Side thoughts on a critical and enlightening article on whisky

This article is a personal reaction on the publication of Ruben [“Whiskynotes”] Luyten’s article ‘Whisky is dying’. It hardly can be read separately from that article.

In my opinion, Ruben is giving a very 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: their part in the whisky game – i.e. exceptional but affordable whiskies – disappears. A once so rich and varied landscape narrows in two extremes: on the one hand the consumption whiskies (cheap, large batches brought on the market by the producers, more and more NAS) and on the other premium or luxurious whiskies (the content is not in balance with the fortune it costs). The geek loses himself in the expanding desert in between these 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.

And yes, even to me it brings frustrations. On one hand, so to say, because my love for whisky was born in the wake of what I have called the desert. The gap between consumption and luxe was broadening that fast, it kept one step ahead to me. So, no Port Ellens in my collection (oh yeah, I tasted a lot of them – but never bought a bottle). Fortunately, there were enough alternatives those days, like Ruben mentioned (although less than when he felt into whisky): old, solid, good whisky’s for a reasonable price. On the other hand, it’s getting difficult to follow challenging whisky tastings or whisky classes today. Whisky tastings, brought by geeks, specialists or brand ambassadors, were a good opportunity to taste the (almost) unpayable ones. Within the lineup, some cheaper (read : young but often surprising) whisky’s were offered, and some expensive and rare were presented, all together for a fair price. Nowadays, it’s getting very difficult to line up a fairly priced and good balanced tasting – in my opinion partly because of the lack in “middle class” whisky’s. But no pity : let’s shake the perspective.

For the producers, whisky is about to make a good product. And of course, some economic driven motivations come into action : prices and costs, maximizing profit, balance between supply and demand, … Furthermore, 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-Ricard (who together possesses about 2/3 of the Scottish whisky industry). 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. Some of these bottlers had a brief history, but more and more of them were new – i.e. whisky geeks who realized their dream to bottle whisky themselves. Finally this overstock, this unintentionally produced whisky, ended up in bottles for geeks. Unfortunately, now that problems of overproduction and overstock had been corrected by the producers, it’s the geek who stands in the cold : no almost unlimited stocks or forgotten casks anymore, but distilleries sell series of casks to independent bottlers (to appease them?) – that’s why all bottlers come at the same time with a Clynelish 1997 or Braeval 1991.

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. And of course there are some nuances on this point of view : a lot of (small) distilleries themselves bring single cask or small batches bottling’s on the market (within the limits of their stocks – often a heritage when they bought the distillery). I.e. BenRiach and Glendronach, Bruichladdich, Glenrothes, and Diageo’s Distillers Editions and Rare Malts. And of course, now the industry takes it over again, some of them explore new (Asia, Russia) and luxurious markets – in the end, they are profit driven companies. And yes, this second movement makes geeks staying in the cold for a second time.

Let’s shift the view a little more. Like I said, whisky industry is about blended whisky. During the seventies, when stocks were high but bringing whisky on the market low, blenders had a golden age : from an immense stock, they could just choose the best casks (the casks that were ready after 4 to 8 years) for their blending industry. What they didn’t like stayed in the warehouses. After all, one feature of aging whisky is the purifying quality : undesirable tastes and aromas seems to disappear with aging. So, old casks were in a way bad casks – casks filled with whisky which needed a longer (and economically inefficient) time to ‘ripe’. Those casks formed the basis of what geeks and whisky lovers called ‘the golden age of whisky’. We were spoiled, yes – with bad casks (which finally were ‘ready’ just in time, when whisky boomed again). So : is the quality of whisky measurable in age? I doubt. On one hand, young whisky which aged in ideal circumstances can be splendid (i.e. Laphroaig & Glendronach cask strength releases). On the other hand : not age but variety can bring up exceptional good whisky’s. Within ten releases of a (independent) Caol Ila 18, at least one will be exceptional. When the Caol Ila distillery blends all those casks into an ‘official’ Caol Ila 18, it will be outstanding, but not exceptional. And because this is the evolution nowadays, it exactly is the point where we, whisky lovers and geeks, have been spoiled. Releasing whisky more and more is in hands of the producers again. And we, whisky lovers, controversially don’t like it.

But once again, let’s return to Ruben’s view. I agree his analysis and fear. It hurts to see disappear whisky to luxurious markets when lovers scream for more. It hurts more when I, indeed, see those lovers turn them back to whisky (at least for a moment). The kind of whisky Ruben is standing for, and a lot of whisky lovers and geeks are standing for, is indeed dying. It is a pity that the industry is turning their back to the knights from the first hour. But still, there is a lot to explore in whisky. And I hope producers still have to show us their most creative and exploring side in the future (like we have seen from the Benriachs and Bruichladdich’s in the past). How big or small whisky shall be, there always will be margins to explore.

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