23 Jul 2013
Whisky is dying
Tasting notes by Ruben Luyten - Posted in * News
Or at least part of the whisky community seems ready for palliative care.
There is a huge community of whisky geeks in Western Europe, as well as the US and some other countries. We don’t mind being called geeks, after all we’re constantly looking for interesting bottles and doing anorak comparisons to find the best Tomatin 1976 for example. Of course we’re just peanuts compared to the turnover of the total whisky market, but a loyal and dedicated part of it nonetheless. A thriving community that needs enough interesting whisky to survive.
On the other hand there’s no denying the fact that we have been spoiled. The Whisky Agency started in 2008, Malts of Scotland in 2009. Both bottlers built their reputation on excellent 1970’s whisky. Very high quality for reasonably high prices. Even the 1960’s – though rare already – were still within the reach of enthusiasts back then. In two or three years, this situation has changed dramatically. Old whisky is getting thin on the ground (I’m not talking about the ultra-premium expressions here). There are a couple of reasons behind this change:
- Stocks of old whisky are really low. They were already low and now bottlers are struggling to find available casks. On top of this, the 1980’s have been a period of crisis for the whisky industry, so there comes a point in time where even the distilleries that survived the crisis will have to deal with at least a decade of significantly lower production. One, maybe two years ago, suddenly the 1970’s expressions didn’t appear on the market as they did before, and 1980’s were rare anyway so that brings us immediately to the 1990’s. This is sold as premium whisky now.
- New markets like Russia, Taiwan, Japan and other Asian countries have suddenly discovered whisky. Not only are they buying / collecting long gone bottles (old Macallan springs to mind), they are also bringing a lot of new bottlings of old whisky to their countries. Old Pulteney 40 years old, Bunnahabhain 40 years old, Highland Park vintages, the new GlenDronach 1968… they are all aimed at these markets, with prices that shout “prestige” rather than “value for money”.
- Scots are smart people. They are holding back the old whisky that is left, as they hope to sell most of it to emerging markets. Of course, why would they sell it to European geeks who are complaining that old whisky is getting too expensive? New Port Ellen releases for instance are very rare and they have suddenly become too expensive for enthusiasts, even from independent bottlers. Most closed distilleries are going down this path, and it’s not just old whisky. Bottlers can hardly find medium-aged Islay whisky these days.
To overcome this situation of a currently booming whisky market with high demand and stocks that haven’t been continuous, more and more (healthy) distilleries and bottlers are focusing on No Age Statement releases or simply younger expressions. I’m not totally judging this, I’ve liked most of the Decades concepts that were launched by several distilleries and I’m convinced there is good whisky made in the 1990’s. Lately we’ve been discovering young beauties from distilleries that had previously been overlooked. In fact some parts of the whisky spectrum have not been investigated enough and independent bottlers will surely present us with nice whisky. But lately I’ve made a couple of observations related to this:
- The new GlenDronach single casks releases used to contain several casks from the 1970’s, 80’s and 90’s. The latest batch contained one 1971 cask, all the rest were 1990’s until 2002 vintages.
- We’ve seen Teaninch 1973 and Glencadam 1973 from German bottlers lately. That’s about it from the 1970’s.
- At a recent presentation of the new Gordon & MacPhail bottlings for Belgium, there were four 1990’s releases and three 2000’s. G&M used to be a reference for old whisky.
I’m worried that the average quality (and individuality) is getting lower, simply because we’re looking for complexity and age matters big time in this respect, no matter what distilleries are trying to tell us. In my view, modern whisky is always well-made but usually less interesting / individual as well (the outcome of the thorough optimization and quest for consistency of the industry). I don’t have conclusive evidence for this, but my general impression is that I’m seeing far less 90+ drams than before. Even the rare 1970’s vintages that do appear, don’t seem as stunning as they once were.
This also worries me for whisky enthusiasm in general. Personally I’ve always bought much more whisky than I had been drinking. A lot of these were ‘last chance’ purchases, i.e. the kind of whisky profile that would not appear on the market for a long time. When I buy a bottle of Scapa 2001 on the other hand (just a random example), the reason would be its instant drinking quality and not its future value. I’m not talking about investment value here, I’m simply saying that I don’t want to secure my share of Scapa 2001 for the future, contrary to Brora 30 or BenRiach 1976 for instance. I will only buy as much Scapa 2001 as I’m planning to drink right now (virtually none), whereas I’ve bought multiple bottles of my other examples. I’ll tell you even more: I’ve bought surprisingly little whisky altogether during the last few months (only counting new releases). There simply weren’t that many whiskies that made me grab my wallet. I feel that part of what got me interested in whisky is now disappearing.
As a side note, I’ve seen a lot of friends on Facebook talk about beer lately (Geuze and others), all sorts of premium gins and tonics, rum has been popular for a long time as well… In fact I’m planning to set up a second website about a different drink as well, more about that later. We could blame the hot weather for this change of interest but maybe something else is breeding. Whisky just doesn’t offer the value for money it used to.
Is whisky dying? The kind of whisky that I’ve come to adore, definitely is. It may seem contradictory in times of a flourishing worldwide whisky industry, but indeed there is a good chance that the Golden Age of whisky anorakism as we knew it, is coming to an end. The Times They Are a-Changin’.
Disclaimer: this may come accross as an exaggerated opinion. Sure, it’s based on my personal situation and my particular whisky community – maybe you drink younger, more standard drams already and you won’t notice the change. In any case I don’t expect my interest in whisky (or this website for that matter) to end completely anytime soon, but it is a fact that I’ve been worrying about the current state and the near future of the whisky world.
I hardly ever ask for comments, but this time, please share your personal views and comments!