In Depth: Whisk(e)y Reflections 2010-2019

Last year, I read an excellent article by David of RareBird 101 that suggests that we are currently living in the New Golden Age of Wild Turkey. This article inspired me to take a step back and do my own reflection on two major categories of whisk(e)y that I know very well: single malts and bourbon/rye. In a market that is attracting more new fans than ever before, I’m uniquely positioned to write about how the market has changed over the course of this decade because I’ve been closely following it the entire time.

How has each market changed over the past decade and how should we define this era in whisk(e)y that has seen unprecedented growth alongside dwindling stocks and increased prices? What has gotten worse over the past 10 years? What has gotten better? Does the past give us any insight on what’s to come? Let’s explore each category in more detail.

Single Malts

Age Statements

By the beginning of the decade, NAS single malts had already established themselves as a part of the whisky market. The difference between then and now is that most of these early decade NAS releases were excellent despite the lack of age statement. From Macallan Cask Strength and Aberlour A’bunadh to Glenmorangie Astar and Auchentoshan Vallinch, I entered this decade with a simple NAS mindset. I didn’t care about new releases being NAS as long as the whisky still tasted good. As the years progressed, however, NAS releases started tasting noticeably younger to me. Young whisky isn’t an issue as long as it doesn’t taste young. Many recent NAS releases have that spirity, unrefined profile that would have likely mellowed out with age. Coupling young whisky with a lower abv makes for a flavorless end product that I suppose might appeal to new or casual whisky drinkers. If you’ve been around for a while, though, you know what NAS used to taste like. We can do better.

Some brands such as The Balvenie, Glenfarclas, and Glenfiddich hold true to their age statements but that, too, comes at a price: an increased price. When does a 12 year old single malt no longer feel like a good value? That number used to be $60 for me. Now, $60 is the norm for many brands. Some have bumped the price of their 12 year old expression up and added a lower priced NAS bottling to satisfy the “under-$50” market. Other brands have simply stuck to their price increases. The bottles seem to fly off the shelves regardless of price so I see no reason why distilleries wouldn’t continue to do what they’re doing. It’s very clearly a sellers’ market.

Pricing and rebranding

Perhaps the most noticeable change over the past 10 years is pricing. The surge in demand has directly impacted the way the major brands are pricing their products. I can’t think of very many bottles on the shelf these days that are within 10-15% of their 2010 pricing. It’s not reasonable to assume that prices would remain flat in a booming market. However, there have been price increases upwards of 200-400% or more this decade. These price hikes were implemented in different ways depending on the brand.

Some brands increased prices without warning. I bought a bottle of Macallan 25 Year for a bottle split somewhere around 2014 for $595. It was the last one in that store. When I went back to that same store several weeks later, the price for that same bottle of Macallan 25 was $1,499. There was no advanced warning of this increase. The Balvenie starting doing the same thing. Their 21 Year Portwood went from being a $130 bottle to being $160 to being over $200 in the proverbial blink of an eye.

Other distilleries tried to hide their price increases behind “relaunching” their entire standard range. There are too many to count, but brands like Old Pulteney, Glenrothes, Highland Park, and Balblair completely revamped their core lineups. They would discontinue part or all of their standard ranges and replace it with similar (or younger) bottles that cost more. Glenrothes and Balblair, two brands that were always known for vintage releases, rebranded themselves with standard age statement ranges. In the case of Balblair especially, their 25 Year old age stated expression is a 500% increase over their 25 year old vintage year bottles. Overnight, they went from being one of the best values in well aged scotch to one of the most expensive.

Rebranding and increasing prices is always going to ruffle feathers with existing consumers but the distilleries are smart. There are so many newcomers each year to this market that it doesn’t really matter what the prices are. I always think about entry into whisky like a matriculation year at a university. When you enroll in an academic program in 2019, you are bound to the graduation requirements set for that year even if they change in 2020. Similarly, if you get into whisky in 2013, the baseline pricing in your mind is always going to be the prices you paid that year. If they go up, you know there was a price increase because you’re clearly paying more. However, if you just starting drinking whisky in 2019, you have no prior point of comparison so the prices are what they are. Getting into this before the boom has afforded me the unfortunate position of becoming priced out of many of my favorite expressions.

Brand Selection

That’s not to say it’s all doom and gloom in the Scotch world. Many brands have established (or reestablished) themselves in the market and are now commonly available on shelves including Craigellachie, Aultmore, Mortlach, Wolfburn, and Kilchoman. Legendary distilleries like Brora, Port Ellen, and Rosebank are reopening. There’s a ton of investment going on all over Scotland to increase both production and tourism. When you think of a “tourist” destination, the remote Scottish Highlands may not come to top of mind, yet people flock in droves to Speyside each year as part of the whisky tourism industry. To say that the things are booming is a vast understatement.

To the whisky nerds like myself, many of these “new to the shelf” brands are putting out products that check off all the right boxes. Craigellachie and Aultmore both came on the scene with full aged stated ranges that were non-chill filtered by default. Other brands have upped the proof to NFC levels and have done away with caramel coloring. Bunnahabhain did just that in early 2011. All their products got bumped from 40% ABV to 46.3% and were no longer chill filtered. Best of all, the prices barely increased. Bunnahabain remains one of my favorite brands because of this.

In addition to OB ranges, there are a ton of independent bottlings out there that give consumers access to lesser known distilleries, unusual cask types/finishes, and older whisky for less money.

Single Casks and Vintage

Speaking of independent bottlers, one of my favorite aspects of IBs is single cask whisky. Many distilleries have caught on in recent years and have truly embraced single cask releases. Glendronach, Highland Park, and Glen Garioch come to mind first but there are a lot of single casks coming out as official (albeit limited edition) releases. Even Macallan has gotten in the game, though they’re clearly selling single cask whisky for a premium market. Despite the occasional insanely-priced release, I’ll always take more cask strength, single cask bottles out in the market. It means that distilleries are at least in tune with the market enough to realize that there is high demand for these types of products.

Bourbon/Rye

Allocation

The most noticeable difference to anyone that has been into bourbon for more than a few years is that the 2010 mainstays of liquor store shelves are now extremely difficult to find. When an item is put on allocation, the assumption is that a bottle is so limited that a store can only order a certain amount in a given time period. Some allocations are monthly while other expressions only come out once a year. Some are more regional than others. I can find Buffalo Trace and Blanton’s with minimal effort where I live. In some states, finding a bottle of Blanton’s is nothing short of a miracle. How much of this shortage is manufactured by the distilleries to increase demand? It’s hard to say. Whether or not the supply issues are exaggerated or not, the demand is very real.

Even as production numbers steadily climb to attempt to meet demand. there are simply not enough bottles to go around. Look at the 2018 release of one of my favorite bourbons, George T. Stagg. At 37,111 bottles, one would think that this would be easy to find given the sheer number of bottles produced. However, let’s put this number in context.

A 2014 report published by The Capitolist estimates that in the 35 US states with public data available, there are 49,414 liquor stores. A very unscientific extrapolation of that data to 50 states puts that number at over 71,000 liquor stores in the US. That means that in a perfectly fair world, if every store in the country asked for one bottle of GTS, half the stores wouldn’t get one. Of course, this isn’t a perfectly fair world. We all know that stores that do more sales volume with Sazerac get more limited releases. Chains like Total Wine get case after case of limited releases nationwide as a reward for selling enough Fireball to give every US citizen a steady case of heartburn. Smaller stores don’t stand a chance anymore.

Add to the mix international allocations and stock that the distillery holds back for marketing/sample/event purposes and all of a sudden, that 37,111 bottles doesn’t seem like very much at all. It all adds to the allure when someone finds a rare release in a store.

What if you can’t find a certain limited bottle but REALLY want one? Not to worry…

Rise of the Secondary Market

I made it a point to call this section the rise of the Secondary Market because it has been around long before the social media era. I can’t accurately speak to a time before digital communication but as long as people could communicate electronically, there has been plenty of private selling and trading of bottles. The earliest posts on the Straight Bourbon forums and whisk(e)y-related Yahoo! Groups allude to sales of high end bottles. Going back even further, I’d imagine the same was happening in Usenet groups as far back as the early 1980s. As usual, the nerds were doing it long before the rest (I use “nerd” as a term of endearment. I’m the biggest nerd I know).

In my article about the future of the so-called “Whisky Bubble“, I alluded to the fact that this market boom coincided with the prevalence of social media. Never before has it been so easy to acquire hard to find bottles. I hate the term, but even true “unicorn” bottles show up fairly regularly if you follow along for long enough. When I say “unicorn”, I don’t mean Blanton’s or Weller 12 Year or even this year’s Pappy 15 Year. I mean Green Glass Lawrenceburg Pappy 23, VVOF from the 1940s-1960, Old Crow Chessmen pieces, and other historical gems. They can all be yours if the price is right. And that’s a big IF. With low supply comes extremely high demand.

With pricing the way it is these days, as long as you’re willing to spend some big bucks, you can own any bottle you can think of. Prices continue to rise year after year and some brands are rising faster than others. For every buyer out there on the secondary market, there is an eager seller happy to make a 100%-2000% return on their investment.

In late 2019, a sudden shutdown of some of the largest “underground” secondary market groups had the community reeling. Of course, like a pest that won’t go away, when one group is shut down, 2 or 3 pop up in its place. I personally think private unauthorized sales of liquor will continue to see its challenges and get harder until legislation catches up nationwide. The Vintage Spirits Act in Kentucky is a good first step but there are so many other hurdles to overcome. The main reason private sales of alcohol are forbidden aside from taxes is safety. How can you say with certainty that a bottle you’re buying from a private party doesn’t contain something harmful or deadly inside?

As always, buyer beware…

Single Barrel Select

The concept of “single barrel select” or “store picks” is another example of something that has been around for a long time but is only gaining nationwide attention thanks to the rising interest in American whiskey this decade. Could you imagine single barrel Pappy Van Winkle 23 Year bottled specifically for one retailer? In 2019, it’s almost impossible to fathom the concept. Before bourbon became a global phenomenon, these single barrel selections were happening fairly regularly if you knew where to look. These days, single barrel programs are so saturated with requests that many of them are limiting the amount of barrels that can be purchased. Other distilleries have shut down their programs entirely while their dwindled stocks age further.

There are two main ways the barrel selection process happens. The first is a pilgrimage directly to the distillery to try whiskey straight from the barrels (sometimes right where they lay in the rickhouses). Depending on the distillery, you might try a handful of pre-selected barrels or you might be able to keep tasting until you find exactly what you’re looking for. Barrels selected this way make me feel like the best of the best was chosen.

The second and significantly more common method these days is for a distillery to send out a handful of samples for a retailer to choose from. This method still has the potential to provide stores with some great single barrels to choose from. My only concern is that the barrels that are chosen on site are likely not also being sampled out to stores nationwide. The barrels at the distillery are likely better than the ones available remotely.

No matter how a single barrel select comes to be, I love the wide availability of store picks these days. These affordable bottles often make up the bulk of the new whiskey purchases I make.

Sourcing

Sourcing is one of the more interesting topics to examine at the close of this decade. It’s fairly common knowledge that whiskey bottled under a certain label or with a certain brand name might be distilled and aged at a completely different distillery. In short, the label might not tell the whole story.

At the beginning of this decade, sourcing was generally seen as an evil taboo. The greatest offender was the infamous MGP (Ingredients, Inc.), one of the largest whiskey distillers in America. Perhaps it was the idea that sourced products were disingenuous and therefore not on the same playing field as products produced in-house. No matter the reason, sourced whiskey has been the backbone of scores of startup US distilleries. It has allowed the American craft whiskey industry to get on its feet and make a true impact on the market at large.

These days, ask those same people about 12-14 year old MGP whiskey and you’ll be met with nothing but adoration and respect for a company that has clearly always been quite good at making whiskey. What has changed? The availability of aged stocks comes to mind. Many producers bought MGP barrels at 4-6 years old earlier in the decade. As it turns out, that 4 year old stuff tastes REALLY good at 12 years old.

Love it or hate it, sourcing, contract distilling, and NDPs (Non-Distiller Producers) have always been a part of bourbon dating back to the 1800s. The microscope of the internet and social media is merely shining a spotlight on something that has always been there.

Bars and Cocktail Culture

This topic could really apply to all whisk(e)y but I decided to leave it under the umbrella of bourbon/rye since I think these whiskies are the driving force in US-based cocktail culture.

Bartenders have embraced whiskey like never before in the 2010s. Rather than mixing away the flavor of a whiskey in a cocktail, bars these days carefully curate drinks that enhance the flavor of the base spirit. Classic drinks like the Old Fashioned, Manhattan, and Sazerac are experiencing a true renaissance and bartenders are extremely well-educated on the subject of whiskey.

Furthermore, the number of bars solely dedicated to whiskey has skyrocketed this decade. This increase in bar interest in whiskey means that they’re now fighting for another piece of an already small “allocated bottle” market. Companies like Sazerac are happy to see allocated bottles in the hands of bars and restaurants because it means that more people will try their limited expression, increasing brand awareness. Is there anyone who doesn’t know what Pappy Van Winkle is these days?

What does the future hold?

Many forecasts project growth in the whiskey market for at least 10-15 more years. Does that imply another decade or two of increased demand and increased prices? As much as I think that’s unsustainable, I would have never predicted in 2010 the insatiable demand we see today. I regularly watch bottles of bourbon and scotch sell privately for thousands of dollars. As someone who looks for value in whisk(e)y, the money trading hands for a consumable liquid is jaw dropping. Of course, people can spend their money as they please and I certainly can’t stop anyone from buying something if they think the price is worth paying.

All that increased whisk(e)y production a few years ago is also going to start coming of age. In fact, we are already there in the US. Whiskey laid down 4-6 years ago is already of age for plenty of bourbon releases out there. In Scotland, it’s a tougher battle as age statements usually start around the 10-12 year mark. In another five years, there is going to be a LOT of whisk(e)y around the world that’s ready to bottle. Will more age statements make a return? I certainly hope so.

Whiskey also remains an incredibly trendy spirit right now. The market is fickle and unpredictable. No one saw the shift to clear spirits in the 1970s coming and it would be foolish for anyone to think they know where the trends are headed as a new generation of drinkers comes of age in the 2020s. Nothing says “I’m unique” like doing the exact opposite things your parents do. Where the younger generation goes is where the money will follow. Will it remain whisk(e)y-centric?

No matter what happens, I’m in this for the long haul. There are plenty of other spirits out there in rum, tequila, mezcal, and brandy along with beer and wine. I’ve tried them all and while I can appreciate all the variety out there, whiskey is clearly the drink for me.

Have a great new year!