whiskeys) are over.
That’s not to say that all this increased production and expansion won’t lead to another whisky glut (and bust) in the future. The industry is very cyclical. If we do end up with another glut from over-production and over-pricing, it could lead to another Golden Age. My gut feeling, however (and it’s just a gut feeling), is that this isn’t likely. At least not one as severe as the one we experienced 20 years or so ago.
One final point: I don’t want to dissuade new whisky drinkers from buying whisky now. Just because we aren’t in a “Golden Age” doesn’t mean there aren’t wonderful whiskies at a fair value. There are plenty. It’s just that the increased demand in whisky, diminished supply, and the proliferation of NAS (no age statement) whiskies makes it more challenging.
What do you think? When is/was the Golden Age of Whisky? And why?