We're half way through 2013 and it's been a frustrating year for a number of whisk(e)y drinkers, mainly because the availability of mature releases has become increasingly scarce, while prices for the usual suspects have gone up, up, up. We've written a number of posts about this subject over the last few years and I've received a healthy dose of customer rants. Many longtime drinkers simply feel like they're getting less and paying more, especially for new marketing and gimmickry. While I can't really argue against that mindset, nor do I necessarily disagree with it, I'm not going to "continually look in the rear-view mirror," as one of my emailers wrote. There's still a lot of good whisk(e)y to drink out there if you can get your mind out of 2009. You can't get Yamazaki 18 for $99.99 anymore, just like you can't get Chateau Lafite for under $500 or a house in the Bay Area for less than $500,000. We know that.
The question is: what can you get without overpaying? Plenty.
Not all whiskies are created equally. Americans more than any other consumer, however, are still easily swayed by age statements, numbers, points, and ratings more so than their own judgement. Nothing confuses more K&L shoppers than the gulf in price point separating the Lagavulin 16 from the 12 year ($64.99 vs. $99.99). "This doesn't make any sense," they say. "Why is the 12 year thrity-five dollars more when it's four years younger?" Many reasons, as we all know, but mostly because the 12 year isn't simply the exact same whisky with four less years in the barrel. Yet, we continue to compare young whiskies versus their older brethren, cursing the rising cost of youth without perhaps stopping to think about whether the quality has risen with it.
For example, is ten year old Bruichladdich spirit, made entirely after the re-opening in 2001, of the same quality as the older, inherited whisky they first released? Not according to Jim McEwan.
"About five weeks ago I checked our present ten year old and twelve year old against what was available before we bought the distillery in 2001, which was a ten year old and a fifteen year old, and the difference was huge. The old stuff was lacking in almost all areas, particularly in the oak department. The whisky was lacking in oak influence and the fruits of distillation were very muted and there was no finish to speak of - it was gone after fifteen minutes," Jim told me yesterday via email. "Now the problem really came to light on my first few weeks here, when every cask was a second or third fill, even fourth fill and so I set about recasking every single barrel in the warehouses into fresh Bourbon and fresh Sherry. That took three years due to the lack of cash, but I got it done and you know that I have only used the best available since I started at Bruichladdich."
It's no surprise that the initial Bruichladdich releases after the ressurection were finished in all kinds of different wine casks, hoping to add some pop to the dullness of old wood maturation. "Crap wood gives little or no
flavour from the cask," Jim added, "so instead of improving the spirit, the wood is like a parasite and it sucks the life from the spirit. Of course, (a little caramel) fixes that in terms of colour and sweetness, but that's like make-up on a ugly woman, the final nail in the coffin." This is something to keep in mind when you think back to 2007 and the $50 Bruichladdich 12 year that you once loved. Today's 10 year release is far superior, both in my mind and in Jim's. Not only because of the increased quality of Bruichladdich's maturation program, but also the flavor of the distillate itself.
No whisky has impressed me more so far in 2013 than Bruichladdich's Bere Barley release, a six year old release made from a different strain of barley (perhaps brought to Scotland by Norse invaders sometime around 800 A.D.) than their usual single malt whisky. Again, some customers scoffed at the $70 asking price for a malt so young, despite the fact that the quality was absolutely stunning. When something tastes this good and is made with such care, isn't it worth shelling out the extra money? "The Bere Barley is so young and pure, no make-up just as nature intended. Its history, honesty, and harmony honor the guys working on a dream which the consumer can experience, the wonder of how the seed survived since the 9th century, brought by Vikings to Scotland. What a living timeline!" Jim wrote in a separate email last February. When we think about whisky today as consumers we need to consider what steps distillers are taking to justify the new market pricing. Is your favorite whisky pushing the limits, working hard to bring you something new and exciting? In my mind, Bruichladdich is truly beginning to stand tall above the top its Scottish competitors, in terms of quality, value, and design. Their Botanist gin continues to be one of my favorite mixers and the Port Charlotte 10 year might be my favorite peated whisky of 2013 thus far.
Don't forget Kilchoman, either. Most single malt fans have learned that the farm distillery's penchant for smaller heart cuts and slow distillation times is resulting in some of the finest peated whisky in the business. Their newest release, 2013's sherry-matured Loch Gorm, is already testing the patience of many consumers with its $79.99 price tag, despite its six year age statement. Everything explodes, however, on the first sip - supple sherry, iodine and peat, rich barley, and campfire smoke. Just to make sure I wasn't overly-excited by my own personal bias, I decided to open it next to a bottle of the Lagavulin 16 - a whisky that has recently taken a qualitative nosedive, in my opinion. There was no question concerning which whisky was the more impressive specimen. The Lagavulin tasted muted, watered-down, just flat out boring when paired next to the provocative and poignant Kilchoman. The Redwood City staff came away confounded, but as McEwan already pointed out, the number doesn't tell you anything about the condition of the barrels.