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Friday, June 29, 2012

Fear and the New Whisky World

The whisky world is changing right now.  As you're reading this, whiskies you enjoy are being eased off of the market, to be replaced by new products.  Or nothing at all.

Johnnie Walker

Not too long ago, I wrote a two-part post haranguing Diageo over a number of issues.  The impetus for that post was the removal of Johnnie Walker Green and Gold labels from the market, and their replacement with Gold Label Reserve and Platinum Label.  One of the theories behind this move was the need to corral as much malt whisky as possible.  Along with ruthless capitalism, this sudden desire to hold onto malt stock may have been the leading factor in their decision.  It's a risky move to pull a very familiar brand off the shelves, permanently.

Enter Macallan.

As of September THIS YEAR, Macallan will replace their 10, 12, and 15 year old single malts for no-age-statement color-based bottlings (UK first and then the world).  That's right.  No more Macallan 12.  No more 10 year Fine Oak (nor Sherry Oak).  No more 15 year Fine Oak.  And no more 17 year Fine Oak (a personal favorite).  They're being replaced by Gold, Sienna, and Ruby.


The brand that has made its mint via specific age statements is now going without age statements.  It's an incredibly bold business decision.  Why are they doing this?

They claim a bit of inspiration came from their Travel Retail line, the no-age-statement 1824 Collection -- Select Oak, Whisky Maker's Edition, Estate Reserve, and Limited Release.  [On a side note, I purchased a bottle of the Select Oak on the way to our Italian honeymoon.  The whisky was okay, but not something I'd purchase again.  The honeymoon was great, let's do it again!]

According to Master of Malt, the 1824 Collection was a financial success.  According to thedrinksbusiness and World of Whiskies, it was a failure.  The reality is likely somewhere in between.  Though I don't think the 1824 Collection had too much bearing on their Gold-Sienna-Ruby decision, it was the only (non-Cask Strength) example of Macallan entering the no-age-statement approach to single malts.

No-age-statement (NAS) bottlings are bold in this whisky economy because drinkers worldwide have been trained to think that older is better.  That allows producers to charge exponentially higher prices for their older bottlings, even though the younger ones may actually be better and more exciting.  Oak management is complicated and sometimes whisky can get over-oaked or lose much of its spirit's character with too much time in a barrel.  And, of course, everyone's palate is different.  Some of us (ahem, me) like bolder, wilder, spirit-forward amber stuff, while others enjoy a smoother quiter experience.  Beauty is in the glass of the beholder.

So how is Macallan, who have made a fortune overcharging for their older age statement-ed products, going to get folks to buy Gold, Sienna, and Ruby (I'm still waiting to hear that those names are a joke.)?  Well, they're going to try to convince everyone that whisky COLOR determines quality.  The longer in the sherried wood, the darker it will be and thus the richer and better it will be.  And thus more value will be assigned to the darkest whisky.

Of course, that's just as true (read: false) as the age statement approach to whisky.  Yes, a long time in a sherry cask will give whisky a beautiful rosy mahagony hue.  But again, a lot of that has to do with time in the oak.  Unless Macallan announces that it's buying up all of the world's Pedro Ximenez dark sherry casks (instead of their usual oloroso casks), we're back to the time issue again.

And, as the very good Master of Malt article states, they're going to have to try to "educate" folks that the darker the whisky, the better it tastes.

The darker it looks, the better it tastes?  That's like saying the better looking a person is, the better he or she is in bed.  That's patently untrue.  Except in my case.


I'm a terrible lover.


Yes, many years in a good sherry cask will get you a darker looking whisky.  But so will a few drops of caramel e150a.  Thus looks are deceiving.  And though occasionally we may be lured by color to buy a whisky for the first time, I doubt that many of us have gone back for a second bottle because it was maple syrup pretty.  We went back for a second bottle because the whisky inside smelled of the Earth's musk and tasted like old memories.

So why this sea change from Macallan?  Something sparked them into disrupting their massively successful business so.  Why are they pushing this particular whisky rock up a vertical cliff?  Because so far, this is all some pretty wobbly theory to be using to pull the world's second or third most familiar single malt from the shelves.

My guess, they're short on whisky.  They may not have enough whisky stock to guarantee that all of Macallan 12 is at least twelve years old.  By withdrawing age statements, they can use a mix of younger and older whiskies for Macallan Gold.  Or (guh) Macallan Ruby.  I can't prove this, yet.

But not only has the whisky market blossomed aggressively, the demand for whisk(e)y is starting to surpass the supply.  Careful management of supply is becoming very apparent industry wide.

Everyone else

Diageo, Pernod Ricard, William Grant & Sons all have been ramping up their malt production another 10-20 million liters to meet demand -- construction of new massive distilleries, expansion of current distilleries, and reopening of old distillies, all happening right now.

If you're a Rye Whiskey fan, this article and this article may leave you queasy.  There simply isn't enough rye.  Rittenhouse 100, going going gone.  Wild Turkey 101, going going gone.  Sazerac, getting shortages.

Bourbon fans?  In that second article, K&L Wines' brilliant buyer, David Driscoll, lists shortages on Black Maple Hill and Vintage 17.  Elijah Craig 18, no more.

Japanese Whisky?  Yamazaki 18, gone from the US.  Yamazaki 12, going to be harder to find, according to Driscoll.

So...what now?

How do we feel about a whisky world without Macallan 12, Johnnie Walker Green Label, Yamazaki 12, Elijah Craig 18, Rittenhouse 100 (and soon many others)?  What do we do?  Do we allow our purchasing and drinking choices be dictated by fear (occasionally stirred up by those who profit off that feeling)?

The whisky business is for optimists only.  The product isn't instant, producers have to believe that everything will be as it should be in at least a decade from now.  By filling barrels with distillate, they are planting a seed.

And as whisky buyers happily spoiled by seemingly infinite supply, we must not be afraid that the best things are now gone forever.  Though we are used to the instantaneous in our lives, we must accept that the brilliance of the whisky we love takes time to unfold.  Meanwhile things change.  And increase in price.  The expanding world has discovered whisky's brilliance.  It's no longer a Celtic secret.

More whisky is being made right now.  In countries all over the world, pot stills are steaming, experiments with casks are running, folks are making whiskies never before dreamed of.  With all of the advances in production, perhaps the best stuff has yet to be.

You, as a drinker, can choose to buy up all of the disappearing whisky, trying to grab a hold of what is now the (increasingly expensive) past.  You can seek out and hoard up all of those things, those amber lovlies, that brought you to this point.  Or you can buy what is prevalent and affordable now, waiting patiently for the miracles to come.

I'll do both.