One of the things you'll often read concerning wine regions around the world is how the increased awareness surrounding wine appreciation has led to an increase in wine quality. Vineyard management knowledge is at an all time high, sanitation has never been stricter, and there is enough demand worldwide to justify spending more money on better equipment. The combination of better viticulture, better science, and better production has resulted in better wine almost across the board. Over the last twenty years there is hardly a place left in the world that isn't making better wine than it was two decades earlier (unless you count some of the modern practices in places like Napa). Many cabernets are more approachable in their youth. Many pinot noirs are fleshy and sweet rather than tart and tannic. Chablis wines are round and crisp instead of astringent and green. Winemaking is pretty much in a better place now that it has ever been before.
The increased quality of wine, coupled with the increased interest in drinking it, has led to higher prices. People are simply willing to pay more for something that tastes the way they want it to taste. As many of the world's finest wines --wines that were often undrinkable in their youth and needed decades in the cellar-- are being made in a more drinkable style, prices have only gone up as a result. In my mind, a wine was always more valuable because it would age and continue to improve, rather than show well right off the bat. That's what made a great wine great. Now, however, it's a different story. People are increasingly opening Silver Oak, Caymus, Pontet-Canet, and Opus One wines less than two years after the vintage date. The rich, supple, fruit-concentrated flavors are what modern drinkers are after, rather than the savory, delicate, integrated character of an older, more mature wine. With a more approachable style comes a more saleable product --one that can be enjoyed quickly and then repurchased quickly.
Winemakers aren't the only ones, however, praising the increased quality of their craft. Ask any distiller in Scotland about his whisky and he'll tell you that it's never been better, and for the same reasons: increased knowledge, better equipment, better wood for maturation, and more money invested in the process. Not only is the whisky tasting better, but, much like with wine, it's tasting better at a younger age. When you ask these guys about the current shortage of whisky, they're not all that concerned. Dropping the age statement and replacing the product with a younger version isn't the end of the world because, in their minds, the whisky is better than it's ever been. I've literally been told by several major distillers the exact same line: "Yes, the whisky is younger, but it's also better than the whisky we were making twenty years ago." With wine, there's no question most products are better today than ever. But is the increased quality in whisky as palpable?
I think single malts need to be judged on a case-by-case basis. Some whiskies are just not as impressive as they once were, simply because there's less stock to make them with. Older whiskies were once married into 12 and 15 year expressions to add richness, whereas today there's barely enough 12 year malt to keep the age on the label. Some distilleries, however, are indeed making better whiskies at a younger age. Glen Garioch comes to mind immediately, as does Arran, but peatier whiskies have a distinct advantage in my mind. David and I have been very, very impressed by the quality of young peated whiskies we've tasted over the last year. Our new 7 year old "Island" distillery malt is going to shock the pants off of you. As will two three year old malts we plan on bringing in very soon from Bladnoch and another big, big name.
In some cases, the quality of young single malt whisky is indeed better than it's ever been. I'd never dreamed we'd be able to make people happy selling three year old single malt whiskies in the past, but today it's a reality. One wonders if it's more out of necessity, however.