Single malt whisky - tasting notes

23 Jul 2013

Whisky is dying

Posted by: Ruben Luyten In: * News

Or at least part of the whisky community seems ready for palliative care.

 

<start rant>

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’.

<end rant>

 

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!

Whisky is dying Ruben Luyten 2013-07-23
  • davide-angelshare.it

    Very good picture of the situation. I don’t think this is pessimistic, it’s just what’s happening. On the other hand true that scots (french/british) are not stupid but I think they are betting to much on linear growth of the market, that’s not sure (china starts to slow..). Distilleries (e.g. Caol Ila) must be more grateful to some IB that made their product “famous” and not being too selfish…market will change one day.

  • http://www.whiskyisrael.co.il Gal(WhiskyIsrael)

    Whisky is not dying, but as prices of whisky are indeed sky rocketing, and the new markets can devour any kind of stock no matter how crazy the pricing is , more and more spirit (and whisky lovers) are drawn towards other aged spirits which are not as popular or “hyped” such as : Aged rum, Tequila, Gins , Calvados etc.

    It’s really hard to buy aged whisky for “normal” prices these days, and while a lot more people are buying whisky, distilleries and brands are under pressure to release more NAS (read: younger whisky) which is profitable, and where stocks are abundant relatively…

    As a geek i am not going to be forwarding my passion into rum since whisky is expensive, but I can see myself buying less, and indeed also trying to buy some whisky we won’t be able to afford.

  • Barrelista

    As a (relatively) young palate in the world of whisky, I have reconciled myself with the fact that I won’t be witnessing a ‘Golden Age of Whisky’ as enthusiasts did in the previous decades, unless my employer would decide to give me a massive raise, or unless my employer would be corporate distiller company enjoying ever growing resale margins. I am dependent on experienced and good-hearted connoisseurs – and fortunately Belgium counts many – sharing a dram once in a while to get a glimpse of what whisky tasted like in the days. And I have come to terms with the fact that my whisky collection will be mainly containing younger expressions from more recent vintages, except for some bottles we want that badly that we buy them together with fellow enthusiasts (maybe that’s the future?). Anyway, what I have learned so far from these evolutions is in line with what Ruben argues above: I will be saving up to put away some bottles of whiskies to my liking for future degustation, as I don’t look forward to pay 150€ for a 1997 Bowmore – to name but one favourite – within a few years.

  • OlivierJK

    The irony being of course that it’s these “Anoraks” that are responsible for creating the aura and legend around such distilleries as Brora and Port Ellen. As soon as the Geeks aren’t lauding those brands anymore, there is a danger there will be less people scrambling to buy them (perhaps I’m being naive…). If I was at any of these leading distilleries, I’d be inclined to pull one or two old casks aside, and keep them for the Geek market at a lower price, just to keep the legend alive and thus the prices for the rest of their products high. They can even do so under Pseudonyms much like Gordon & McPhail’s Secret Stills range, just to keep the speculators away. How that’s done I’m not sure, when demand is indeed so high, however it could be smart long term thinking, to avoid the bubble of interest bursting in the short term. Just a little pie in the sky thought….

  • MARS

    Indeed, it’s a very good picture of the situation.

    It start to
    be difficult to find a bottle that I really want to buy. Of course,
    they are still the bottles that I like and who are widely available and
    cheap (laphroaig 10 years CS, Glendronach 15 years old, glendronach CS).
    But nothing is saying that the quality will be as good in the future as
    it is now!

    That said, we still can drink the huge stock that we buyed.

    I
    started to buy and drink rhum long before whisky but it’s not really my
    cup of tea. For the moment, I am mainly buying and drinking
    wine(bordeaux to not name it)

  • Adam H

    Ruben, great post and well-said. This lines up with what we’ve been discussing at LAWS lately. To wit, we usually have a “Latest Must-Try Whiskey” automatically selected on our site, but just yesterday (not coincidental timing I guess) we switched that to say: “Nothing.” There simply haven’t been any whiskies that fit the bill in a long time, at least none that aren’t outrageously overpriced or impossibly unfindable.

    I don’t think what you’ve written is exaggerated.

  • WhiskyNotes

    Thanks for all your views, people. Much appreciated. Be sure to follow my Facebook stream as well, as interesting comments are being placed there as well: https://www.facebook.com/WhiskyNotes

  • Johanna

    Here’s the thing Reuben, it’s hard to feel sorry for someone who has admitted to a stash of whiskies such as Brora 30 and Benriach 1976 and God knows what else. Without a doubt these are the grand cru of the whisky world and you will not lack for choice on birthdays and anniveraries for some years to come. But why does this mean that your everyday dramming is diminished?

    Over the past week I’ve enjoyed nightcaps of Karuizawa 1981 Cocktail Series, Glendronach c/s, Laphroaig c/s, Weller 12yo and Glengoyne 12yo. Only the first of these is an endangered species but this does not mean that the rest are not great whiskies in their own right; each one of those drams provided me with deep satisfaction and contemplative reflection at the end of the day.

    I have to wonder sometimes if the problem is the myriad of -professed “enthusiasts” trying to one-up each other on a near daily basis. You see I love whisky and that means that I am more than happy to have a dram of Johnnie Walker Black if that’s what’s on offer. I am happy to have had the first release of Brora 30 OB and made sure to savour every drop, but I somehow doubt it would have seemed as special if I would have had an unending supply over the past ten years.

  • maaatin

    If this is the situation – older and very good whiskies become unaffordable – there is only one remedy against that. We – the geeks – should concentrate on these distilleries that even today produce good quality spirit. Distillers who are sticking to “old-fashioned” quality measures in production. Distillers who believe that quality counts more than efficiency, who know that a good product needs time.

    What keeps me happy in this situation are producers that stick to old production recipies from the 60ies (wash with only 5% alcohol insteadt of the maximum available over 8% alcohol). Ask for that in Campbeltown. ..

    Other Distilleries redrain the mash a second time through the bed of grist to get absolutely clear worts – resulting in a perfect “Kirsch”- eau de vie smelling new make . Guess how that does affect the mature whisky! Such “fruity” spirit receiver you may find in Fife…

    So keep on loving whisky – but keep on loving the “right” whiskies!

  • noob

    Perhaps now it is a time of selecting carefully what we buy and from whom.

    I do value distilleries that have kept a lid on prices (as much possible).

    or IB who do not overcharge (i have no relationship with but whiskybrocker does have normal prices)

    ignore most OB releases

    try distilleries that are not so well known..
    I am knew to this hobby but I can see what you are talking about in the last year.
    However i think there are distilleries out there who make nice whisky and are not too expensive. See Caol Ila, Glenfarclas, Bladnoch etc etc

  • Bart

    yes, whisky’s “high” as you’ve known it is probably dead. I on the other hand, with only 20 months of whisky mileage, never knew anything else than steep prices. And I am one of those who is spending his last dime every month to be able to still buy some quality PE or Brora before it sells out. Am I to blame? No, I’m only a passionate offer-demand victim. This is just pure logic to me. Some amazing distilleries closed in 83. If you still want some drops now, you will pay for it, simple as that. It will never come back. Same for those ’60 & ’70 stash. The more years go buy ( ;-) ), the more of them will disappear in a collection or in glasses. Pure economy to me. It really is now or never for some, especially if you’re a very passionate beginner.

  • Lukas

    I’m now for 20 years into whisky and I could have written just about what you wrote now maybe 8-10 years ago. This was the time when the greatest whiskies I tried yet disappeared from the market or became just too expensive (like Ardbeg from the 60ies and 70ies, Broras from the 70ies, Bowmore from the 60ies or Springbank from the 60ies and early 70ies). But then suddenly Benriach appeared with their great 68-76 bottlings and later the whiskyfair and then all the German bottlers with their very good and fairly priced old whiskies came into the market. The hobby was really fun again. The whiskies were not as good as the old Arbegs etc. but still great whiskies. And now the change you described definitely takes place. But I see already light again. There is very good younger whisky on the market, that I don’t buy only to drink today. I think the quality of most of the young IB Bowmores (around 2000) or the official Springbank/Longrow or even Bruichladdich is just stunning and much better then it was from the mid 70ies to the late 80ies. So I’m not so afraid of the whiskyfuture. It will be different, but for sure still fun!

  • WhiskyNotes

    It is true that during the last decade, some things have slowly disappeared. I’ve never been able to buy old Ardbeg. It is a constant process and only simple logic that the 1960’s and 1970’s wouldn’t last forever. My point is that the 1980’s have been pretty afwul – less interesting whisky has been produced and most of the good stuff is gone already. Lukas’ examples of modern whisky are definitely great but I can also give you ten middle-aged samples from different distilleries (mostly Speyside I’m afraid) that are practically the same. Which leaves us with some excellent whisky but also a big pile of similar, rather immature whisky.

    Personally (and I know I’m speaking for a lot of friends, but I guess that’s just my particular community) I’ve always preferred older whisky, alongside the younger ones which I’ve always appreciated. It looks like this category of whisky will disappear really soon (or become out of reach completely) and it will take at least a decade before we can enjoy the wonderful profile of a 30 year old whisky again. It will still be expensive but I hope it will be accessible again.

    There will be no more whipped cream for the next ten years. But hey, the strawberries are better than before.

  • DrinkingWhisky

    I enjoy reading your notes, and to an extent I agree with your rant. In my opinion, two things are happening at the same time, which fortify each other, resulting in whisky becoming more expensive.

    First, lower stock. This partly is the result of the whisky crisis in the 80s, and partly due to expansion to emerging markets like China, Russia, etc. Less supply and more demand: prices go up. Can you blame the distilleries for that? No. I guess I would do the same if I owned a distillery: make profit while you can, it’s still business after all. Even if that includes bringing more NAS whiskies on the market. Is NAS whisky necessarily worse than whisky with age statement? No, but as with every whisky: it depends on which bottle you buy.

    Second, and that is what worries me more, is the investment bubble. I personally buy bottles I know I’m going to empty at some point in my life – though I’m starting to realize I have to get very old to achieve that ;-). I’ve been thinking about investing in whisky, but until now I’m actually quite reluctant to do so, since I have the feeling that the market is overheating. More and more I see that prices are being paid for whiskies of which I am certain that they’re not worth it. And investing in something of which you know it’s not worth it to begin with is a bad idea. Take a recent example: the Glenlivet Alpha. It’s all marketing. 3350 bottles produced, original price around 90 euros, but hardly any bottle makes it to the store, and within a few days after the introduction you can find it on auction sites for more than 200 euros. In my opinion that’s ridiculous, but apparently there is a market for it. But that’s what’s happening with whisky in general: instead of being a commodity to enjoy, it’s becoming an investment commodity.

    Thus, I agree it’s becoming more and more difficult to find the gems which offer value for money. On the other hand: it might be hard to find the gems these days, but I think that has always been the case: not all whisky produced in the 50s is great, nor whisky from the 60s, 70s, or 00s. That’s also what makes it a nice hobby: finding the gems between it all.

    So, whisky is not dying, but I think it’s a bubble (caused for a great deal by investors) which is about to burst. But I’ll keep doing what I’ve done for a couple of years now: only grab my wallet for a whisky of which I think it’s worth it. Finding those, that’s part of the fun after all :-)

  • Nate

    I know we’ve all had this conversation several times but allow me to be the guy who raises this point:
    Young whisky can be amazing. I like the Port Ellen 12th release. I like the 10YO Signatory Scottish Wildlife better. That Laphroaig 10YO OB from c. ’68, I enjoy more than the last time I had the 30YO OB. &c &c
    I think there’s a far greater emphasis on quality at distilleries in the last few years than in the days of blends ruling supreme which lead to such a surplus of old whisky in recent years. I see less of the “Abv. per ton of barley” throughput mentality these days; see: bruichladdich , the floor maltings at BenRiach, the myriad new craft distilleries (please let’s look at Kavalan and Amrut as shining examples and not open up THAT can of worms).
    Sure there’s a lot of crap oak and the indies are drying up, but I think in five years I’ll be happier drinking 10YO OB one-off single-casks than I am today drinking G&M 30YO Longmorns that are merely fine.

  • Stefaan

    After over 12 years sipping Malt Whisky and developing an increasingly expensive palate, single malt prices are skyrocketing. Not so much the 40+ year whisky is a real source of trouble, rather finding a decent daily dram you don’t need to hide from ignorant friends or 90+ points bottles that don’t require a second mortage. Increased demand is the fuel, but initiatives such as whiskyauction provide with the oxigen. Look how distilleries and IB align the price of new bottlings with averages or highs on the auction. No hard feelings for Mr Kruger, he gave us a forum to obtain and exchange hard-to-find bottles and in that sense I’m grateful it exists. But the collateral damage is monsterous on prices of new bottles. And the high prices are attracting a bunch of parvenus trying to get their grain of the whisky market booming world wide. The high segregation of stocks, the individual retention of stocks, the margin-on-margin of trading the casks… What to expect but high prices?

    Can you blame all concerned to squeezing out the money they can? From a mere mercantile point-of-view, probably not. Wouldn’t you? But alternatively, I don’t feel like this market is sustainable. What goes up so quickly has no structural grounds to keep it that high. What to expect? A new crash à la 1983?
    A funny thing happening in this context is the ‘friendly’ reviewing of whiskies. Some bloggers never find anything wrong a bottling of brand X. Are some geeks going commercial? And wannabe geeks are scoring 95+ on half a daily dram on WhiskyBase. So the input of the industry into the single malt community leaves too much to be desired in quality and the inflation in – let’s say – bizarre opinions goes through the roof. Could it just be the geek days are over and single malts becomes a mainstream product with a much advanced level of industrialisation and a much lower level of ‘lucky’ casks producing the much craved scottish nectar we are prepared to award a 90+ score? A larger audience with a much more heterogenous population regarding their actual knowledge and/or malt milage needing a more commercial approach?

    On a personal note I’ve started to look into other distillates such as rum and gin; It’s interesting too. It’s nowhere near the complexity you can/could get from a whisky, but it’s nowhere near the price either. And of course I remain into my still favourite single malt whisky, but much more in tastings and much less in buying full bottles.

  • Chris

    As I’ve only been into whisky for a few years, and have little extra money to spend on bottles at all, I really can’t speak to the quality of releases over the last 10 years. That said, I think the changes within the whisky industry are simply a natural occurrence. The glut of older whisky that resulted from the crash in the early 1980s was going to run out at some point. Yes prices are rising, but it seems to me that whisky has been too cheap for a long time. Finally, I must admit that I struggle to sympathize with someone complaining that they can’t find as many top quality bottlings from the 1960s and 1970s anymore. Those stocks weren’t going to last forever. Judging by your tasting notes, you’ve had relatively easy access to some of the best whisky that has ever been made, but it’s unfair to judge the entire industry (especially in its current state of flux) against the very best ever made. Love the blog, even though it hurts to read about long-gone bottles, most of which never made it to me in the States!

  • Ricardo

    The fact that many distilleries are suddenly releasing NAS whisky says a mouthful (although some of them are quite good).

  • Jonas Pothelm

    In my opinion, Ruben you aregiving an accurate image for what is going on in the whisky market from the point of view of die-hard whisky lovers, so called whisky geeks. The seventies
    – more than he sixties – were a time of overproduction due to economic crisis. Large stocks of whiskies were resting in dark and damp warehouses. Until whisky boomed again in the nineties and later, when these almost forgotten stocks were
    retrieved. Nowadays, these stocks are foremost gone, but the demand is still rising. The whisky industry rather sees the rare casks left be sold at record prices than give them to the real lovers – rather ‘prestige’ than ‘value for money’. Because of this, whisky lovers or geeks understand this evolution as a perverted gesture: there part in the whisky game – i.e. exceptional but affordable whiskies – disappears. They lose themselves in the expanding desert in between two extremes: pay the priceless, or descend to ‘supermarket whiskies’. None of both is a solution to for the curious and adventurous whisky lovers among us. But from a historic point of view
    whisky was (and still is) about blended whisky. Not the single malt whisky, but the blends are the focus of companies as Diageo and Pernod. It was not different during the booming sixties. Or during crisis rich seventies, when overstock was produced. In the nineties, when whisky started to be popular again, whisky producers were that happy when independent bottlers started to buy that overstock. Finally this overstock, this unintentionally produced whisky, ended up in bottles for geeks. In other words : due to economic crisis and overproduction, whisky geeks found a playfield in the margins of the core whisky business. And now, when business have corrected this – from their point of view – spill of overproduction, geeks loses their precious playfield of rare, exceptional single cask bottling’s. Read my whole reaction :http://jonaspothelmwhisky.wordpress.com/2013/07/29/side-thoughts-on-a-critical-and-enlightening-article-on-whisky/

  • Basidium

    Three years ago I became a Scotch junkie. As a seasoned man about to embark on my happy golden years, I became a hoarder and launched myself into all things Single Malt Scotch.

    An active reader, and quick learner, I have had glimpses of what you are saying throughout my young journey. More NAS using up stocks of ancient wonders. Reports of rampant growth at distilleries to meet demand from the new wealth being spent by the growing middle class in developing countries – China with a middle class predicted to eclipse three times the entire USA population in less than a decade. The signs are everywhere: “Demand for malting barley ‘set to outstrip what Scotland can supply’” (Scotsman.com)

    Demand and the natural greed associated with meeting it – could destroy the very terroir which makes the Scotch spirit so special to us.
    For a man of modest means, I am realizing that I may have arrived a day late and a dollar short to enjoy the same quality of spirit than those who came before me.

  • FJ

    The whisky industry is on the best way to dig it´s own grave – again ! With companies, prioritising maximum profit not quality (what for example happened with good old Macallan ?) the market will one day has passed its zenith. Hopefully this will have a cleansing effect….

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1644 notes by Ruben

WhiskyNotes - Ruben LuytenThis blog is my personal collection of impressions, written while searching for the ultimate single malt whisky.