...where distraction is the main attraction.

Friday, January 29, 2016

Taste Off! Aberlour a'bunadh batch 50 versus Macllan Cask Strength 60.1% abv edition

After I did Tuesday's and Wednesday's tasting I was left somewhat puzzled by the lack of enthusiasm I felt about the two a'bunadhs.  They were good enough for 80+ scores, but nothing I'd buy.  I've always liked cask strength sherry bombs, even when I didn't like sherried whisky in general.  That big rich assault used to appeal to my senses.  And now it was not.  Was it the whisky or was it me?

Macallan used to make cask strength whisky, sometimes it was 10 years old, sometimes it was not.  I found two batches very astringent and sour.  I found another two batches pretty decent.  And the old all-red label stuff was awesome.  At some point, Florin gave me a half bottle of one of the last editions because he didn't care for it.  I liked it enough that I bought a bottle when I found it for its original price at a local store.  And then Macallan discontinued the Cask Strength line entirely.

I saved a couple samples of that stuff and swapped a couple more out in then forgot about it.  Then came a very positive My Annoying Opinions review of one of the samples.  As you may know, it's difficult to wow MAO, so his positive take on it made me consider doing my own review.  And it took only 13 months for me to call this audible and compare it to a fellow young sherry monster.

Distillery: Aberlour
Ownership: Pernod Ricard
Region: Speyside (Banffshire)
Type: Single Malt
Age: 5 to 25 years (probably mostly from the very lower end of that range)
Maturation: ex-oloroso butts
Alcohol by Volume: 59.6%
Batch: 50
Bottled: 2015
Chillfiltered? No
Color added? No


Distillery: The Macallan
Brand: Cask Strength
Age: probably 10 years or less
Maturation: ex-oloroso casks
Region: Speyside
Alcohol by Volume: 60.1%
Bottled: 2010
Chillfiltered? No
Color added? No (I think)

So I'm going to state this up front.  This Taste Off turned out much different than I had expected.  In fact it was a little weird.  Here it goes...


Yep there's the butterscotch in the nose, followed by rich creamery butter.  Then barrel char and shoe polish.  Mild sherry / prune note throughout.  A bit of vanilla too.

Toffee and prune-y sherry in the palate.  A little spicy zing and a hint of good bitterness.  Cherry popsicles.

Chocolate cherry cordials and orange sherbet in the finish.  Some oak spice in the back.

Caramel, loads of rich caramel in the nose.  Paint VOCs, new car smell, and musty moldy sherry.  Hints of oranges and salty air.  Mixed salted nuts, gooey dates, and a little bit of vanilla.

It's really easy to drink.  I mean, weirdly so.  And it's oddly......bourbony, like ND-era Old Taylor (which does taste good).  It's a bit woody at times, lots of vanilla.  A nutty creamy sherry lingers in the background.

The finish dries out, gets the tannins going.  Some dark cherries, caramel, and vanilla.

WITH WATER (~46%abv)

Raspberry fruit leather, red Pixy Stix, figs, and anise in the nose.

On the palate, the sherry sweetens up, picks up more sugary fruits.  A little spicy bite.  Slight fizziness, like raspberry Schweppes.

The finish is a little acidic and tart.  Blackberry and raspberry syrups, and some caramel.

The nose has a mustiness that makes it feel like an older dustier whisky.  Then a big toffee pudding note.  Then walnuts and cashews.  A hint of lemon.  Dried fruit waaaay in the back.

The sugary palate is entirely caramel, sweet cream, and almonds.

The finish is sweet but short.  Caramel and a woody bitterness.

WITH WATER (~40%abv)

The nose gets sharper, narrower.  Less sherry, more barley.  Confectioner's sugar and carpet.

The palate also get narrower.  But it also gets very sugary, like some sort of raspberry candy.

The finish is candied and simple.  Vanilla and lime.

The woody nose does pull out some toffee and dried fruit sherry-like notes.  Some ginger, too.

Again a very sweet palate.  Caramel and vanilla.

The finish is short and sweet.


First some thoughts about the Aberlour.  Compared to its sparring partner, the a'bunadh felt more like a classic sherried whisky.  There's still the odd butteriness to it when neat, but overall it felt like a better drink than it did in the previous post.  It still gets thrown off at the 40%abv point, but not as badly as before.  So its score will go up a little.

Then there's the Macallan.  There is so much caramel and vanilla going on in this CS that it almost seems like one of their Fine Oak releases, which isn't necessarily a bad thing in my opinion.  It just caught me so off guard that it took a while for me to appreciate the whisky for what it is.  There's much much more sherry in the nose than in the palate.  But then there's the fact that it is unnervingly easy to drink at full strength.  The nose presents itself as a cask strength whisky but the palate arrives like its ABV is 15 degrees lower.  The nose stands up to water well, and though the palate doesn't disappear when hydrated, it doesn't hold up as well.

MAO found the same easy drinking phenomenon and caramel notes when doing his review.  We discussed the possibility of there being too much oxidation, but I didn't think that was the case.  This bottle went pretty quickly.  If there was something screwy with my bottle then it did not ruin the experience.  Getting past my preconceptions, I liked this Macallan.  It's tasty and devoid of all the sour notes that I disliked in other batches.  And I liked the Aberlour better than last time as well.  So, in a way, this was a success.

Availability - 
most prevalent batch in the US at this moment

Pricing - $70-$90
Rating - 85

Availability - secondary market
Pricing - ???
Rating - 84 (please note the comments above)

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Single Malt Report: Aberlour a'bunadh batch 50

Now for a more recent batch of a'bunadh, number 50.  It's also a bigger sample, which I poured from this very bottle:
The correct pronunciation is "ah-BOON-ar", which is awesome because until last year I was pronouncing it "AH-buh-nad".  Ah yes, ever the expert.  I'm glad you're still reading.  Are you still reading?

The bottle was from an OC Scotch Club event two months ago.  After I'd poured it for everyone at the event, the woman next to me took a sip and exclaimed, "YUCK!"  I complimented her on the most concise tasting note ever, a description so succinct it would make Sku jealous.

Of course my notes have never been accused of brevity.  So to continue the habit, I broke this tasting up into full strength, 48%abv, and 40%abv versions.

Distillery: Aberlour
Ownership: Pernod Ricard
Region: Speyside (Banffshire)
Type: Single Malt
Age: 5 to 25 years (probably mostly from the very lower end of that range)
Maturation: ex-oloroso butts
Alcohol by Volume: 59.6%
Batch: 50
Bottled: 2015
Chillfiltered? No
Color added? No

The entire nose is blanketed with buttery butterscotch.  There's a smidgen of sulphur underneath it, then Sugar Daddy pops, cherry lollipops, butter, anise-infused sherry, and super buttery chardonnay.

The palate has much less butter than on the nose and less heat than batch 38.  It's mildly sweet with toffee and maraschino cherries.  There's a little bit of green grain in the background, and something occasionally smoky and sometimes phenolic that still sort of reminds me of sulphur.

Toffeed nutty sherry, maraschino cherries, salt, and vanilla extract in the finish.

WITH WATER (~48%abv)
Yep, still with that butterscotch in the nose, though it's gotten maltier.  There's a little bit of musty funk, but also some perfumy notes.  Peanut dust, American oak barrel char, and apple juice.  Apparently the sherry lost its grapes.

The palate grows creamier and sweeter, but also picks up some earthiness and good bitterness.  There's the barrel char again, almond cookies, nutmeg, and toffee.

More of a classic sherry retro-olfaction at the finish of the finish.  Malt and vanilla.  A slight cardboard note.

WITH WATER (~40%abv)
Hmm, as with batch 38, the nose gets grittier at this abv, more difficult.  Burnt nuts, metal, and limes.

Meanwhile, the palate is sugary sweet.  Cherry syrup, toasted grains, cardboard, and an eggy sulphur.

Cherry syrup, sugar, and eggs in the finish.

Again, a'bunadh totally disintegrates at 40%abv.  It's very weird and more than a little unpleasant when it happens.  This batch, unlike 38, seems barely legal throughout.  And there is A LOT of American oak belching forth from this one.

I like it best at full strength where, unlike batch 38, it's entirely drinkable.  It's also pleasant at 48%abv, though be careful with that water!  This one gets three points more than #38 due how it reads at full power, but then loses four points for its jumbled make up.  (That's some scoring for ya!)  This batch will appeal to sherry fans who don't mind a lot of US oak in the mix and a spirit that is not much more than five years old.

Availability - most prevalent batch in the US at this moment
Pricing - $70-$90
Rating - 83  (the score went up a little in the next review)

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Single Malt Report: Aberlour a'bunadh batch 38

And then there was a'bunadh.  Aberlour a'bunadh (Gaelic for "of the origin") first appeared in 1998, small batch, full strength, uncolored, unfiltered, and all ex-oloroso butts.  Each batch was slightly different in character and ABV (though always between 59% and 61%) than the previous and subsequent one.  They're all NAS, except for a 12 year old Silver edition released in 1999 (which sounds awesome).  The first five batches didn't have batch numbers, so the numbering starts with 6 and has reached 54 as of the time of this post.

To me, the a'bunadh and the original Glenlivet Nadurra have been the coolest and most enthusiast-focused whiskies Pernod Ricard have ever released.  While the 16-year-old Nadurra has now mutated into five different underwhelming NAS versions, A'bunadh remains mostly as it was thanks to the fact it was always NAS.  And, from what I've gathered from anoraks who've had many batches, most of the recent a'bunadh editions have maintained a similar quality to the old ones.  Due to my early issues with Aberlour's OBs, I didn't actually try an Aa'b until 2014.

Today I'll be reviewing batch 38, released in 2011, from a sample purchased from Master of Malt in September 2012.  (And for those of you who are emotionally traumatized by my decision to review from MoM samples, please be comforted in knowing this will be the last year of using these samples in my reviews, probably.)

Distillery: Aberlour
Ownership: Pernod Ricard
Region: Speyside (Banffshire)
Type: Single Malt
Age: 5 to 25 years (ha! 25 years! That's rich.)
Maturation: ex-oloroso butts
Alcohol by Volume: 60.3%
Batch: 38
Bottled: 2011
Chillfiltered? No
Color added? No

The nose begins with mixed dried fruit and furniture polish characteristics.  Some Turkish honey (Trader Joe's style) with a hint of orange oil.  Beef gravy and caramel.

The palate is HAWT.  Yeesh.  It has the same dried fruit and polish notes.  Almond extract, lots of salt, and toasted oak spice.  Sugary sweetness mid-palate.

Ethyl, sweet sherry, prunes, and salt in the finish.

The palate seems desperate for water...

WITH WATER (~48%abv)
The nose is quite nice.  The fruit and spice notes seem more European oak-driven than sherried.  Clean laundry, dried cherries, milk chocolate, meyer lemons, and well-aged American rye whiskey.

No more heat in the palate, which is now desserty without being oversweet.  Orange candy, peppery spice, and marzipan/almond cookies.

Some sherry in the mild finish.  Cherry candy, too, though the peppery note shouts loudest.

Let's see what happens with some more water...

WITH WATER (~40%abv)
Ooh.  Harsh oak notes, roots, dirt, and metal in the nose.  Mild sherry note.  Limes, grain, and Country Time lemonade powder.

The palate is creamy and inoffensive.  Okay maybe not.  There's some green woody bitterness.  Pepper, lemons, and walnuts.

The finish is a little bitter as well.  Some sherry and burnt oak.

While water is a must for this batch, one needs to be careful because the whisky totally collapsed at 40%abv.  It left me wondering if the whisky was super young and/or if there were some bad casks in the mix.

When at full power, the whisky's ethyl content got in the way of the palate.  The nose was fine, though also limited, at that strength.  48%abv was by far the best spot for it on all levels.  It's at its most likable and complex and spicy at that volume.

Still at no point would I take this batch over Glenfarclas 105 nor many of the Macallan CSes.  It's great that this whisky exists and at a price cheaper (at least in 2011) than those other NAS sherry bombs, but I can't give it anything more than a mild recommendation for those who are sherried whisky geeks.

Availability - This batch is probably sold out, but there are many other batches available
Pricing - $60ish in 2011, now $70-$90 in 2016
Rating - 84 (though I recommend adding 1.5 teaspoons of water per 30mL or 1oz pour)

Friday, January 22, 2016

Single Malt Report: Aberlour-Glenlivet "over 8 years old" cubic bottle (early 1970s)

Let's take another step back in time.  For more than 25 years before they bottled their single malts in imitation brandy bottles, Aberlour used cube-shaped bottles, and specifically for the Italian, French, German, and American markets.  There were a number of versions of the cube, but the whisky I'm reviewing today came from a bottle that looks like this:

Another nice bottle pic from TWE

Aberlour shut down their maltings in 1962, so there's a chance that there's some of their own floor malted malt made its way into this specific whisky.  It was a smaller distillery back then too, with only one pair of stills.  And, as this was bottled in the early '70s, Campbell Distilleries was still the owner at the time.

I was able to purchase a good sized sample of this historical whisky with the help of Cobo (thanks, dude!), so I can actually add a little water to this one if it needs it...

Distillery: Aberlour
Ownership at the time: S. Campbell & Sons, Ltd.
Region: Speyside (Banffshire)
Type: Single Malt
Age: "over 8 years"
Maturation: ???
Alcohol by Volume: 50%
Bottling date: early 1970s
Chillfiltered? Probably not
Color added? Probably not

Its color is dark, like older-bourbon-dark, as opposed to dark orange.

The nose is a little closed at first.  Musty, fruity, a little bit of honey, and lots of roses.  It opens with air.  Macintosh apples then caramel apples then back again.  Fried plantains, cocoa, and pears.  I caught a farmy note twice, but it never appeared again.

Very malty palate, like chocolate malt.  Plump raisins, lots of honey, lemons, and a pleasant bitterness.  A polite quantity of sherry.  Some plum wine in the back.  Sometimes a little toffee-ish.  Very thickly textured and packing quite a kick even after 40 years in a bottle.

The very honeyed finish is lightly sweet with a hint of bitterness.  Tingly ginger note meets plum wine and a whiff of sherry.  Very good length.

WITH WATER (~43%abv)
The nose gets farmier, earthier.  Most of the fruit vanishes, though maybe some citrus remains.  Honey, cinnamon, and some baby powder.

The palate becomes much sweeter and gooey.  Dark Belgian Ale (St. Bernardus!).  Ginger beer, toffee, some nutty sherry, and a wee burnt note.

A bright effervescent herbal bitterness meets brown sugar and raisins in the finish.

Easily this week's winning Aberlour, this whisky has tons of the honey note I enjoy so much in independently bottled ex-bourbon cask Aberlours, but it also has just enough good sherry backing it up to broaden the experience.  It got too sweet for me when I added water, so I recommend it neat.  And, yeah, it's definitely "over 8 years old".  Blind, I would have guessed 12-15 years in unobtrusive casks.  So, if somehow you're lucky enough to be stuck having to choose between this bottling or the VOHM brandy bottle at an auction, I'd recommend this one due to the quality of the whisky.  And the bottle is cooler too.

Availability - Secondary market
Pricing - ???
Rating - 87

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Single Malt Report: Aberlour 12 year old VOHM brandy bottle ('80s - '90s bottling)

Looking for one easy way to tell when the whisky industry's finances are a little low?  Take note of when they try to make their products mimic other popular spirits.  Today we have blends mimicking bourbon flavors, see Dewar's Scratched Cask and Barrelhound.  Back in the down days of the 1980s and 1990s, a few companies made their packaging look just like brandy bottles.  For instance: Balvenie and Balvenie.  Aberlour appeared to have tried to one-up Balvenie during the same time period.  Not only did their product look like a cheap bottle of Martell or Remy, but they even created a fake VSOP-like acronym for their label.  V.O.H.M., as in Very Old Highland Malt, was never used before or since.  Of course, because they gave their 10 and 12 year old that designation, the whisky was not very old, but now I'm just nitpicking.
Here's a great bottle pic from TWE
I was lucky enough to get a sample of this whisky from an LA Scotch Club event last year, and recently tried it alongside the current Aberlour 12yo (reviewed on Tuesday) for some perspective.

Distillery: Aberlour
Ownership: Pernod Ricard
Region: Speyside (Banffshire)
Type: Single Malt
Age: minimum 12 years
Maturation: ???
Alcohol by Volume: 43%
Bottle code: L51415, could it be 1985?
Chillfiltered? ???
Color added? Probably not

Its color is much paler than the contemporary 12yo Double Cask.

Lots of fruits lead off in the nose.  There's peach Jolly Rancher, mango nectar, and a big note of fuji apples.  Then jasmine blossoms, vanilla, and salty air.  Some wool and a hint of leather couch.  With time it gets maltier and also develops some nifty notes of wood smoke and band aids.

The palate is musty and malty, very reminiscent of (the untainted version of) the 1980s Suntory Royal SR.  There's hard toffee candy, loquats, and lemon zest.  It slowly develops a Campari-like bitter note.

The finish is a bit brief.  But it's malty, full of apricots, and French oak-like wood spice.

A very pleasant whisky, this 12yo is a league ahead of the current version.  Nothing really jumps out as spectacular at any point, but the nose is very good, especially once it's aired out.  The finish is a little disappointing, but the palate is perfectly fine.  There's not much in the way of sherry going on here, but there are some nice phenolics in the nose.  Though this was bottled during the whisky glut, I didn't get the sense that they stuffed older whisky in here.

Not many other reviews of this online.  There's Andy of LAWS who didn't care for it; there's the whiskybase community who've graded it but haven't reviewed it; and there's Serge, of course, who liked it but found more sherry action than I did.  In any case, if you have a bottle or find one sitting around, I recommend (as always) that you drink it, not flip it.  Just set your ExpectationMeter™ to Moderate and you won't be disappointed.

Availability - Secondary market or maybe collecting dust on a shelf
Pricing - ???
Rating - 83

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Single Malt Report: Aberlour 12 year old Double Cask Matured (current label, 40%abv)

Late last year, I looked at my Big Whisky List and noticed I'd reviewed only two Aberlours.  Both were indies, both were single ex-bourbon casks.  Since I prefer ex-bourbon cask Aberlour, and their official range has no all-bourbon-cask product, I find the indies to be a good source for an Aberlour fix.  But I have in my possession samples of five official Aberlours here, some current, some old.  So join me in a little Aberlour catch-up over the next two weeks.

In 2008, I tried Aberlour's 10 year old and the old labelled version of the 12, and despised them both.  "Despised" is a very strong word, but the feeling was immediate and vibrant.  That actually was a pivotal whisky year for me.  It was the first time I realized that a single malt could be gross.  I had my first (of many) bad experiences with Glenlivet 12, there were the two bad Aberlours, and then I bought a bottle of Lismore.  The snobbery must have begun then.

It's time to give the 12 year old another try.  They've changed the label since I last had it and, sadly, lowered the ABV from 43% to 40%.  The ownership remains the same, as has the ex-bourbon + ex-oloroso cask combo.

The older one
The newer one, reviewed below
Distillery: Aberlour
Ownership: Pernod Ricard
Region: Speyside (Banffshire)
Type: Single Malt
Age: minimum 12 years
Maturation: "Traditional oak and seasoned Sherry butts"
Alcohol by Volume: 40%
Chillfiltered? Yes
Color added? Yes
Sample received via a swap with Jordan of Chemistry of the Cocktail.  Thanks, Jordan!

Its color is orange gold, not really ex-sherry-ish, not really ex-bourbon-ish, probably e150a-ish.

The nose is fruit at first sniff, cantaloupe and citrus.  Then a little bit of raisins, then a little bit more as the cask influence moves in.  Dried cherries and LOTS of cherry candy.  Whiffs of sulphur linger in the background, sometimes starting out peppery then going right to struck matches.  Give it 30+ minutes of air and the sulphur floats away.  Then there's vanilla, toasted grains, and a hint of orange or lemon marmalade.

Bubblegum and light nutty sherry begins the palate.  Vanilla, mild malt, sugary sweet.  Very blendy.  Thin texture.  A burnt note in the background remains inoffensive.  But a bitter note in the midground starts off light, then gradually gets aggressive and unpleasant.

Toffee, vanilla, and caramel in the quiet finish.  Sweet apples, a little bit of sherry, and that odd bitterness.

I didn't add water because the palate felt too hydrated already.  The nose is the best part, even as it changes with time.  The sherry and cherry and melon were nice early on, as was the late marmalade note.  The palate was flat but mild at first, "blendy" as I'd mentioned, but then goes off the rails with its bitterness.  The finish seemed like it could have been very good under other circumstances, but the low abv turned the volume and the bitterness swung it off key.  (Jordan notes the low abv and bitterness issues in his review as well.  Serge finds neither of those issues in his more positive review.)

On the positive side of things, this was better than my memories of the circa-2008 12yo.  That one had a mouth-filling sourness that ran from the start of the palate into the finish.  This one, I am happy to say does not have that problem.  Also, I recently saw that there are some bottles of 12yo Double Cask Matured have been upped to 43%abv.  Perhaps that will have corrected some issues, or perhaps it will have only heightened them.  If you've had that version, let us know in the comment section below.  Thanks!

Availability - Most liquor specialists in the US, well stocked in France
Pricing - $40-$60 in US, closer to $40 in Europe
Rating - 78

Friday, January 15, 2016

Scotch Ain't Dead Yet, Part 3: 2015 and The New Normal

Having experienced two stomach viruses (and maybe a poisoning) over the past three weeks (including 3 hours hooked up to an IV yesterday), and thus enjoying all of three fluid ounces of single malt over the past four weeks, I arrived at this series finale feeling as if I'm looking at all these whisky concerns from the outside.

Scotch is a commodity and there are A LOT of publicly traded corporations (nearly none of which are Scottish) involved in getting it to our whisky cabinets.  All of these interests make decisions not out of the good of their hearts, but to increase the Accounts Receivable line on their balance sheet.  And no matter how many gorgeous photos of cask-packed warehouses and weather-molded old Scot faces or articles waxing romantic on alchemy or crystal clear Highland water sources are published by marketing divisions, the producers, bottlers, importers, distributors, and retailers are all just trying to keep their jobs and figure out how to manage what has turned into an international billion dollar industry.  To paraphrase the Vulcans, "The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, and if you're a long time whisky fan you can go fuck yourself."

Part 3 did indeed become a little longer than I had intended (again).  Here's how it's structured: First, I have a moderate-length thought piece (read: data free bitch session).  Next I do some analysis on the one good bit of 2015 data released by the SWA, concluding with two charts(!) reflecting on the 2014 and 2015 numbers.  And then we will all go and have ourselves a good healthy weekend, okay?

Tiers of Scotch, Tears of Grief

Scotch whisky had a bad year in 2014.  Export values and volumes fell relatively abruptly after a few decent years.  At the heart of this decline was a £424million drop in exported blended whisky.  Single malts sales continued to go up, as did their prices, but that could not stop the overall drop.  And as the numbers showed, many more people are leaving blends than are picking up single malts.

I want to look at this from an angle we whisky geeks rarely discuss.  Most of the drinking world, including people with and without considerable means, rarely spend more than $25 on a bottle of booze.  So keep that in mind: $25.

Think about what blends are widely available at $25.  Johnnie Walker Red Label, Dewar's White Label, Cutty Sark, J&B.  Think about the quality, the flavor, of those blends.  I'm not talking about back in the day.  I'm talking about right now.  Right now, they are awful, awful, awful drinking options.  Yes, one could argue, they're not made to be neat sippers.  But their raw junk content can be tasted through cocktails, ice cubes, water, club soda, and Coca-Cola.  And they are amongst the ugliest choices for shots.

Think of the quality gap between Dewar's and Old Grand Dad 114.  Or a barely 3 year old Red Label and a 12 year old rum.  They're about the same price.  And, again, if shots are the game, Jameson's, Paddy's, and Tullamore Dew make for a softer (dare I say, smoother) experience thanks to their third distillation.  Hell, I'd do a shot of $25 vodka before I'd do one of Cutty.  Clan Macgregor anyone?

But most clearly, when it comes the $15-$25 pricing level, bourbon whiskey has scotch whisky beat by miles in scotch's largest export market, the United States.  Even in Europe: Buffalo Trace, Bulleit, Maker's, and Wild Turkey can be had for less than €30.  A similar situation exists in a number of Asian countries as well.  Bourbon's character is loud, sweet, and oaky.  And not scotch oaky.  Kentucky summer oaky.  When it comes to the quality within the price range that appeals to most people, scotch cannot compete with bourbon.

Back to scotch.  Where do people with inquisitive palates go when they want to move into single malts without spending much more?  (And let's not call it "graduating" into single malts. Tens of millions of blend drinkers would happily beat the life out of every last patrician single malt sipper who described them as a lesser person.  Let's demean the whisky, not the people.)  For $5-$10 more, maybe there's Speyburn, Glen Moray, and Tomatin.  The average price of Glens Livet, Morangie, and Fiddich are near $45 now.  Many of the new NAS bottlings are at that level or higher.  That is not the same as spending $25.

So once again we arrive at the tier problem, mentioned in Part 2.  Ten years ago, single malt drinkers were able to move around a brand's range with small price steps (think $50→$75→$100→$200).  Today, it's $50, $200, and $1,000.  The mobility is vanishing.  On a similar note, the financial significance of the jump from $25 to $45 should not be overlooked, and I think it has.  Maybe the Red Label drinker can find Black Label on sale sometimes, but if he's just looking to relax or get a comfy buzz (the original draw to this drug) then he can find many non-scotch options at the lower price ranges.  That guy represents most of the drinking planet.  If you can't meet his needs then he will go elsewhere.

Of course, the corporations who own both "elsewhere" and scotch aren't hurt as much as we wish they were.

And now, some 2015 stats

Welcome back to 2015!  Lemmy Kilmister, David Bowie, and Alan Rickman are all still alive and......goddamn it.
I was able to stiff upper lip it for the first two, but not when Sheriff Colonel Brandon Jamie Marvin Gruber Lazarus Snape left us.

I'll start this section over again.

Welcome back to 2015!

The Scotch Whisky Association released their "First half of year exports" 2015 document almost two months before they published the final 2014 export tallies.  What the report does not tell us about is single malts or blends or stock or production or the UK or most countries really.  It's a two-page list of the Top 20 export markets in volume and value.  If you think that doesn't sound like much on the surface, you're right.  BUT.  The Top 20 export markets were responsible for 75.6% of the total export value in 2013.  In 2014, they did 76.8% of the business.  Thus what happens to the Top 20 is mostly representative of what's going on with the entire market.  I encourage you to download the short PDF and follow along.

I'll take a look at 2014 for a sec, so that I can set up 2015.  In 2014, scotch's export value was 7.3% lower than it was in 2013.  (For the top 20 markets, the loss was about 6%.)  The first half of 2014 was really rough for the top 20, the value dropping 9.25% lower than the previous year's first half.  The largest market, the US, dropped 16% on its own.  The second half was less brutal, showing a 2.57% drop compared to 2013's second half.  The US dropped just a percent.  I've looked at previous documents and it appears as if the second half of every year is better for sales than the first half.  But that also means that each year there are higher expectations for the second half.

In the first half of 2015, the top 20 export markets dropped 1.7% in value compared to that difficult first half of 2014.  But that 1.7% wasn't evenly spread out.  The top 9 markets all suffered losses.  Meanwhile only 3 of the next 11 were down.  The top 9 fell 3.75%, while the next 11 were up 4.75%.  Singapore, the third largest market, appears to have stabilized a little after an awful 2014, being down less than 2% compared to the previous 46% drop.  China had a major rebound, growing almost 46% and launching itself onto the list.  Meanwhile Taiwan gave back some of its big 2014 gains.  Panama and South Africa, which had bad second halves last year, had bad first halves this year.  And Golden Boy USA was down almost a half percent in the first half of 2015, as opposed to the 16% tank last year.

While the larger markets struggle to match last year's weak numbers, the smaller markets (within the top 20) are mostly not having that issue.  I'm sure there are some analysts who are keeping hopes up by reminding everyone of a stronger second half.  But then again, if every year (including last year) has a stronger second half then the numbers still have to top that.

Decoding the volume sales from this document is difficult because the SWA for some reason uses a different metric than on their year end data.  They use "70cl BOTTLES @ 40% alcohol by volume" as opposed to "Liters of Pure Alcohol" (LPA).  So it's not the same as the data from my Part 1 graphs.  In any case, using this other measurement, the volume sales for the top twenty in the first half of 2015 was almost identical to the first half sales in 2014.  I'm talking about a 0.02% difference.

The one thing I find totally fascinating is the decline in value per bottle:
1st Half of 2014 vs. 1st Half of 2013: -8.3%
2nd Half of 2014 vs. 2nd Half of 2013: -3.6%
Overall 2014 vs. 2013: -5.8%
1st Half of 2015 vs. 1st Half of 2014: -1.7%
1st Half of 2015 vs. 1st Half of 2013: -9.7%

I'm not sure what happening here, but it's a real thing.  The value per LPA metric has been dropping annually since 2012 as well.  Here are some more value per bottle declines in the first half of 2015:
Spain: -19%
Singapore: -8%
Japan: -13%
Mexico: -15%
France: -4%
United States: -0.6% (though, as we saw in Part 2, this is not being reflected at the retail level)

Scotch whisky at point of export is getting cheaper.  Looking at 2015 in a bubble, since we'll have no official word of malt vs blend sales for eleven months, one wonders if malt (the more expensive sibling) sales dropped as blends (cheaper) grew.  But if we look at historical numbers, the value/liter of blends have been dropping steadily since 2012: £12.12 to £11.55 to £10.69.  Perhaps they continue to drop?  Are lower quality blends and younger (or NAS) single malts being sent out in larger quantities?

I'm not sure of the answer to those questions, but what we're seeing in The Big Picture is a market correction.  For the export market as a whole it's a return to the numbers of the Old Normal, before the big 2011 jump.  For the US market, it's a return to the totals from before the sizable 2013 bump.

To help, here are some visuals.  These are my Part 1 charts now extended to 2015 utilizing the percentages from the first half of the Top 20 export markets (which represent 75-80% of the entire market).  Again, these are not the final 2015 numbers, just an estimate based on what's been reported thus far.

What I'm not seeing here is a crash or recession.  I'm seeing a calming, some plateaus, a stabilization of volume sales, and an easing in the value per liter of scotch.  Perhaps I can even spot a market establishing a new normal, not as high as the heady days of just yore, but much stronger than a decade ago.

As I showed in Part 2, whisky consumers in the US aren't seeing this play out.  Because there are so many separate moving pieces in this country's daft multi-tier liquor sales structure, there are many companies involved in the price inflation, and I'm not sure which one will be the first to back down.

Of course, we whisky fans can back down first, but how much of a dent will that really make?  It's the new single malt drinkers, the ones who came to whisky when it was hottest, who have a different vision of the value of whisky, who will have to stop buying.  But why should they?  Talisker 18 is great, hasn't it always cost $150?

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Scotch Ain't Dead Yet, Part 2: The very much alive pricing of single malts in the USA

In Part 1 of this series, I included a section that highlighted the drop in whisky exports to the US in 2014.  Declines happened in volume, value, and price per liter.  Price per liter for scotch whisky exported to the United States dropped by almost 2%.  But keep in mind, that includes both malt and blended whiskies.  Because malt whisky's price/liter (worldwide) went up 1.45% that year, it's quite possible that prices on exported single malt to the US went up a little.

But all of that is a really macro, big picture, view of prices.  What we as consumers see on the ground here doesn't reflected those changes.  For instance, between 2008 and 2014 the worldwide exports of malt whisky increased in price by 12%.  During that time, the prices we saw at American retailers tripled that rate.  So, why are our prices going up faster?  Keep in mind that the numbers I'm getting from the Scotch Whisky Association are for the value declared at the time of export from the UK (and it's in GBP not USD).  By the time we see the bottles on the shelf the importers, distributors, and retailers have further increased the price for their own profit.

Now we've just begun 2016.  That "almost 2%" drop I mentioned above was for all whiskies exported to the US in 2014.  In the first half of 2015 (*hinting at Friday's post*) scotch whisky exported to the US dropped almost another half percent.  But the single malt prices we see every day continue to rise.  I will be focusing on this single malt price inflation today.

As I wrote last year, here's some background on the data below:
I am using Wine Searcher's Average Wine Price system, selecting only US retailers.  Their site has an explanation behind how they arrive at averages.  To summarize, they do not include auctions; all prices are adjusted to 750mL bottles; they remove the highest and lowest 20% prices in order to correct for pricing errors or egregious retailer choices.  Aside from the ability to scroll through pricing history, Wine Searcher's big draw for data purposes is their retailer count.  For instance, if you search for Johnnie Walker Black Label they'll actually stop their listings at 500 retailers.  Their system has over 350 450 retailers selling Talisker 10.  So they are pulling from a very large data set.  And, anecdotally, their site has proven very reliable and accurate in my searches for beers, wines, whiskies, brandies, etc.  But please note, this is not an advertisement for Wine Searcher.  Their Average Wine Price history requires a paid subscription and I've been known to mooch off of other people's accounts from time to time.

I encourage you to check out my shared Google Doc at this link.  There's a lot of info to be seen and it's probably more directly useful than the rest of this post, so enjoy!

A few words about my methodology:
There are some important changes to the data this year, compared to last year.  Firstly, there are more whiskies!  While 3/4s of the products listed measure prices going back to 2007, there's a large number of products for whom there was either no data for January 2007 or it was unreliable.  Last year I had selected January 2007 data because '07 was the first year of the so-called whisky boom, and it was the earliest data that Winesearcher listed.  For the whiskies new to this list, I am going with their January 2011 data for three reasons.  Firstly, 2011 was the second (and largest) whisky boom year.  Secondly, I already had the 2011 prices listed for the other whiskies, which I used to show periodic price increases.  Thirdly, 2011 is the earliest data that Wine Searcher now lists.

Because mushing together a 9-year price change percentage with a 5-year price change percentage is not responsible mathematics, I am including a new metric to bring the numbers closer together: Multiple of Inflation (or MOI if you like).  MOI takes the total price change and divides it by the US's inflation (CPI) rate over the related period of time (9 years or 5 years).  For the whiskies that start with the Jan2007 data, the inflation was 14.5% (or $1 in Jan2007 would be worth $1.145 today).  For the whiskies whose data starts with 2011, the inflation was 5.5% (or $1 in Jan2011 would be worth $1.055 today).

The color-coding is based on the MOI, as follows:
Dark blue = price actually decreased, thus a negative MOI
Light blue = price increased between 0 and the actual rate of inflation
Green = price increased between 1 and 2 times the rate of inflation
Light pink = price increased between 2 and 5 times the rate of inflation
Fire Truck Red = price increased between 5 and 10 times the rate of inflation
Black = price increased more than 10 times the rate of inflation

Please feel free to peruse this list here or on the Google Doc to your very heart's desire (I think you can bookmark the Google Doc as well).  You're also welcome to ignore the analysis below, but there are a lot of fun graphs down there, including two that are shaped like pie.


I will start with 2015 as that is more immediate (and new-ish!).  Plus I'll be able to compare exact percentages.

The Consumer Price Index (CPI) inflated all of 0.5% in 2015, so a January 2015 dollar is worth $1.005 today (January 2016).  Meanwhile, if I take the average of all of the 161 whiskies in the spreadsheet above, I find that the average single malt had a price increase of 3.95% in 2015.  That is eight times the rate of the CPI.  That's a lot and that's fast.  If a whisky's price moved eight times the rate of inflation for the past nine years, that would be like having your $40 whisky from 2007 now going for $86 in 2016.  But there really is no "average" single malt.  There are different age statements, companies, and distilleries.  So here's how 2015's price boost breaks out:

click to embiggen
This shouldn't come as a total surprise to many of us.  Old whiskies continue to go up in price very quickly.  What's happening here is a separation in pricing tiers.  The NAS, 8-10yos, and 11-13yos increased at almost the exact same rate (1.70% to 1.78%), while the further right/older you go on the chart the quicker the price balloons.  17 to 24 year old whiskies are being established on one level, 25 to 29s on another, and 30+ on its own.  These are tiers of luxury.  We'll return to this subject throughout.

Here's a breakdown by distillery:

Note: distilleries with only one whisky on the list were removed for accuracy and clarity purposes
And here's the same chart using the MOI metric rather than percentages, just to get you used to it.

Yes, Talisker and Macallan lead the way, by quite some distance, with Highland Park in third.  All three of these distilleries have a number of long-aged whiskies on the list and, without exception, all greatly increased in price.  I don't have much of an explanation for Aberfeldy and Hazelburn, but it's nice to see their results.  For the record, 30 of these distilleries had price increases greater than the CPI, 8 has increases less than the CPI.

By looking at the distillery chart, you can start to get an idea which companies are behind the overall price increases...

Note: owners with only one whisky on the list were removed for accuracy and clarity purposes
What this chart doesn't take into account is how many single malts each owner has on the price list.  So if I weight the numbers by taking that into account, we can see who is responsible for the overall price increase:

So, perhaps all companies and all distilleries are not equally guilty in price gouging...

That was 2015, a relatively small period of time.  Let's take a look at the entire window captured in the pricing spreadsheet, from 2007 (or 2011) to today.

Again, the idea is that there is no "average" whisky here because whiskies from different distilleries, different owners, and with different age statement increased at different rates.  Let's start with the Increase-by-age-statement chart.

Though another year passed and I added that 2015 data and I altered my methods, this year's chart looks almost identical to last year's chart.  Though it's more balanced than the 2015 graph, we're still seeing the movement towards the luxury pricing tiers by scotch whisky producers, distributors, and retailers.  Of the 19 whiskies on this list that are 25 years or older, eleven of them doubled in price.  A few even tripled and quadrupled.  Is this really due to scarcity or is it a psychological ploy?  Only the producers know.  And if people are paying the price, then the increases will continue.

Meanwhile, if you look at the left half of the chart, you can see an effort has been made to keep the prices of younger whiskies from inflating too much.  Starter single malts creep up in price slower in order to not scare off too many regular customers, thus establishing the first pricing tier.  Of course, every party involving the pricing are making it difficult for anyone who wants to move up to the next rung of a favorite distillery's range.  A once a year splurge no longer buys what it used to.  So why splurge on whisky?

But again, not every distillery is upping its prices at the same rate.

Even if you enlarge this chart it's still pretty crowded, but I included for completists.  To clear up the data, I'll include only the distilleries that have multiple products in the list...

Good news first.  There are eleven distilleries whose single malts' prices increased slower than the rate of inflation.  Yay!  If you're looking for a midpoint on the chart, it's Glenfarclas whose rate matches the overall average of 2.7 (which is in the 28-32% range).  Most of the distilleries to the right of Glenfarclas, especially those with the biggest increases, will probably not be much of a surprise to many of us.  Most of the distilleries with the largest average price increases are the distilleries that have established long-aged (read: ultra-luxury) single malts on the market: Macallan, Talisker, Glenfiddich, Highland Park, Glenlivet, Balvenie, etc.  Now let's see how this reads when comparing the distillery owners...

First of all, kudos to the 1/3rd of the owners who have raised their prices slower than the rate of inflation!  It's unfair to lay equal blame on Arran, Bacardi, or LVMH(!) with the likes on the right side of the graph.  J&A Mitchell (Springbank) sits as low as it does because their regular range (included in the list) hasn't changed in price much, though their limited edition items (not in the list) have almost doubled in price.  Meanwhile, J&G Grant (Glenfarclas) sits at the average/mean again.  Emperador inherited the sins of United Spirits.  Diageo doesn't crack the top three since, other than Talisker, the rest of their distilleries' increases were relatively moderate.  William Grant has Glenfiddich's and Balvenie's older bottlings.  And then there's Edrington.  Edrington, Edrington.  It's not like they have only two whiskies on this list unfairly bringing their average.  They have fourteen.

So if I take all these years and all these whiskies then find out who's responsible for what part of the price boost pie by weighting the amount of products from each producer...

Edrington's products make up 8% of the whiskies of the list, but are responsible for 24% of the overall price inflation.  Meanwhile, The BenRiach Distilling Company's products make up 7% of the list, but are responsible for 2% of the total inflation.

To be fair, again, the responsibility for these price increases does not fall entirely on the producers.  Importers, distributors, and retailers leave their own (sometimes) invisible footprint on the final price.  Some of these companies feel like they can inflate the price of brands which are marketed as luxury.  This is why one can find a bottle of Macallan 18 selling for $195 and $325, or Glenfiddich 40 selling for $3500 and $5000, at stores in the same city.

The one question I leave you the consumer with is how do you put a price on the importance of this brown liquid?  What's your breaking point?  How do you feel about the pricing tiers separating you from your favorites?  Okay, yeah, I know it sucks.  But do you think these price changes are motivated by actual market conditions?  Maybe that was more than one question.

I think the price of scotch is a problem that extends to the blends when it comes to the aged brown spirits available worldwide.  Can producers maintain an illusion of luxury or romance when the quality is not competitive at the price point?  I'll look at this further on Friday's post and then wrap it up with some stats from the first half of 2015.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Scotch Ain't Dead Yet, Part 1: Export Volume and Value

Reports of Scotch's demise are greatly exaggerated.  For some of us the idea of an industry collapse brought more than a little schadenfreude and many hopes for a decline in prices.  For others, including the authors of a truly baffling online petition for the Scottish government to protect the industry, there was fear that 1982 was upon us again and dozens of distilleries would fall.  But there hasn't been a crash or a precipitous crippling plummet or even a belly flop.

There does seem to be a steady drip drip drip decline.  I resisted quoting last year's financial analysis and calling this series "What is the Scotch Bust?" because there is no bust, yet.  But I will keep that title in my back pocket for next year or the year after, in case the trickle turns into a loch.

This year's trilogy will structurally mirror last year's.  Part 1 focuses on the export volume and value numbers published by the Scotch Whisky Association.  It's the post with all the cute minimalist charts.  Part 2 will be the newly updated and expanded US prices for single malts.  More whiskies!  More rows!  More columns!  More graphs!  Part 3 will include final analysis and conclusions and 2015 numbers and I really hope to make it briefer than last year's tome.

All of the data from my Excel charts here can be found in the SWA's Publication section, where the reports for 2009 through 2014 are available.  They just, literally two days before New Year's, published the 2014 numbers...

Welcome back to 2014!  The value decline seen in 2013 not only continued in 2014 but became steeper.  Export volume decreased, as it had in four of the previous six years.  And very curiously, the price per liter of exported whisky dropped below 2013's, 2012's, and even 2011's average.  Single Malt sales worldwide continue to soar, meanwhile blend sales are sinking.  Aged single malt stock is draining, but production has ramped up at a much higher pace.  And in scotch whisky's biggest export market, the United States, volume sales experienced a large decline, even taking value down with it.


First, the big graph.

As with all of these cromulent charts, you should click to embiggen
Though I include this mostly for completists, one can very clearly see the spikes in 2007 and 2011, the boomiest of the "boom" years.  But one can also see the dips that follow during the succeeding years.  Because there's very little point of reference here, I'll take a look at the gains since 1980 and add in the value and price per liter:

Last year I wrote about the plateau that had formed in 2012 and 2013.  Plateau no more.  Volume (liters) fell 3%, Value (£) dropped 7.3%, and even the value per liter declined 4.4% (or 7% since 2012).  So you don't have to squint to see most of this, let's zoom in from a different perspective and take a look at the growth and decline since 2007:

All three of these lines (volume, value, and value/volume) fell to their lowest levels since 2010.  Since 2011 was the biggest sales year in scotch whisky history, we're essentially at the point before the big shoulder formed.  If the declines continued in 2015 and the totals drop below 2010 levels, one could argue that that may be a cause for worry amongst the beancounters.

Before I delve into what was behind this decline. I wanted to include the next two charts which each contain possibly the saddest lines that a whisky chart could contain.

UK citizens are not drinking the very whisky made in their country.  And by the looks of this trend, they're very determined to not drink it.

But the rest of the world is drinking it.  Maybe a little less than we just were.  Let's see what's behind that drop.


Last year, I focused solely on sexy sexy malt whisky.  But it's not the driver of the decline.  In fact malt whisky sales continue to grow.

To quote from last year's post, "Reading books and magazines and interviews, a whisky fan will come upon quotes that single malt whiskies make only up 5 or 7 or 8 or 10 percent of whisky sales."  And, man oh man, not only were those stats false a few years ago, they're not even relevant now.  If we're talking about value (as corporate financial reports occasionally do), malt whisky has now crossed the 25% marker.  It's no longer a niche, no longer a nerdy little corner of the market.  I wouldn't doubt if malt sales wind up doubling over a period of 8 years (2008-2016).

So if malt whisky sales are on the rise, then what's going on?  Well, this is where numbers need some explanation, because it is here where the decline occurs...

So you can look at the above chart and see two things.  Firstly, it confirms that malt volumes are blasting off.  Secondly, it appears as if blend volume sales are treading water.  They go up and down a little bit each year, percentage-wise, but don't appear to move too much.  In fact, they're within 0.09% of where they were in 2008.

But here's the thing, even though the handsomer of the whisky siblings, MALT, is growing quickly, the other sibling, BLEND, is still really really huge.  So even the smallest percentage decline in blend sales can drag everything else down with it.

As in, "Whoopie, malt sales increased by 4.7 million liters in 2014!" "Yeah? Well, blend sales dropped 16.7 million liters that year."

Or, "Yay for malt whisky value jumping £103 million in 2014!" "That's quaint. Blends lost £424 million in value in 2014."

I don't know what lunatics are having that conversation, but the point is that blends lost a lot of drinkers in 2014, and no matter how many of them moved to single malt it's nowhere near enough to make up for the loss.  Blends are the gravity behind the fall.  Even the value per liter of blends dropped 7.4% in 2014 (almost 12% since 2012), while malt went up 1.5% in 2014 (32% since 2010).  I'll write about this further in Part 3 on Friday.


With malt sales still growing nicely and the price/liter nudging up, it's clear what's in demand.  How's that supply going?

Here's the bad news:
Sadly, the SWA data doesn't provide granular data for ranges on whisky older than 10 years, but I can say the following: the amount of >10year stock in 2014 is 37% lower than it was in 2008. Let me see if I can find some positivity here......the annual rate at which the volume of >10yo stock being drained has dropped since 2010.  In fact, the volume drained/bottled in 2014 was almost 10% less than was done in 2010.  Thank you, NAS bottlings!  Sorry.  :(

Here's the good news chart......or maybe not?
That is a truly insane boost in production.  The amount produced in 2014 is double what was in 2004.  I'm talking 142 million liters more.  And that's just in 2014.  Whisky sales are not, nor ever have been, growing at that rate.  So, when you hear concerns from people within the whisky industry about a whisky glut, this is what they're talking about.  I mean, whom do the suits think is going to buy all this whisky?  The Americans?


Whew, I had to sweat to find a segue there.  But it's a good one, because here is another driver of the downturn.

If one reads the industry commentary about which export markets were responsible for the drop in sales, you'll hear about the cutbacks by the Chinese government and the embargo with Russia.  These are pretty good excuses.  But those two markets added together carry but a fraction of the export weight that the Yanks do.  The USA remains the biggest whisky export value market by far (nearly the size of the next three markets combined).  And whisky exports to America stunk in 2014.

Volume, down 6.7% (or almost 9% from the 2011 peak).  Value, down by 8.6%.  Even the price/liter dropped (for the first time on this chart) in 2014, by 1.9%.  Those volume and value declines account for almost a quarter of the the entire export drop in both categories.

Because the SWA doesn't provide more granular data than this, one can only speculate what's going on.  As you'll see in Part 2, retailers' single malt prices continue to rise, so I'd be willing to bet that blend sales have also fallen off sharply in The States.  And maybe people aren't buying the more expensive bottlings whose prices are rising exponentially faster than the rest.  You'll see what I'm talking about in Part 2 on Wednesday.

Yes, 2014 was a crap year for the scotch whisky industry.  The biggest export market had a bad year (as did the former third largest, Singapore).  Export value, volume, and price/liter fell noticeably.  UK consumption continues to vanish into oblivion.  And export losses were entirely due to a 16.7 million liter (£424M) decline in blend sales.  Meanwhile, sales of malt whisky continue to blossom, stemming a bigger mess.  Optimism has spurred a major increase in malt production, which will either fuel a future boom or give whisky drinkers A LOT of long-aged whisky to consume over the next two decades.

That rough year wasn't without precedent, in fact export volume fell more precipitously in 2012.  Even single malt sales fell in 2012 (and again in 2013).  Export volume had a bigger fall in 2008 than it did in 2014.  What happened in 2014 that has drawn attention is the fact that exports' value fell along with the volume.  That doesn't occur frequently, but value also fell in 2013, 2004, and to a greater degree in 1998.  These are things that happen in markets.  There are good years and there are bad years.  2014 was a bad year, but what remains to be seen is: Are we seeing a trend?  One year does not equal a trend nor do two years.  The "Scotch Boom" was hyperbole, and perhaps we should wait before we announce doom as well.

On Wednesday, I'll take a look at single malt prices in the US, which *spoiler alert* continue to rise.  So sharpen them pitchforks.  On Friday, I'll mix all this stuff together, sprinkle it with some helpful 2015 data, and bake a whisky cake full of analysis.  You may need to wash it down with a glass of something.  I hear bourbon's pretty popular.