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Thursday
May022013

The Whisky Industry Sells Out (like it's supposed to)

Let's see....

We've got the Whisky Advocate Blog talking about the current state of the industry this week with tons of comments from unhappy enthusiasts, lamenting the loss of affordable, quality single malt.

My buddy Tim over at Scotch and Ice Cream has decided he's going to stop buying whisky and drink what he has. There's some good commentary going on there as well.

Of course, the current talk is based off of SKU's article about the possible "Golden Age" of whisky being over. Steve wrote that article a year ago in July, however.

Steve and I were talking about price increases at that time after I wrote an article that June.

Even back in 2010 we were getting some guff from customers because we were changing our prices to reflect the new costs, while other stores will still sitting on older inventory and older pricing. People thought it was just K&L looking to make an extra buck.

There's been plenty of whisky blogging over the past few years about the increasing cost of whisky. I think I went on a month-long rant about it at one point. But this isn't a secret that's now being discovered and it isn't something new. It's been happening steadily for the last five years. Whisky is hot. Whisky is popular. It's all the rage. Now it's getting too popular and people are getting upset. True whisky fans have called it a bubble. Long time drinkers have said that it won't last. Collectors have raged against whisky companies for selling us younger whisky with a higher price tag. Connoisseurs have complained about newbie drinkers buying what they're told is good, thereby making it harder to get things like Pappy Van Winkle.

More and more people are voicing their displeasure as of late, likely because things are only getting more expensive and the values are becoming harder to find. Since the whisky industry is facing absolutely zero competition in terms of upstart distilleries or newly-formed businesses, it can charge whatever the public is willing to pay, which has yet to find a ceiling if you look at the Bonham's auction from a few days ago.

While it makes sense for consumers to complain when prices rise (gas, taxes, etc), should we really blame the whisky companies? If you're in the business of making whisky isn't this scenario exactly what you want to happen? More money for less product? Huge gains? A market that can't get enough with emerging markets on the horizon to increase this demand? Isn't this exactly what you're supposed to do when people want to buy your product? Raise your prices?

To lambast the whisky industry for doing exactly what it's supposed to do (make as much money as possible) seems a bit misguided. Whisky companies are not politicians. We didn't vote them into office. They're not using public money to make their whisky. They didn't issue us any promises about "no new taxes" or "no price increases." Yet, because we feel so passionately about their products we feel like we should have a say in their directions (much like my co-worker Alex feels about the San Francisco Giants).

When Bruichladdich sold to Remy Cointreau we were all pretty bummed, even though nothing has really changed since the sale took place. It was more of a symbolic sadness because it meant that even the best independent distilleries were for sale. It's how A's fans felt when Jason Giambi signed with the Yankees and shaved his beard. It's how hip-hop fans felt when Ice Cube started making movies like "Are We There Yet?" It's how punk rockers felt when their genre became co-opted by middleclass, suburban Americana with three-chord anthems delegated to soda commercials.

Why shouldn't Billie Joe Armstrong become a millionaire, however? Did Green Day ever promise their fans they would never sign lucrative record deals? Did we really expect inner-city youths who for years had used rap music to express their pain and suffering not to cash that ticket towards a better life?

What about your street cred? Doesn't staying true to yourself and your fans have any meaning anymore?!

Not to whiskymakers. Well, maybe a few. Springbank comes to mind. But outside of a handful of proud moralists the answer is a resounding:

ARE YOU F&%$ING CRAZY????!!!!!! HELL NOOOOOOOOOOO!

Lagavulin isn't a small, proud, family-owned business run by traditional Scotsman using techniques passed down from generation to generation. It's owned by one of the largest, most powerful corporations in the world. Corporations exist to make money! As much of it as possible. As fast as possible. As cheaply as possible with as much profit as possible.

If you don't like Ice Cube's music anymore, do you think he cares? If you post on a message board that Green Day's last good album was Dookie, do you think they're losing sleep? Those guys are sitting on a beach somewhere drinking a cocktail and thinking about how great life is. They're not worrying about what you think.

The same goes for whisky companies. They're all selling out because that's what they're supposed to do - SELL, SELL, SELL. Just like any sellout artist they've got an entirely new legion of fans who never "got into" the old stuff. Fans who have never heard any of Jay Z's early albums. Fans who don't know that Dave Grohl used to be in a band called Nirvana. For every old school fan who loses interest in the updated product they're creating ten new ones to take your place. That's how Bon Jovi continues to fill arenas around the world. He can't sing "Living On A Prayer" anymore, anyway.

Unlike an aging artist, however, who might like to play a small club every now and again to recapture the nostalgia of the old days, whisky companies do not have a conscience. They're not worried about their legacy in the eyes of true connoisseurs. They don't give two shits if customers say, "Man, they don't make 'em like they used to."

They're making money hand over fist right now. Just like they're supposed to.

Why do we expect them to do otherwise?

-David Driscoll