Tuesday, July 28, 2015

What is Value? - Novelty

One of the main forces in the modern spirits industry has been the hunger for novelty. I've seen this phenomenon noted by David Driscoll, a man who would know about it, of occasions. And it's hard to miss if one pays attention at all to spirits news, with releases coming thick and fast every single week. But caution is necessary when trying to decide how to scratch that itch.

This is a major shift for the industry. For decades distillers relied primarily on dedicated customers who would keep purchasing the same expressions over and over again, which made them prize consistency. More recent converts to the world of spirits frequently seek new experiences rater than finding a favorite and sticking with it. This has led distillers to release a mind-boggling array of new expressions over the last 10-15 years in an attempt to appease those desires, even though their business is still largely based on their long-standing core expressions. Many of the new expressions have been introduced at higher price points than their traditional offerings as a way to get the distillers out of a bind - they want to reap the benefits of new customers who are willing to pay higher prices, but don't want to drive their long-standing customers away by raising price of their core expressions too much. So while drinkers may complain about rising prices on their favorite standbys, most of the inflation has been on the high end. This is even more true in the American whiskey world where many excellent bourbons and ryes have remained steadfastly in the $20-30 range despite rising demand. At the same time, American whiskey has seen the higher end become much more crowded, with new expressions entering the $40-100 bracket and an increasing number reaching the heights that used to be the nearly exclusive domain of scotch above $100.

Unsurprisingly, many of these new expressions have been lack-luster because the goal has been to get something out the door as quickly as possible, rather than crafting a product with an internal logic. The growing emphasis on casks within the whisky industry is a solid example - a wild array of new casks seasoned with fortified and unfortified wines plus a number of different spirits have been used to finish otherwise standard whiskies, while new types of wood have also expanded the field. These finishes are frequently carried out for relatively short periods of time - a few months to a few years - to quickly impart new layers of flavor. There are also obviously exceptions - for instance, Arran used their early cask finishes as experiments to test the waters, then pared down their offerings to the small number that they thought worked best. But the emphasis has mostly been on quick novelty. The travel retail sector has also been a large driver of novelty for the sake of novelty, where distillers simultaneously try to maintain shelf space by maintain frequent new releases while keeping production costs as low as possible because of the razor thin margins afforded by the retailers.

Many new independent bottlers have sprung up, capitalizing on the desire for novelty, by repackaging the work of large distillers. This is most apparent within the American whiskey market, where non-distiller producers (NDPs) were much more rare before the recent boom. This has gone hand in hand with the growth of microdistilleries, with many blurring the lines between the two. Unlike Scotland, there is not a tradition in America of NDPs being explicit about their sources, preferring to hide behind fanciful stories. This has allowed them to fulfill the growing desire for novelty despite the relatively small number of major distilleries within the country. Significant amounts of copy has been produced about recipes handed down from generations past, the exquisite quality of local water, and the care and attention paid to produce 'small batch' spirits. This is despite the fact that the vast majority of these new expressions come from a single source, Midwest Grain Products, formerly known as Lawrenceburg Distillers Indiana. While not selling any of its products under its own labels, the distillery has explicitly turned itself into a one-stop shop for NDPs, producing both on a contract distilling basis and selling bulk spirits. This means that many of the new expressions that have cropped up over the last five years or so are all from the same source and, despite efforts to pick barrels with unique character, has largely resulted in a bunch of whiskies that all taste very similar, in no small part due to their youth. So what appears to be an explosion of diversity masks a great amount of similarity - drinkers need to be careful about what they're buying and question the stories that NDPs are telling about their products.

At the same time a host of new distilleries have cropped up, all claiming to offer something new. While there has been much more willingness to experiment within the microdistilling world, the value of those experiments is often questionable and, even when they're good, the retail prices are often sky-high. The most recent brought to my attention is Chichibu The Peated 2015, a 3 year old whisky that is going for $250 a bottle at the two California retailers currently carrying it. Even less expensive craft whiskeys often sell for $50-100 per bottle, which is understandable given their higher production costs, but that also makes it difficult for them to be values in comparison to more established distilleries. If customers are usually paying more for younger spirits, what are they getting instead? Generally, novelty, both in terms of the product itself and the novelty of buying from a smaller producer. The microdistilling industry has co-evolved with the renewed interest in 'craft' production that places an emphasis on small producers. The tenets of this movement suggest that a smaller number of dedicated craftspeople will provide more care and attention to detail than large corporations, resulting in better products, albeit usually at higher prices. So much of what new distillers are selling is their story as much as the product itself. And it is undeniable that stories can be very powerful.

Taking a page from the craft brewing industry, many new distillers argued that the big, long established distillers were producing bland products whereas their own efforts were fresh and exciting. While the slights aimed at the big distillers were largely questionable, it is true that many new distillers were exploring infrequently trod territory. New grains, new mash bills, new types of fermentation, new infusions, new types of stills, new types of aging. During the early phase of the craft cocktail movement, new distillers were operating in tandem with the desire to create new types of drinks by bringing out a host of new gins that went beyond the traditional London dry style, opening up new flavor profiles. Innovation has also come in the form of reviving old spirits, such as real peach brandy. Even the distillers that are sticking to traditional processes have brought in elements such as local sourcing.

There have always been two major limitations. First, that there are very few ways for new distillers to gain experience without diving in head first. Only a small handful of countries allow hobby distilling, unlike hobby brewing, which has proved to be a major catalyst for that industry. Working for a major distiller will not always provide experiences that translate, as the the processes of each scale are very different. This means that many new distillers are forced to learn as they go. This leads to the second point, which is that very few new distillers have sufficient capital to let them wait until their products are good before coming to market, which leads to a significant pressure to move products out the door to create cash flow, whatever their quality. In the case of white spirits, this may simply be a matter of having enough time to fine-tune their recipes and processes. This problem is much more surmountable, but has still led to plenty of half-baked products hitting the market. In the case of aged spirits, the problem is compounded by having to wait until products are mature. This has led to any number of experiments in 'accelerated' aging, from smaller casks, wood chips, or movement by ship or sound that increase the rate of wood extraction to reactors that blast spirit with oxygen, heat, and other forces to increase the rate of chemical reactions. While the claims that spirits aged in small barrels are better than those aged in standard barrels seem to have faded since their heyday 3-5 years ago, the chemical reactors are getting significant amounts of new press. While it is certainly possible to find those praising the quality of spirits produced through 'accelerated' aging, I have seen few independent reviews that consider them to be anything but a hot mess with dubious science behind their claims. The more honest tack is that these spirits are a different category from those aged using traditional methods and are difficult to compare to each other.

Ultimately there are a number of ways to fulfill a desire for novelty without paying inflated prices, though much of that will depend on how expansive your palate is. If you're going to focus on one type of spirit, then life is going to be tough. Distillers and NDPs know that many drinkers have strong preferences for a single type of spirit and will capitalize on the desire for circumscribed novelty. But there are many more attractive options if you're willing to explore. Like old bourbon but can't afford the exponentially rising prices? Look into armagnac - you can still get spirits that are decades old for a song and many are wood-driven in ways that are similar to bourbon. Enjoy the complexity of single malt whisky? Try rhum agricole - made from sugar cane juice it has depth and complexity without the bombastic molasses of other rums. If you want smoke, but can't swallow the price of the latest Islay special release, why not explore the world of mezcal? If you don't want to buy more bottles, why not try making your own blends at home? Or maybe find some friends who you can split bottles or trade samples with. Get creative instead of automatically jumping on the newest release. Your bank account will thank you.

Monday, July 27, 2015

What is Value?

One of the nagging questions in the rapidly evolving world of spirits is what does value mean? How is it measured? How has it changed?

It is undeniable that good spirits are more expensive now than they ever have been before. The glut of the 1990s and 2000s has morphed into scarcity almost everywhere you look, with prices rising while quality frequently slips. This has led to an increasing number of people chasing a decreasing number of good values.

As a participant of a number of different corners of the internet devoted to the discussion of spirits, variations on the exclamation "I just got X for Y (units of currency)! What a deal!" have become increasingly common. And a good chunk of the time I think they're nuts, paying wildly inflated prices for what are often mediocre spirits. But these people genuinely believe that they have gotten good deals. While it's true that something is worth whatever people are willing to pay for it, that willingness is influenced by a number of different factors. So what is it that drives people to spend increasing amounts of money for spirits regardless of their underlying quality?

This series will explore what I believe to be the main drivers of hype and inflation - the search for novelty, the fear of scarcity, and the simultaneous growth of both information and disinformation. The three are often intertwined, playing off of each other to increase the prices of spirits with decreasing quality.But I would also like to argue that value has not entirely disappeared from the world of spirits if buyers are willing to educate themselves and look outside their niches, so each post will also offer ways to extract ourselves from the hype and inflation that are plaguing the industry.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Experimental Whisky: North British/Highland Park/Macallan Blend

I've made two different blends based on the pairing of North British grain whisky and Highland Park single malt, both components of Edrington's blends. The first contained only those two elements, while the second added Bunnahabhain to the mix. I finally got ahold of some Macallan and decided to see how that would influence the blend.

•17 mL Signatory North British 16 Year CS
•5 mL Highland Park 12 Year
•5 mL Highland Park 15 Year
•3 mL Bunnahabhain 12 Year
•3 mL water

North British/Highland Park/Macallan Blend

Nose: sweet grain, rich caramel, creamy vanilla, mossy peat with twigs, layers of sherry, fudge, thick malt, orange/lime peel, ham, incense, gently floral. After adding a few drops of water, the grain becomes more assertive, the sherry integrates with the peat and oak, and some seashore/shellfish notes emerge.

Taste: sweet grain with a layer of sherry on top up front, a solid undercurrent of well-integrated oak, becomes maltier in the middle with mossy peat and floral notes in the background, fades out with cotton candy and more grain. After dilution, it becomes sweeter up front and more integrated in the middle, with more peat, oak, incense, and baking spices at the back.

Finish: grain and malt, sherry residue, mossy peat, mild oak

It is perhaps unsurprising that this was more successful than the Bunnahabhain blend. Macallan and Highland Park are both owned by Edrington, which makes me suspect that they're sourcing their sherry casks from the same bodegas. Putting the two together amps up the sherry character without sidelining the peat as much as Bunnahabhain did. With that said, I don't think this is better than the blend made with Highland Park as the only malt component. This version may be more approachable, with the peat pushed somewhat into the background, but sometimes it's hard to beat the original.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Experimental Whisky: North British/Highland Park/Bunnahabhain Blend

After my first Highland Park/North British blend, I wondered what would happen if I added other components of Edrington's lineup to the mix. Bunnahabhain, while not currently under their ownership, has been a longstanding element of their blends.

•17 mL Signatory North British 16 Year CS
•5 mL Highland Park 12 Year
•5 mL Highland Park 15 Year
•3 mL Bunnahabhain 12 Year
•3 mL water

North British/Highland Park/Bunnahabhain Blend

Nose: balanced grain and malt, thick sherry, polished oak, and mild peat come together, caramel, herbal/floral, berries. After adding a few drops of water, it becomes creamier, with more vanilla and berries, the malt and grain integrate, and the sherry fades.

Taste: initial subdued grain/malt sweetness up front, sherry and berries take over around the middle, with undertones of oak, wood smoke, and peat at the back, fading out through slightly salty malt. After dilution, the malt and grain integrate, the saltiness comes in more early, the sherry fades into the background and integrates with the peat.

Finish: vegetal, grain, moderate oak, sherry residue, hints of peat

As Florin noted on my post reviewing Bunnahabhain 12 Year, it almost has too much flavor and that quality is noticeable here. I don't think I've ever had an unpeated single malt dominate a blend as much as Bunnahabhain does. This might have worked better with an unsherried Bunnahabhain as that felt like the component that was overwhelming the Highland Park, so further experiments will be warranted.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Experimental Whisky: Highland Park/North British Blend

An ongoing project is to explore blends that mimic the primary malts available to whisky conglomerates in Scotland. Edrington is the owner of two of the most iconic distilleries in Scotland, Macallan and Highland Park, as well as the less well-known Glenturret. They also own a stake in the North British grain distillery, which is shared with Diageo. Their primary blend, Famous Grouse, is one of the best selling in Scotland and is primarily based on their grain and malt distilleries.

While I didn't have any Macallan or Glenturret on hand, the different expressions of Highland Park provide a fairly broad palette of flavors. The 12 Year is smokier and has more European oak casks in its mix, while 15 Year is more refined and brings more American oak character.

•15 mL Signatory North British 16 Year CS
•5 mL Highland Park 12 Year
•5 mL Highland Park 15 Year
•3 mL water

Highland Park/North British Blend

Nose: well-integrated grain, sherry, and heathery peat, plus vanilla, burning twigs, malt, and something green. After adding a few drops of water, the sherry becomes brighter and the grain is more apparent.

Taste: sweet grain up front, quickly joined by solid sherry influence that carries through the palate, followed by dark chocolate, an undercurrent of earthy peat, and moderate oak tannins. After dilution, the sherry influence becomes brighter and stronger - spreading across the palate, with more grain and less peat showing up at the back.

Finish: solid oak, bittersweet grain, sherry residue, a touch of earthy peat

I was pleasantly surprised by just how good this was. The grain whisky reads almost like a bourbon cask malt, likely helped by the Highland Park 15 Year. The sherry character from the malts balances well and the smoke is more present than I would have expected. Admittedly, this would solidly qualify as a 'premium blend' if Edrington decided to put something similar out, but at the right price I would definitely buy it.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Experimental Whisky: North British/Auchentoshan/Bowmore Blend

One of the goals I've had in exploring blends is to see if I can replicate some of the blends that are already out there. While I don't have nearly as much whisky to work with, I can at least approach some of the flavor profiles.

Morrison-Bowmore, for a long time (before Suntory snapped up Beam), was composed of three different malt distilleries - the eponymous Bowmore on Islay, Auchentoshan in the Lowlands, and Glen Garioch in the Highlands. Unsurprisingly, these three malts were combined into a proprietary blend called Rob Roy.

While I currently don't own anything from Glen Garioch, I do have the standard 12 Year expressions from Auchentoshan and Bowmore and have previously found that they work well together.

•14 mL Sig. North British 16 Year CS
•6 mL water
•7 mL Auchentoshan 12 Year
•3 mL Bowmore 12 Year

North British/Auchentoshan/Bowmore Blend

Nose: fresh wheat bread, clean malt, grassy, cotton candy, grapes, wood smoke, a touch of mossy peat, dusty oak. After adding a few drops of water, it becomes brighter and more malty, the sherry is more apparent, and the peat really stands out - becoming much more smoky and coastal.

Taste: moderately sweet malt and grain up front, gaining sherry overtones and an undercurrent of oak with a bit of peat and smoke further back. After dilution, the malt becomes sweeter and more prominent, the peat and oak integrate while spreading out across the palate, giving it a more bittersweet profile overall.

Finish: grain, malt, mild peat and oak, a bit of sherry residue

For a grain-heavy blend proofed down to 40%, this was surprisingly tasty. Interestingly, the malt actually came to the fore after adding some more water, which is a property I've noticed from a handful of other blends before. This leads me to wonder if there is a rational for bottling most blends at a lower proof, beyond simple economics. Maybe some of them really do just work better that way? At the very least, I'm starting to believe that lower bottling proofs make the flavors of grain whisky less readily apparent, which would be a strong incentive for blends that are composed primarily from grain whisky.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Whisky Review: Archives Auchentoshan 23 Year 1990/2014

One of the discoveries that I've made is that I really prefer triple-distilled whisky from ex-bourbon rather than ex-sherry casks. Something about it just fits with the caramel and vanilla flavors that come from American oak without the overlay of sherry. This has been most noticeable from Auchentoshan and Hazelburn.

This sample comes from the WhiskyBase Shop, who not only do their own bottlings under the Archives label, but also put out samples from a lot of the bottles that pass through their shop. At 20 mL, they're clearly aimed at getting people to try whiskies that they otherwise wouldn't in the hope that people will then buy a full bottle. With that in mind I slipped one of these into my latest order.

The whisky was distilled in November 1990, aged for 23 years in a hogshead (probably refill?), then bottled in Septemeber 2014 at 47.7% without coloring or chill filtration.

Archives Auchentoshan 23 Year 1990/2014

Nose: very light - sugar cookies over fresh oak, hay, fruity bubblegum, vanilla, raspberries/strawberries, undercurrent of floral perfume. After adding a few drops of water, the hay becomes a little burnt around the edges, strong notes of lime and eucalyptus emerge, the floral notes integrate with the malt and overtake the sugar cookies, and a bit of chocolate with roasted malt pops out.

Taste: lots of malt and sugarcane sweetness throughout, fades through fresh hay, berry and fruit esters, chocolate-covered oak, and roasted malt, then back to hay. After dilution, the palate gains a lot of thickness, with malt gaining over the sugarcane and the chocolate oak spreading out underneath the other elements, while the hay at the back becomes drier (as opposed to fresh) and sweeter.

Finish: lots of fresh hay, rather sweet, an undercurrent of oak, lingering fruit esters, dark chocolate

This whisky seems to be a very odd mix of youth and maturity. There are elements, like the bourbon cask fruit and chocolate-y oak finish, that I associate with well-aged malts, but at the same time the plastic-y off notes (which admittedly burn off with time) and fresh hay remind me of young spirit. Given the rather reduced proof for something that's not terribly old, I have to wonder if this was bottled more in an effort to keep it from losing any more strength than because it was really at its prime.

With all that said, this nearly convinced me to buy a whole bottle. The whisky takes a while to open up, but it's a really interesting experience. Considering the age, the price is fair, though I would highly encourage you to take advantage of the WhiskyBase Shop's samples to try a bit for yourself first.