Archive for the ‘Opinions’ Category

The Rush of Flavor

Saturday, April 12th, 2014

Author - Lew BrysonStick with me; this is going to be about whiskey, but first we need to make a detour. I’ve done some writing about vodka and FMBs — what’s an FMB? It’s like an RTD. RTD? Well, it’s an alcopop. You know: like Smirnoff Ice. An FMB is a “flavored malt beverage,” which is basically beer with all the beer flavor stripped out and replaced with a variety of fruit flavors. (“RTD” means “ready to drink,” which seems redundant to me, but then, I’m not a marketer.) Anyway, the vodka category is dominated by the talk and advertising of flavors (though unflavored vodka is still the dominant seller), and FMBs are, obviously, all about flavors.

To look at a backbar these days, you’d think that flavored vodkas were a brilliant move. They take up a lot of real estate, they’re available in a broad assortment of different flavors, from fruits to confections to spices to the simply bizarre, like tobacco, and meat, and “fresh cut grass.” The FMBs had a similar rush of flavors, and still maintain growth in the market with that strategy, albeit at a large cost of promotions.

But look back a bit to the beginning. There were flavored vodkas going back to the 1950s; often colored, and flavored with a heavy hand. They were cheap booze, usually for kids or novelty cocktails. (We’re overlooking the original flavored vodka — gin — deliberately, of course.) It was a similar situation with FMBs: beer with cherry flavor, a horrible citrus concoction called Hop’n’Gator, and again, the weird, like Cool Colt, a menthol-flavored malt liquor, and the gin-flavored StingRay.

It always starts small...

It always starts small…

Each category was changed by a singular product. Flavored vodka changed in the late 1980s when Absolut put out Peppar, followed quickly by Citron. Suddenly flavored vodka had solidity, it had subtlety, and it was supported by an ad campaign that won awards for its simplicity and artistic nature; people framed these ads. Other vodka brands quickly added similar flavors; some, like Three Olives, were focused on flavors.

FMBs had flash in the pan success with Two Dogs, Zima, and DNA (which was essentially an alcoholic club soda), but the breakout product was Smirnoff Ice, a citrus-flavored cloudy white beverage, followed by Mike’s Hard Lemonade. They were huge successes, and spawned imitators.

But a funny thing happened; people got bored. Whether it was the drinkers, or the marketers, or the squirrely guys down in the flavor labs driving it, the flavor introductions accelerated. Vodka brands became literal rainbows of flavors (and colored labels), and new ones popped out every month: cherry, raspberry, lime, pear, peach…and then whipped cream, Swedish fish, “Dude,” tobacco, and, no kidding, Electricity!! The FMBs went through the same frenzy, albeit mostly limited to fruit flavors; the latest from Seagram’s Escapes is “Grape Fizz.”

There was howling from the neo-prohibitionists that flavored booze was on the market only to attract underaged drinkers (I honestly believe that’s not true, but…Grape Fizz? You gotta wonder), there was a ton of money spent on advertising, and round and round things went. The categories are big, but they’re a churning mess, and there are only a few flavor brands that retain any consistent traction in the market.

So what, right? Let them do their foolishness, we drink whiskey!

Yeah. You know where I’m going now. Flavored whiskey. Or, thanks to Dewar’s jumping off the high board (followed by J&B Urban Honey), flavored whisky. Sorry, flavored “spirit drink,” though the front label of Dewar’s Highlander Honey says, “Dewar’s Scotch whisky infused with natural flavors; filtered through oak cask wood.” Which, I would argue, is actually a more honest description of what’s inside than “spirit drink.”

But I’m not here to make fun of the labeling hoops the SWA sets up for companies to jump through. I’m here to wring my hands about the possibility of whiskey/whisky sliding down that disgustingly slippery flavor slope that vodka is whooshing down now. Because it starts with honey, and cherry, and cinnamon, then it’s maple, and tea, and barbecue, and mango, and actual heather…and the next thing you know, we’re coating our young whiskeys in dipping sauces and sucking them down raw, still wriggling as they slide down our throats, and they’ll never get to be fully mature and beautifully naked.

Think I’m exaggerating? Does anyone else remember Vijay Mallya at the 2008 World Whiskies Conference (back when people still cared what he thought about whisky), suggesting that for Scotch whisky to attract more young drinkers it needed “a spectrum of flavors”? Yeah, well…turns out that not everyone was repulsed by that. The folks in the stillhouse, the warehouses, and the tasting rooms figured “that’s crazy talk,” made faces, and went back to making the real item, sure. But in the offices? The suits looked at the vodka market, and proceeded to think the unthinkable: Hey guys? That crazy stuff Vijay said? Why not?

They made it happen, and flavored the whiskey. Some of them sold like mad, to the point where almost half of last year’s whiskey category growth in the U.S. market was from flavored whiskey. Beam’s rolling out new flavors, Jack Daniel’s is rolling out new flavors, Canadian Mist is in on it, and who knows where it will stop? Or if it will?

I’ll admit my complicity: I didn’t hate Red Stag, I used a bottle of it to make faux Manhattans. I didn’t even hate the Highlander (maybe because I thought, there can be only one! Whoops, I was wrong). All I can say in my defense is that I had no idea how successful they’d be.

That’s the real issue. It’s not that they exist, it’s that they’ve picked up a sizable number of drinkers. We’ve all seen what that did to Irish whiskey: proliferation of brands, expansion of production facilities, more more more. Money chases success. Flavored whiskey is exploding; and so, money chases success.

There will be more flavored whiskeys. To make them, barrels will be emptied that would have otherwise stayed in the warehouses and become our 15 year old whiskeys and whiskies. Sure, the big distillers are expanding production capacity, but flavored whiskey was not part of the expansion equation, and I hear there’s maybe a barrel shortage. They’ll make the money while they can! It’s not that we’re drinking our young; someone else is drinking our young, and they don’t care about the consequences. Whee! Cinnamon shots! I’m drinking whiskey!

The worst thing? There’s not really anything you and I can do about it. Don’t drink it? Don’t be absurd, you’re already not drinking it! Do you think the people who are drinking it — by the bottle! — read reviews of it? Do you think the companies are going to be able to resist the profits? Do you think the brands will survive becoming a rainbow of flavors? I don’t think whiskey will become the punchline vodka is, but it’s going to have an effect. Paint and dress a Cabinet secretary like a clown for a year, and no one’s going to take them as seriously again.

What to do, what to do? I don’t know…like I said, I’m wringing my hands here. Appeals to decency aren’t going to work when we’re talking hundreds of thousands of cases of sales. But man…I hope they make enough for us. I’d like to be able to afford 18 year old whiskey in 2030. Unflavored 18 year old.

DISCUS Briefing Confirms Surging Growth of American Whiskey

Thursday, February 6th, 2014

Author - Lew BrysonAt the annual Distilled Spirits Council of the United States (DISCUS) industry review on Tuesday, February 4, the usual graphs and numbers on domestic sales of distilled spirits and export sales of American spirits were presented, and they told a great story about American whiskey producers. American whiskey is solidly on its way back, after thirty years of steeply declining sales. (see graphs 1 and 2). I started writing about whiskey in the mid-1990s, and much of what there was to write about back then was how the decline in whiskey sales was slowing down (I referred to it as “the glide path” to emphasize that it was a gradual decline, but I must have forgotten that glide paths always end on the ground!), and optimistically noting that there were some small niches in the overall category that were showing growth: single malt Scotch whisky, and small batch bourbon. Everything else was dropping.

Graph 1 shows a 30 year drop of over 50% in U.S. whiskey sales.

Graph 1 shows a 30 year drop of over 50% in U.S. whiskey sales.

Now things have turned around, and the DISCUS numbers were rosy indeed, especially in the export market for American whiskey. Exports of bourbon and Tennessee whiskey topped $1 billion for the first time, and represented 2/3 of total U.S. spirits exports. The top six markets for export growth (by dollar sales) were Japan, Germany, France, the UK, Spain, and Panama, while Canada remained the single largest export market by far. DISCUS attributed this export growth to economic recovery, a recognition of American quality, a drop in tariff barriers in key markets, and a continuing strong interest in classic cocktails. They also noted the Department of Agriculture’s promotion of American spirits overseas.

Graph 2: 13 years of accelerating growth in U.S. whiskey sales

Graph 2: 13 years of accelerating growth in U.S. whiskey sales

Here at home, total spirits sales were up 4.4%, to $22.2 billion, and a lot of that stemmed from the growth in sales in the “High End” and “Super Premium” categories, the most
expensive bottles. It was noted that whiskey provides substantially higher revenues per standard 9-liter case (an average of $133, compared to $85 for vodka), and the whiskey category’s growth of 6.2%. In volume, total spirits cases sold were up 3.9 million cases, and whiskey’s 3.1 million case increase was 80% of that growth. It’s not all American whiskey, either. While total whiskey volume was up 6.2%, Irish was up 17.5%, “Blended” (which includes flavored whiskey; more on that shortly) was up 14.3%, single malt scotch up 11.6%, bourbon/Tennessee/rye was up 6.8%, Canadian up 2.9%, and blended Scotch whisky was up 2.0%.

Flavored whiskey continued to grow strongly, with 1.4 million additional cases sold, accounting for 45% of the total whiskey category growth. Straight whiskeys, however, accounted for 80% of the revenue growth, so you can bet that the distillers won’t abandon them in a rush to flavors. There was talk of how distillers are being cautious about introducing the rainbow of flavors that has typified vodka sales, and open speculation over whether vodka has gone too far with flavors, jumped the shark; it seems doubtful to me that the bottom of that well has yet been plumbed, but whiskey is going to be a different case. Don’t expect birthday cake bourbon anytime soon.

Where is all this growth coming from? It appears that a good chunk of it is coming from the decline in sales of beer, particularly traditional major brands. The folks from DISCUS saw this as a triumph of their focus on increasing accessibility (by encouraging Sunday sales where restricted and urging modernization of control state systems) and encouraging cultural acceptance of spirits. As spirits become easier to buy, as people don’t have to make a special trip out of their way to buy them, people are choosing them more often than they have in the past. But a lot of it, clearly, is coming from the increased appreciation for whiskey, and the increased innovation and choice presented by whiskey makers, both from the traditional regions and from the increasing number of craft distillers.

You can see the full report at the DISCUS website here.

IRON DRAMS

Friday, January 10th, 2014

Author - Johnnie McCormick“I can’t stand the stuff” my cab driver said as we hung a left a little fast, pressing me tight into the door. “It’s so strong.” It’s a frequently heard refrain when a whisky drinker gets talking about libations with a stranger. So it got me thinking as I rattled around the backseat. You can divide whiskies up by country or by region. Sure, you can split them up by cereal or cask type. Then again, there’s another dividing line. Most whiskies sold in the world today are still bottled at 40% ABV. And they call that the hard stuff! We may clinch a small victory whenever a classic range is refreshed and comes back at 46% and non-chill filtered, but that’s just small fry really.

Let’s face facts: some drams are bigger than others. These are Iron Drams: high-strength muscle whisky which is more alcohol in the glass than anything else. These bottles brim with vigor and potency. Be careful, and approach with ritualistic trepidation. Iron Drams demand deference because who knows what apocalyptic hellfire will befall those who dare to put that glass to their lips? We’re after aroma and flavor, not some Bill Bixby transformation. Yet the mind is primed to expect a tornado of intensity, like consuming a ball of fire with cartoonish results; the eyeballs poking out on stalks amid a fiery, scarlet complexion, smoke jets emitting from both ears.

Iron Dram Stagg2_McCormickOf course, there are technical reasons for Iron Drams. Where the distiller chooses to make their cuts during distillation, the number of distillations, through to the filling strength as the spirit enters the cask all set the wheels in motion. Maturation matters too, as the evaporation of water over alcohol will depend on the type of vessel, the condition of the oak, the position in the warehouse, and the temperature fluctuations within. Alcohol strength typically falls over time in Scotland, but hotter climates promote greater evaporation of water than alcohol, as we observe in a Kentucky rickhouse or among casks of Amrut maturing in India. Cost plays a part too: producers get many more cases from their batch if they bottle down at 40%. It’s about physics, chemistry, geography, history, and economics—it’s quite an education!

You do get a great deal of alcohol for the money though. The strongest George T Stagg release—the 2007 edition—was bottled at 72.4% ABV. That bottle contained 54.3 units of alcohol (a unit is defined in the UK as 10 ml of pure alcohol); six times as much as a $45 bottle of Moët & Chandon Imperial Brut champagne. Now that’s a celebration!

It’s not just machismo for machismo’s sake. Iron Drams should still be approached responsibly, and hopefully, they encourage people to pour smaller measures. Appreciative of the production reasons, whisky connoisseurs prefer the versatility and the opportunity to drink their drams at cask strength and find their own preferred dilution. It’s the difference between playing piano using the whole keyboard or being restricted to an octave. It feels more authentic, rather than have someone else decide what strength you’ll have your drink. The scope for experimentation is greater as you can explore the full spectrum of flavor by adjusting the water you add (an aspect taken out your hands with 40% ABV). It feels better to be in the driving seat, right?

Iron Drams – a quick guide of where to go hunting for big game.

1) George T Stagg Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whisky. Since 2002, every one of these bourbons has been bottled at a strength over 60%, with the majority over 70%. These are so strong that they even breach the TSA regulations for carrying on board an aircraft in your checked baggage.

2) Bruichladdich X4. This quadruple distilled spirit was reduced from 92% to 50% before being sold as an unaged spirit. Bruichladdich once assisted a TV show to film a thrilling publicity stunt by using their unreduced X4 spirit to fuel a Le Mans race car to roar past the distillery. Three years later and Bruichladdich X4+3 was released at 63.5%, to date the only available quadrupled distilled single malt whisky. Mind you, their Octomore and Port Charlotte releases have been no shrinking violets either.

Iron Dram Karuizawa_McCormick3) Four Roses Single Barrel Limited Editions. The strongest bourbons from Jim Rutledge and the team at Four Roses; many of these bottlings hold an ABV in excess of 60%. It’s a great way for bourbon drinkers to gain insight into the subtleties of their ten recipes of different mashbills and yeasts.

4) Karuizawa single malt whisky. Japan is the perfect place to explore lengthy maturation and high strength. The closed Japanese distillery has attracted a cult following in Europe and Japan but it requires some effort to get hold of a bottle if you live in North America. Whether it’s a vintage release or Noh bottling from Number One Drinks Company, these long aged and heavily sherried beasts typically weigh in somewhere north of 60%.

5) Scotch Malt Whisky Society. Over the past 30 years, the SMWS have delivered thousands of single cask releases for their members, bottled at natural cask strength. Other independent bottlers produce specifIron Dram Mortlach_McCormick (1)ic cask strength lines too but this is the raison d’être for the SMWS. You will find most of the Iron Drams in the young, powerful bottlings matured for less than a decade.

6) Rare Malts Selection. One of the more collectible whisky series in their distinctive livery, you might find a Mortlach at 65.3% from 1972, a Teaninich at 64.95% from 1972, or a St Magdalene at 63.8% from 1979 if you hunt hard enough. These days, these official releases are only to be found at auction or at a premium price through specialist retailers.

7) World Whiskies. Whisky importers recognize that world whiskies are most likely to be bought by established whisky drinkers looking for new experiences beyond their regular tipple. Producers are obliging by supplying some high strength beauties such as Taiwan’s Kavalan Solist series, Amrut’s Peated Cask Strength 62.8% or Portonova 62.1%, Tasmania’s Lark Single Cask bottlings, and Overeem Cask Strength releases from the Old Hobart Distillery.

8) White Dog. The fashion for unaged whiskey and rye seems to have abated though they remain popular among some bartenders (and people who bought one of those home maturation kits). As a constituent of a mixed drink, that high bottling strength will be tamed before it’s served to the customer anyway. As an individual drink, most drinkers’ curiosity is satisfied after the first few sips.

9) Aberlour A’bunadh. This classic heavily sherried whisky is approaching its 50th batch, but it was batch 33 at 60.9% that proved to be the strongest. A classic Iron Dram.

10) Islay single malts. Some people (like my cabbie) might equate peaty, smoky whiskies with being stronger, though that’s a myth. The peating of the malted barley doesn’t automatically equate to the phenolic content of the final spirit, let alone the alcohol strength. However, if you want to check out Islay’s Iron Drams, get hold of a bottle of Ardbeg Supernova 2010 at 60.1%, Laphroaig 10 year old Cask Strength, or Lagavulin 12 year old which was strongest in 2002 at 58.0%.

Have you any Iron Dram recommendations? Do you find high strength is your preference or do you avoid such liquid dynamite? What’s your opinion on the relationship between more alcohol and flavor? Do you have any favorite producers who you feel could benefit from adding an Iron Dram to their range? Jump right in!

It’s Not Like That!

Tuesday, September 24th, 2013

Ian BuxtonIan Buxton has a bit of a shout about the persistent idea that Scotch whisky marketing is all tartan and bagpipes.

I’m beginning to wonder if my fellow scribes haven’t watched too many episodes of Mad Men. It pains me to say it, but some of them appear stuck in the 1960s as far as whisky marketing is concerned.

Now I know I’m a grumpy, middle-aged (at best), white male and that automatically disqualifies me from having an opinion about anything, but I’ve got to get this off my chest, because the same tired old clichés keep appearing. It’s lazy writing and it’s neither right nor fair. This is the myth that will not die. Watch out: you’ll see it again and again.

bagpiperWhisky ads evoke “scenes brimming with tartan and sheep dogs, the chilly Scottish hills” according to one recent article. And here it is again: “the iconic image of an old man sipping neat whisky, preferably in a tartan kilt by the fireside, somewhere in the Highlands, has been used time and again by whisky brands.”

But really? When was that, then? We haven’t seen the old boy by his cozy hearth for at least 30 years! As for tartan, I flicked through the current issues of three different whisky magazines to see what I could find. Not a scrap of the stuff in sight. No kilts. No plaids. And what’s more, no old men either, no bagpipes, and only a distant glimpse of what might have been a fireside.

Perhaps it’s all to be found online and on our TV screens. So I took a look. Johnnie Walker’s film The Man Who Walked Round the World seemed a good place to start. It begins with a misty glen and a kilted piper. Maybe it’s all true then? Except that he lasts about 30 seconds, whereupon in strides a cross-looking Robert Carlyle, who snaps “Hey, piper! Shut it!” And that’s the last we see of him.

Now given that Johnnie Walker is the best-selling and most heavily advertised Scotch whisky in the world you’d imagine they’d be as guilty as anyone of living off the tartan-clad clichés that seem to obsess my colleagues. Not if their stunning TV commercials are any guide; work such as Android, Leap of Faith and Take the First Step (check them out on YouTube) are incredible pieces of film-making, far removed from the land of hills and glens. Not to mention F1 sponsorship and their stylish luxury yacht Voyager.

Maybe it’s lesser brands? William Lawson’s is a blended Scotch doing well in Europe and making huge gains in Russia’s burgeoning whisky market. Their TV work has plenty of kilts and strong, silent men. But again, check it out. It’s an unusual take on a kilt that has Sharon Stone giggling, that’s all I’ll say. And by all accounts, the New Zealand rugby authorities weren’t impressed with Lawson’s Haka commercial.

Fact is, Scotch whisky marketing moved on from tartan, bagpipes, and heather and weather years and years ago. Brands like Cutty Sark take pleasure in exploding that image, literally blowing up a cozy study, complete with decanters, leather armchair, and fireplace before going on to host parties in London’s trendy Brick Lane with a hip crowd of edgy artists, DJs, and burlesque stars.

Scotch isn’t conquering new markets, engaging with new audiences, and defining itself as the spirit of the age by living off past glories. So let’s let go of the clichés. Scotch isn’t for old men.

Except for me, obviously.

Some new whiskeys I like, and some I don’t like (part 1)

Monday, August 12th, 2013

John HansellWhiskeys might be more expensive (and perhaps harder to find) these days but, after tasting my way through some new releases, it’s pretty clear that there are still plenty of high quality whiskeys coming on the market. Here’s a run down of the ones I like, don’t like, and why.

Part 1 focuses on American Whiskeys. Part 2, which I will publish in about a week or so, will address some new single malt Scotch whisky, blended Scotch whisky, and a new Indian whisky I’ve recently tasted.

Bourbon & Tennessee Whiskeys

Four Roses Small Batch 2013Let’s start with new bourbon releases. There are quite a few of them. For those of you who enjoyed the Four Roses 2012 Limited Edition Small Batch (I did–I named it Whisky Advocate’s American Whiskey of the Year last year), I think you will like the Four Roses 2013 Limited Edition Small Batch. It  is similar in flavor profile, with a little more oak spice and a touch less honey. This whiskey is already on my short list of favorite new bourbons for 2013.

Similarly, I am equally impressed by the new Elijah Craig 21 Year Old Single Barrel review sample that I have (Barrel No. 42). Heaven Hill has discontinued the most recent 20 year old offering and has replaced it with a 21 year old release. As you will recall, two years ago I named the Elijah Craig 20 Year Old  Single Barrel (Barrel No. 3735) our American Whiskey of the Year. The new 21 year old single barrel is very similar in profile to the award-winning 20 year old with a bit more oak influence. It’s elegant, subtly complex, with some intriguing tropical fruit, and–most important of all–not over-oaked, which is something we all need to be concerned about when buying bourbons that are 20+ years in age.

Let me be clear about one thing though, regarding these Elijah Craig 21 year old single barrel offerings: I’m giving you my thoughts on whiskey from just one barrel (Barrel No. 42), and I don’t know what the other barrels are going to taste like. Hopefully, they will be similar in profile. However, after I tasted our award winning EC 20 single barrel two years ago, I tasted two other barrels after that and both–whiles still very nice bourbons–definitely showed more oak in their flavor profiles. I am hoping to taste more of the Elijah Craig 21 year old single barrels as they come out. If I do, I’ll offer my thoughts here in the comment thread. Bottom line here: the barrel that I’m reviewing (and that other writers are reviewing right now) are review samples sent directly to us from Heaven Hill. Could they have cherry picked the best barrel or barrels? It’s possible. Fair warning…

EC 21I’ve been checking out the recent Booker’s Bourbon offerings. There’s one in particular I wanted to tell you about that I think really stands out. It’s richly flavored and nicely balanced. It’s my favorite Booker’s so far this year, and it’s just about get into circulation. (I’m not sure exactly where, though. Sorry.) It’s bottled at 127.1 proof and is Batch No. 2013-4.

You may have heard rumblings of a new George Dickel Barrel Program. Well, it’s definitely a reality. I’ve always been a big fan of George Dickel (especially the Barrel Select), and when I heard that they were going to start offering older, single barrels to retail accounts for purchase, I got very excited.

At the moment, there are two different ages of single barrels available to retailers to chose from: a 9 year old (bottled at 103 proof) and a 14 year old (bottled at 106 proof). Diageo was kind enough to send me two barrel samples from each year, and I’ve just tasted them. They are delicious! If you’re a Dickel fan, then you’ll want to track down a bottle. Based on the samples I was sent, here’s my advice: go for the 9 year old if you can find one. I think they’re a little more balanced (i.e. not as oak-driven) as the 14 year old and I suspect it will cost less too! (If any of you know where to find the 9 year old, let us know. I’d like to buy one myself!)

BTEC Wheat Mash Enrty ProofThe newest release of Buffalo Trace Experimental Collection is out, and this time there are four of them. They’re all wheated bourbons and the difference between them (from a production standpoint) is the barrel entry proof (125, 115, 105, and 90). In short: if you can find yourself a bottle of one of these, give it a try. I don’t think you will be disappointed, if you enjoy wheated bourbons. (My favorite is the 90 proof entry expression.) Some will rate a 90 or more when I eventually review them formally.

STAGG JR FrontOkay, and now for the bourbon that didn’t impress me: the new Stagg Jr. by Buffalo Trace. It is, according to my press release, a younger sibling to the more mature George T. Stagg releases. There’s no age statement, but it contains whiskeys aged for 8-9 years. Yes, Stagg Jr. big and bold like the original George T. Stagg, but it is harsher and more aggressive (with the spice and oak notes) than George T. Stagg. I just don’t enjoy it.

Don’t get me wrong. George T. Stagg is certainly no wimpy whiskey. But it’s usually also incredibly complex and well-balanced. Stagg Jr.’s aggressiveness crosses to line. My advice: save your pennies and spring for the older George T. Stagg if you are choosing between the two.

The downside to single cask bottlings

Wednesday, July 31st, 2013

John HansellScotch distillers do it. Bourbon distillers do it. For many independent bottlers, it’s their livelihood: bottling whisky one barrel at a time.

This is generally thought to be a good thing by most whisky consumers. After all, those generic “bottom shelf brands” are bottlings of many barrels mingled together, not one barrel at a time. They lack individuality, distinction. And some of the best whiskies I’ve ever tasted have been single cask bottlings.

So, what’s the problem then, you ask? Well, let me use the analogy of a choir and a soloist. If you’re a great singer and you’re in a choir, you certainly will help make the choir sound better, but you’ll be lost in the crowd and not fully appreciated. You’re better off singing solo, so everyone can hear and appreciate your talents.

But what if you’re not a great singer and you sing solo? Everyone hears you. Your faults are fully exposed. You have no place to hide, no other voices to compensate for your weaknesses. And let’s face it: very few of us are great singers.

The same goes for whisky. Sure, I’ve had some amazing single cask bottlings of whiskies, and I am so glad they were able to “sing solo.” But for every amazing bottling I’ve tried, there’s probably ten I’ve tasted that would have been better “mingled” with other barrels before being bottled, to help hide their flaws or compensate for their weaknesses.

Sure, buying from a reputable producer (or independent bottler) increases the odds that you will be satisfied with your purchase, but each cask of whisky is unique in it’s flavor profile. That’s what makes them so much fun to try, but that’s also where the risk lies. It’s a two-edged sword.

Additionally, I find that the whiskies from many distilleries taste better when the bottling consists of a mix of both ex-bourbon and ex-sherry casks, not just one or the other. (Not always–I still love Glenmorangie aged exclusively in bourbon oak, for example.)

I was recently sent review samples of single casks from an independent bottler. One was distilled at Tobermory and aged in a sherry cask; the other was distilled at Longmorn and aged in a refill bourbon casks. The sherry dominated the Tobermory whisky, and the Longmorn, because of its extensive aging, was dry on the palate and could have used some sherry sweetness and fruitiness to balance the flavor profile. These are just two examples to explain my point, but it happens all the time.

Bottom line: buying a bottle of single cask whisky is exciting, but it’s also risky. If you can, “try before you buy” so you know what you’re getting. If you can’t try it first, stick with producers and bottlers you trust.

Why are you buying whisky?

Monday, July 8th, 2013

What triggered me to write this? The onslaught of whisky collections that I see people posting up on Facebook. I’ve never seen so many unopened bottles of Pappy Van Winkle, A. H. Hirsch, Ardbeg, Brora, and Port Ellen. People speak of putting whisky in their “bunker” like there’s another World War or Prohibition imminent. It’s amazing what happens when you combine passion with disposable income.

I should know. I confess that I was guilty of “Whisky OCD” myself once, but I’ve been reformed. Instead of buying whiskies and stashing them away somewhere in my house, I’m opening up my whiskies, drinking them, and sharing them with like-minded friends.

What changed my attitude on whisky? Two things. It began when I was perusing a coffee table book about an Italian whisky collector, and it included pictures of his whisky collection. Many of the bottles lost so much volume do to evaporation, the quality of the whiskies were obviously compromised. Instead of being impressed with his collection, it made me sad to see so many bottles wasted, all for the sake of amassing this enormous whisky collection.

The second thing that changed my relationship with whisky was when a very prominent whisky collector and enthusiast passed away. He died before he could even enjoy and share the 1,000 plus whiskies he had accumulated. Instead, his wife put them up for auction!

It was at that moment I decided that I’m not letting any of my whiskies go to waste. The first thing I did was stop buying whisky. The second thing I did was go through my bottles and see which ones looked like they were beginning to evaporate due to imperfect corks or metal enclosures and immediately put them on my “whiskies to drink next” list, so I could enjoy them before they go bad.

The third thing I did, which brings me back to the title of this post, is take a look at the whiskies I had  and ask myself why I bought them in the first place. It was usually for one of three reasons: it was rare, great tasting, or it had sentimental value to me.

I took all the whiskies I purchased because they were rare and immediately started opening them and using them in the many whisky tastings I was hosting at the time. I figured this might be the only opportunity these people will have to taste them. Some of you reading this might have been to one of these tastings. They weren’t necessarily great-tasting whiskies, but they were rare. I also sold some at auction because the prices people are paying for rare whiskies these days, whether they taste good or not, is ridiculous.

Then I looked at my remaining whiskies (the ones that taste great or are special to me for sentimental reasons) and mapped out a plan on what to do with them.  Some I’m sharing or giving away as gifts, some I’m saving for special occasions, and some I’m opening up for no particular reason at all–the whisky becomes the special occasion. My goal for these whiskies is to make sure they are enjoyed and consumed–preferably while I’m still alive!

Why am I taking the time to tell you about this? It’s not to talk about how many whiskies I have (or had) or what brands of whiskies I have. In fact, I intentionally did not mention quantities or brands, because that’s not the point of my post. I’m hoping you will take a step back and ask yourself why you’re buying whisky (especially if you’re buying and hoarding them like some of the pictures I’m seeing on Facebook). Is it for the right reasons, and what are those reasons?

 

Is this the Golden Age of Whisky?

Monday, April 29th, 2013

John HansellI 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?

Age statements: how important are they?

Tuesday, April 9th, 2013

JB_Distillers_InBoxYesterday I received a review sample of Beam’s new Distiller’s Masterpiece: an “extra-aged” Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey barrel finished in Pedro Ximénez(PX)  sherry casks (pictured). I put a mention of it up on Twitter and Facebook.

One person (from the U.S.) on Twitter asked me if there was an age statement on the bottle, which there isn’t. I’m just told that it is “extra-aged.” Then, another person on Twitter (not from the U.S.) tweeted: “Is it just me, or are Americans stuck on age-stated whiskies? Why do most American tweeters I follow seem to be so focused on age statements?”

Well, I don’t know if Americans are more (or less) focused on age statements than the rest of the world, to be honest. I never really thought about it. But what I did start thinking about is the importance of them. Especially now.

In a perfect world, all the whisky companies would make the perfect whisky, regardless of age, and it would always stay perfect. Age statements wouldn’t matter at all, and there would be no reason for wasting our time with them. In fact, they would be a hindrance because, in theory, the perfect whisky could include some young whiskies in the mix.

But it’s not a perfect world, is it? And age statements on whiskies are dropping like flies. Wild Turkey, Macallan, Johnnie Walker, Dalmore, etc.: it seems like everybody is jumping on the NAS (no age statement) bandwagon, choosing to give the whisky some sort of cute or clever name instead.

Why would a whisky company go NAS? That’s an easy one. It doesn’t just give them more freedom and flexibility to deal with gaps in production (can anyone say “Bruichladdich?”). It also allows them to make use of some very young whisky that’s still hasn’t reached puberty yet.

This is very important. Demand has outstripped supply, so every distiller and his brother has cranked up production, and they will be chomping at the bit to get the whisky on the market, meet demand, and bring in a healthy revenue stream. Do we expect a Scotch or Irish whiskey company to put a four-eight  year old whisky on the market and give it an age statement as such? Absolutely not. But you can be sure that they will be happy to blend the younger stuff in with the older stuff and go NAS.

This has been going on for some time now, and it will only continue to become more prevalent. The whisky companies aren’t stupid. They are forward-thinking. They aren’t going to wait until they have new legal whisky coming on the market. They are planning ahead, going NAS now in preparation.

Again, in a perfect world, none of this would matter. They would just continue making the perfect whisky. We would be happy to pay for it, and the world would be such a happy place. But for some companies–and their bean counters–the temptation to “not wait for the perfect whisky” might be just too great, and you–as the consumer–need to be aware of this going forward.

Another thing you need to watch out for is what I will call “NAS age drift.” When a producer first goes NAS with a brand, it might taste just fine. But, after time, as their ratio of old to young whisky nosedives, they might be just too tempted to “tweak” the formula, slowly and gradually so most of you won’t notice, getting more of the younger whisky into the mix.

Yes, this happens more than you think. I once had a blender, when the company the person works for came out with their first NAS release, tell me “be sure to get a bottle of the first batch because I don’t have enough stocks in my warehouse to maintain the age and quality level of the brand going forward.”

So, do age statements matter? Sadly, in a realistic world, I think they do. On the young end of the age spectrum, anyway. An age statement doesn’t guarantee quality, but it can make me feel confident that I’m not getting ripped off paying too much for a bottle of whisky with a lot of young whisky in it.

 

Your whisky predictions for 2013?

Wednesday, December 26th, 2012

So, what do you think next year will bring to the world of whisky? I think we’re going to see a continuation of what we experienced in 2012 in many ways:

  1. Whisky prices will continue to rise.
  2. NAS (no age statement) whiskies will continue to proliferate as whisky companies deal with supply issues.
  3. We’ll continue to see an increase in craft distillers making whisky in the U.S.
  4. The proliferation of new whisky distillers outside of traditional whisky producing countries (Scotland, Ireland, Canada, United States, Japan) will continue.
  5. Experimentation throughout the whisky world will continue, as companies try to come up with the next cool thing.
  6. Whisky companies will continue to try and find new ways to get their whisky into a broader (and younger) audience with flavored whiskies, whisky cocktails,  etc.
  7. Distillers will continue to expand by increasing production at an existing distillery or building a new distillery.
  8. Entrepreneurs trying to make a buck from the demand in whisky will try to come up with (and market) the next “whisky stones.”
  9. And on a personal level, people who don’t drink whisky will (unfortunately) continue emailing me, asking me how much that old bottle of [insert whiskey name here] they inherited from their recently decease family member is worth. And I will continue to tell them that I have no idea. And…
  10. We’ll try even harder to publish the best whisky magazine in the world.

There’s ten that came to mind after thinking about it for just a few minutes. How about you? What do you think will happen next year? (Serious or humorous predictions are welcome. Just keep the focus on the whisky. Don’t pick on people.)