...where distraction is the main attraction.

Monday, January 14, 2019

Scotch Whisky Exports in 2017, or The rowboat still pulls the steamship

Welcome back to my annual analysis of the Scotch Whisky export market! Yes, one year was skipped. And there will be only two posts, instead of three, this year. This is because the Scotch Whisky Association no longer shares their annual Statistical Report. That report was my data source. So now I am piecing together data from various publications, including smaller items from the SWA and summaries from IWSR.

That means there are no new data for whisky consumption in the UK, nor annual production levels by SWA members, nor the age of whisky sitting in warehouses. Is this information being withheld on purpose? I don't know. But those data points certainly clashed with nearly every press release squawking about the burgeoning Scotch market.

Those narratives aside, the most noticeable change in the SWA publications was the categories. No longer was it Malt and Blends, but Single Malt and Blended Whiskies. I almost gave up writing this post entirely because I thought my big data sheet was rendered useless. But it wasn't. I just had to rethink the comparisons. Blended malts and bulk malt had been removed, and what was left was a more familiar, relatable subject: The Single Malt. And therein breathed the solution to today's post.



Since the great peak of the Scotch Whisky export market in 2011, volume sales have had a bumpy ride year to year:

2012: -5.2%
2013: +2.6%
2014: -3.0%
2015: -2.8%
2016: +4.0%
2017: +1.6%

Even with those last two gains, export volume in 2017 was still 0.4% under 2013 levels, and 3.1% beneath 2011's totals.

Meanwhile, the value of Scotch Whisky exports was 3.3% above 2011's amount. As mentioned in previous years' posts, value can increase while volume decreases when the value per unit rises. In this case, it's GBP (Great British Pounds) per liter. Thus the price of exported whisky went up enough to offset drops in actual whisky being sold.

But it's not that simple. Three other factors have had a considerable effect on the Scotch Whisky export market's monetary gains: inflation, exports to the United States and single malt sales. Bring out the charts!

click to embiggen
I always start off with the above chart to show that Scotch volume sales are indeed up and look healthy since the 1980s and early 1990s. But then I always follow it with this chart:


This chart does a number of things. First, it puts all that volume growth into some perspective. It also shows what looks like stratospheric increases in value and GBP/liter. Scotch whisky appears to be a booming business. But those gains aren't quite what they appear to be.


This graph shows the monetary gains from the previous chart adjusted for inflation, starting with 1980 (the beginning of my data set). What one sees is an industry that has struggled to out perform the UK's inflation. In fact, the GBP/liter price in 2017 is still lower than the adjusted 1980 amount. It wasn't until 2011 that export value jumped ahead of inflation, but that was largely due to the peak volume sales mentioned above. Annual value sales were trending back to the 0% mark until the solid gains made in 2017.

I'm going to zoom to look at the past decade:


As referenced in previous years, volume sales have been anything but flourishing. And for a few years the reported annual value was also slumping. Yet there's been a 55% gain in value sales over this 10 year period. Again, this seems like business has been awesome.


But this shows again that the industry was in danger of underperforming the UK's inflation rate. Adjusting for inflation tempers all value gains, but as one can see from these charts, there have been actual increases in sales. One of the drivers behind the boosts is Scotch Whisky's highest valued export market, the Occasionally-United States of America.


Even as the whole market's sales (in value) dropped after 2011, whisky exports to the United States continued to rise.

Between 2008 and 2017, the value of Scotch exports to the US increased by nearly 150%, while the non-US export market saw gains of 28%. When adjusted for inflation, the US gains were still 116%. The non-US gains vanished, turning into a loss of 3%.

The United States is the largest export market in terms of value not volume, which means there's a higher than normal GBP/liter rate for its Scotch. That substantial rate is due to the fact that US is the biggest recipient of single malt whisky in the world, with totals larger than the second and third largest single malt markets combined.

And if one is still searching for some sort of Scotch Whisky Boom, one may find it in single malt sales.


While sales of blended whisky have plateaued (at best), single malt exports have zoomed in terms of volume and value over the past decade. And, unlike almost all other indicators in the Scotch Whisky export market, it shows no signs of letting up:


With these massive gains in single malt exports, why haven't Scotch exports blasted off as a whole? Well, single malt whisky still makes up a tiny portion of the market when it comes to volume.


But, as can be noted from the charge above, it is no longer an insignificant part of Scotch's value. Though it makes up only 10% of the volume, it will likely cross the 30% marker in terms of value by 2019.

On the flip side, blended whisky has been bleeding value market share:


And it's not just value. Blended whiskies' annual volume sales total in 2017 was still beneath that of 2008. But blends are such a behemoth that their declines always weigh down the entire market. Single malt sales are the rowboat pulling the steamship in Buster Keaton's The Navigator.

(pic source)
What's causing blended whisky's stall out? Blended whisky brands are much more recognizable. Names like Johnnie Walker, Dewar's, Chivas and Ballantine's are synonymous with Scotch, worldwide. And blends are priced much more affordably.


Of course this chart doesn't show the actual prices of single malts and blends, but it does show the difference in how the exports are valued.

Single malts are more luxurious (price-wise) and have the reputation of being well-aged premium spirits, but their names are less familiar, appearing as various Glens and/or cryptic Gaelic phrases. Are consumers leaving blends for single malts (and other whiskies)? Or are new drinkers going directly to single malts, skipping over blended whisky entirely? Are they seduced by the high prices or the connotation and mystique of the term "single malt"? Or are blends dropping in quality due to the demand for their most valued ingredient, malt whisky?

Whatever the cause, people (especially Americans) are spending a lot of money on single malt whisky. As blended whisky sales struggle and the Scotch export market barely keeps above the inflation rate, this continuing ascent of single malt sales has the been the key to Scotch's financial success in the past, present, and, possibly, the future.

Friday, January 11, 2019

Port Charlotte 10 year old, the new batch!

There will be a Port Charlotte Month or Half Month in 2019 or 2020, and by the time it's over you'll see I'm nothing but a Port Charlotte honk. In the meantime, I'll focus on my official winter bottle, Port Charlotte 10 year old 2007.

Rémy Cointreau has chosen bottle designs that separate Bruichladdich's peated and unpeated brands. Octomore has the tall textured vase, Bruichladdich still has its squat curvy bottle and Port Charlotte now resides in grenade casing.


This is the third batch of the 10 year old. Somehow I missed the first two. It still weighs in at 100 US proof, and has had its barley peated at a 40ppm. The official site says this now an official "permanent" release, replacing the Scottish Barley bottling. An age-stated whisky replacing an NAS? What the hell is going on around here?

Distillery: Bruichladdich
Brand: Port Charlotte
Ownership: Rémy Cointreau
Region: Islay
Age: minimum 10 years (2007-2018)
Maturation: 65% first fill Jack Daniel's casks, 10% second fill Jack Daniel's whisky casks, 25% second fill French wine casks
Barley source: Invernesshire, Scotland
Malted barley peat level: 40ppm
Alcohol by Volume: 50%
Chillfiltered? No
Caramel Colorant? No
(top half of my bottle)

NEAT
It noses like a peat kiln in a candy shop. Cinnamon, confectioner's sugar, raspberry fruit leather, Juicy Fruit gum, fuji apples and a hint of vanilla. But there's also dense peat smoke and grilled shrimp. There ain't no sweets in the palate. It's all stones in a haze of dark peat smoke. Lots of salt, horseradish, bacon. The smoke picks up a slight bitterness with time and there's an undercurrent of lemon juice throughout. The finish is long, salty, peppery and peaty. Lemon, concrete and mild bitterness.

Just a few drops of water...

DILUTED TO ~46%abv, or ½ tsp of water per 30mL
The nose picks up notes of cherries and mint leaves. Smoked meat. Cinnamon and brine. Mild cigar smoke. The peat gets more graceful on the palate, and is joined by white fruits and white peppercorns. It gets tangier and tarter with time. It finishes with peat smoke, salt, herbal bitterness and a little bit of sugar and cinnamon.

WORDS WORDS WORDS
Where the casks used here may have altered another single malt's character significantly, Port Charlotte's spirit stomps the hell out of its confines. This beats everything Ardbeg has out, including its standard range. I feel like using nothing but violent verbs because this is a fierce thing. But it's not hot, monolithic nor palate-killing. It's dimensional (sorry), especially in the nose, and it swims very well.

It doesn't reach the heights of the full strength limited edition PCs, but it's sturdy and chiseled and feels like the antidote to a cold, wet night. If 'Laddie can maintain consistent quality with this 10yo year-to-year, it'll easily stand among the top 3 standard peated releases on the island.

Availability - Most speciality liquor retailers
Pricing - USA: $60-$75; Europe: $50-$65 w/o VAT, w/o shipping
Rating - 88

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Ardmore 12 year old Port Wood Finish

On one hand I'm happy that one of my favorite distilleries now has a full official whisky range. On the other hand, the entire range is essentially multi-casked. Tradition, formerly Traditional Cask, has a quarter cask finish. This 12 year old has a port cask finish. Triple Wood uses, er, three different casks. Even the limited edition 20 year old uses has an Islay cask finish. Legacy doesn't seem to have a finish, but it's NAS and 40%abv.

Ardmore makes an old school peated Highland spirit, so I'm not sure why they feel the need to futz with it. They do seem to be trying imitate their portfolio-mate, Laphroaig. How about an all ex-bourbon cask 10 year old Cask Strength edition then?

But back to the positives. Ardmore! A 12 year age statement! Also, Ardmore! And I do like a well done port cask whisky. I could barely wait to buy this whisky once we moved to Ohio, in fact I bought a bottle (not from Ohio) before we even had permanent housing. It took me only two years to open the bottle.


Distillery: Ardmore
Ownership: Beam Suntory
Region: Highlands (Eastern)
Age: minimum 12 years
Maturation: bourbon casks, then port casks
Alcohol by Volume: 46%
Chillfiltered? No
Caramel Colorant? possibly
(bottom half of my bottle)

NEAT
The nose certainly has its fruits – green apples, green grapes and blackberry jam – but it also brings out plenty of brine and mossy wet stones. Smaller notes of roasted corn, honey and brandy linger at the edges. The palate has light-to-moderate levels of sweetness, pepper, smoke and minerals. There's some blackberry jam, limes, almonds and caramel. The finish goes darker than the palate, with Band Aids and beach smoke. Tart limes and a few berries roll around as well.

DILUTED TO ~40%abv, or < 1tsp of water per 30mL whisky
Shisha, lemon zest and cinnamon lead the nose. Then fennel, orange oil and gentle peat smoke. The palate is sharper and less sweet than when neat. Bigger on the salt and chile oil than the peat smoke and berries. The finish still has a good length to it. Very mineral and peppery. No glamour.

WORDS WORDS WORDS
Though Ardmore 12 year old Port Wood Finish won't wind up on any reliable Whisky of the Year lists, it did make my (totes reliable) Favorite Single Malts Under $80 list. Its port, peat and oak levels are never out of whack. It's never too hot or too sweet. And it's impressively austere (the A word!) for an official bottling, especially on the diluted palate.

Or to be less thoughtful and more gutful(?), this bottle was consumed quicker than my average whisky bottle. In three head-to-head comparisons it tasted better than my 1991 Ardmore, which still sits in the cabinet more than half full. Kudos to the blenders at Ardmore for fashioning a good malt. Now how about a 15- or 18-year-old bourbon cask release???

Availability - Europe
Pricing - $50-$60 w/o VAT, w/o shipping
Rating - 85

Monday, January 7, 2019

My 25 favorite single malts under $80

So it has come to this. Clickbait.

Actually if it were clickbait, the title would be "25 Best Whiskies Under $80!" and I would have posted it near Black Friday. Yet......you clicked over here so let's get to it.

I use the word "Favorite" (American spelling!) rather than "Best" because whisky is subjective and expensive. $80 is set as a ceiling because:

  • It's a personal limit I'm trying to abide by for as long as possible. Good luck to me!
  • The next level of each distillery's/brand's range appears just north of $80.
  • Dude, I'm trying to keep this to only 25 whiskies.
Seven years ago this would have been a list of my favorite single malts under $50. So it goes.

THE RULES

  • Official bottlings only - I'm trying to include whiskies that are at least somewhat available. And there's a grim lack of interesting indie bottlings at this price range.
  • Scotch only - Yep.
  • Three years - No, not 3yo whisky. I'm only listing single malts that I've consumed within the past three years. I'm of the camp that believes batches, small or large, change in character over time no matter how talented the blenders may be.
  • Amerocentric Pricing - Current as of January 2019, and based on Wine-searcher Pro. European prices are calculated without VAT, but do include an average shipping rate for one bottle within a moderate-sized US order.
  • Subjectivity - Again, these whiskies will not appeal to everyone. Each of us has our own palate preferences.
  • Ethical-ish - I have purchased, or am currently price-shopping, all of these whiskies. My stomach does a weird wiggle-grumble each time I heap praise on a whisky I haven't purchased. Thus this rule is being applied so I can digest food properly this week.

THE WHISKY

  1. Ardmore 12 year old Port Wood Finish - USA: not for sale; Europe: $65-$75
    Just finished my bottle. Watch this space!
  2. Arran 10 year old - USA: $45-$55; Europe: $45-60
    The 10-to-15 year range is my favorite spot for Arran whiskies. They haven't messed with their 10yo since it arrived.
  3. Arran 14 year old - USA: $60-$80; Europe: $55-70
    Old label, new label. Whichever. Great stuff.
  4. Ben Nevis 10 year old - USA: >crazy; Europe: $65-$75
    Ben Nevis has arrived, and now this thing has become scarce. It's very good.
  5. Benromach 10 year old - USA: $45-$60; Europe: $45-60
    This distillery is run by, like, one grandma, one sentient rubber band and two schnauzers (per the marketing material), yet the whisky is excellent. Not enough love for this particular 10yo.
  6. Benromach 10 year old 100 Proof / Imperial Proof - USA: $70 and up; Europe $65-$75
    It's as good as the two-year-old hype. Possibly better.
  7. Bruichladdich The Classic Laddie Scottish Barley - USA: $45-$60; Europe: $55-$75
    This was such a surprise to me because I'm not a fan of Bruichladdich's unpeated whisky. WARNING: Serious batch variation.
  8. Bunnahabhain 12 year old - USA: $45-$65; Europe: $55-$65
    This has become an excellent whisky. I had it at two blind tastings in 2018 and LOVED it both times. Review of the current edition to post this year.
  9. Caol Ila 12 year old - USA: $55-$75; Europe: $55-$65
    One of those whiskies I hate to like because it's factory-made. But then again, so are all the great Midleton pot still whiskies and MGP ryes.
  10. Clynelish 14 year old - USA: $50-$70; Europe: $50-$65
    It still works, and is "better" than most of the indie Clynelishes I've had.
  11. Craigellachie 13 year old - USA: $40-$65; Europe: $50-$70
    Probably not a popular choice. It's a difficult whisky, but I've grown to enjoy it,
  12. Glenfiddich 15 year old Distillery Edition - USA: not for sale; Europe: $55-$70
    The most muscular thing Glenfiddich makes. And the best.
  13. Glen Garioch 12 year old - USA: $55-$70; Europe: $50-$65
    As I mentioned in my recent review, this is as good as I'd remembered. I just bought another bottle. 
  14. Glen Scotia 15 year old - USA: $60-$70; Europe: $65-$80
    The best thing the new regime has bottled. And I think it can get better.
  15. Hazelburn 10 year old - USA: $60-$70; Europe: $55-$65
    Another shocker. I wasn't a fan of the previous regular Hazelburns, but the Springbank folks found the right recipe this time.
  16. Highland Park 12 year old - USA: $40-$60; Europe: $45-$65
    Old reliable. WARNING: I haven't tried the new Leif Erikson's Boat's Starboard Dog's Wet Arsehole edition.
  17. Lagavulin 16 year old - USA: $65 and up; Europe: $60 and up
    Old Faithful still rumbles.
  18. Laphroaig 10 year old - USA: $35-$55; Europe: $45-$65
    Speaking of which.
  19. Laphroaig 10 year old Cask Strength - USA: $60-$80; Europe: scarce
    After a couple of lame batches the behemoth has returned.
  20. Longrow Peated - USA: $55-$70; Europe: $55-$70
    Springbank is a good distillery.
  21. Kilkerran 12 year old - USA: $60-$80; Europe: $50-$65
    Not as superlative as some of the WIPs, but still very good. It's much more fun/complex/drinkable than the first batch of 8yo cask strength stuff.
  22. Port Charlotte 10 year old, new edition - USA: $60-$70; Europe: $65-$80
    Watch this space!
  23. Port Charlotte Islay Barley, previous edition - USA: $60-$80; Europe: $75 and up
    I haven't tried the new one in the mortar-shaped bottle, but I adore the older one in the classic Bruchladdich bottle. Hope to post a review of it this year.
  24. Springbank 10 year old - USA: $55-$75; Europe: $55-$70
    Probably the Best whisky on this list, whatever "Best" means.
  25. Tobermory 10 year old - USA: $50-$65; Europe: $50-$70
    Another one that's probably not the most popular choice. Oh well. It's on the list.

NOTES:

  • Several of these whiskies deserve an updated review. I will labor to do so.
  • Some whiskies like Ledaig 10, Kilchoman Machir Bay, Oban 14, Talisker 10 and Balvenie 12, which would have been on this list in previous years, are currently under review.
  • Some whiskies, like Springbank 12yo Cask Strength, missed the list because the reality of finding them for less than $80 is vanishing.
  • Less than a third of these whiskies can be found for under $50. Yet the average age of the 26 whiskies is around 10.5 years old. Yes, Glenlivet 12 is cheaper, but have you had Glenlivet 12 recently?

Friday, January 4, 2019

Killing Whisky History, Episode 20: Peter Dawson Old Curio 12 year old, bottled in 1939, and Usher's Green Stripe, bottled in 1961

I'm feeling a little old and dusty in the new year, so it's time for some older and dustier scotch whiskies.

It's a mini head-to-head of Usher's Green Stripe, bottled in 1961, and Peter Dawson Old Curio 12 year old, bottled in 1939, both of which were sold in the sunny state of Wisconsin, both of which were produced by Diageo's predecessor, DCL, both of which were bottled at 43.4%abv, both of which were named after dudes and both of which had reeeeeeally delicate corks. Most importantly, both were drinkable.

Happy 2019!

Monday, December 31, 2018

Caol Ila 32 year old 1980 Sovereign for K&L

I'm feeling a little worn out with both Caol Ila and Clynelish after this Caol Ila-Clynelish month. There have been no terribly profound discoveries during this run, except that SMWS bottles a good whisky once in a while. And unless today's 32 year old whisky soils the bed — and I doubt it will — Caol Ila was the clear winner between the two Diageo distilleries this month.

Regarding Clynelish, the official 14 year old is preferable to all but the last two Clynelish bottlings I reviewed. And though the official Caol Ila 12 and 18 are very good, they were matched or beaten by most of the CIs I tried this month.

That leads to this, the 32 year old, the oldest Caol Ila I've ever tried. I just typed "tired" instead of "tried". Between overtime workdays, family parties, travel and two children, I am indeed ever tired. Whisky!

Distillery: Caol Ila
Region: Islay
Independent Bottler: Hunter Hamilton
Range: The Sovereign
Exclusive to: K&L Wine Merchants
Age: 32 years old (1980 - 2013)
Maturation: probably a bourbon barrel
Cask numberHH10083
Bottles: ~150
Alcohol by Volume: 57.1%
(thanks to Brett P for the sample!)

NEAT
The nose is very fruity: lychee, guava and white nectarines. What starts out as a roasted peat note morphs into an ocean peat note (think seaweed and brine) after 20 minutes. The smoke's intensity builds with time as well. A sort of smoked chocolate note appears after a while. I've never experienced a palate like this. Grape candy and ganja. Like, that's it, man, for the first 15 minutes. Then it gets tarry and salty. Grape bubblegum, band aids, mint and cherries. A lot of spiciness from the oak, but it's not tannic. Oh wait, yeah here come the tannins. It finishes smokier and bitterer than the palate. Tart berries, dry tannic red wine. Hints of the grape candy. Peat and heat last the longest.

DILUTED TO ~50%abv, or > ¾ tsp of water per 30mL whisky
The nose turns into something like a classic teenage Caol Ila. Candied peat, cured meat, tar and dried oregano. The palate becomes much sweeter. Tart citrus, tart berries. Small salty and savory notes. It gets peppery with time. The finish is noticeably shorter. It's tangy and sweet, but also has moments of smoke and peppercorns.

WORDS WORDS WORDS
If only the nose's great combination of fruit and peat had carried over to the palate, this would have been a killer. But the weight of the oak presses down late in the palate, then right through the finish. Still, the palate is kooky and unique enough to provide lots of entertainment. I don't think dilution did it any favors.

While I heartily encourage people to ditch The Port Ellen Chase in favor of well-matured Caol Ila, this one probably won't convince too many folks. Though it's a good whisky, it's not the best Caol Ila I had this month.

Availability - Sold out
Pricing - $269.99
Rating - 87 (neat only)

Friday, December 28, 2018

Clynelish 29 year old 1984 SMWS 29.105 (and Easy Rider)


(...continued from yesterday's post)

Despite all the editing flourishes in Easy Ryder, Peter Fonda's performance makes the most lasting mark in my memory of the film. He imbues Captain America with a yellow sheen of melancholy that can be felt from the instant he stuffs his cash stash into the red, white and blue gas tank. And though it isn't until the end of the film that he has a visual premonition of their fate, there's always a weight to his face and body that seems like he always knew what was going to happen. It's not just a distant stoned gaze into the abyss, it's resigned despair. He doesn't even have to speak the works "We blew it", it's in his flesh long before his bike burns.

The Clynelish tasting ended right before Billy and the Captain's Mardi Gras acid trip. Sadly, I can't pin the names "Billy" and "Captain America" on the two Clynelish because there would need to be considerable leaps to find parallels between the nonfiction whiskies and fictional bikers. But despite being of the same age, distillation year, bottler and cask type the two single malts were significantly different.

Distillery: Clynelish
Owner: Diageo
Region: Northern Highlands
Independent bottler: Scotch Malt Whisky Society
Age: 29 years (28 November 1984 to 2014)
Maturation: Refill sherry butt
"Poetic" name: Bumblebees by the sea
Cask number26.105
Outturn: 548
Alcohol by Volume: 57.6%
(thanks to Brett P for the sample!)

NEAT
Wildflowers, chewed grass, honey, honeydew and lemon on the nose. After 20-30 mins, notes of raspberry jam, herbal smoke and caramel sauce join in. The thick, oily mouthfeel reveals notes of ginger beer, lemon custard and lime juice in the palate. Meeting up with the fruity sweetness is a solid mineral nip. Soft oak-like notes of caramel sauce combine well with chili flakes and ground mustard seed. Its finish does have lemony notes similar to yesterday's Clynelish, but here it's more of a custard and marmalade than a juice. Mineral notes and chili flakes sparkle along the extensive length.

DILUTED TO ~50%abv, or < 1 tsp of water per 30mL whisky
Now the nose has mustard, marzipan, parsley and peat moss. Guava and lemons. Toasted cinnamon bread. The palate becomes sweeter and more herbal with a touch of bitterness. Fresh ginger, lemon juice and honey. A mix of fresh green herbs. The finish keeps its great length. It's sweet and tart, focusing on limes, while also sneaking in parsley and brine.

WORDS WORDS WORDS
Finally, an SMWS bottling that reflects its "creative" name. And alas, there's one Clynelish this month that shines with the distillery's great reputation. Similar to yesterday's whisky, the oak rarely appears and the sherry is absent. There's just big graceful age. While the nose etches out more detail, the palate shows great depth and balance. Despite the two whiskies' technical similarities, this one came with a $25 higher price tag. In my opinion, the high quality is worth some sort of premium. Yes, I just wrote that.

Availability - Sold out
Pricing - $175ish
Rating - 90