No segment of the single malt industry has been more impacted by the upswing in popularity than the single cask business. What was once a unique way for a handful of independent producers to make some cash on the side suddenly became the premier way to find great whisky at a great price. Older casks of Laphroaig, rare malts like Brora and Banff, cask strength versions from producers regularly unavailable, were all on the shelf for the consumer who wanted to branch out and diverge from the regularly-schedulded branded options. The blended whisky business had seen producers and blending houses swap barrels regularly for years, resulting in numerous warehouses all over the country filled to the brim with different whiskies from different distilleries. The only problem was that these bottlers were dependent upon other producers for their supply. When the distilleries started to worry about their own rations, the well began to dry up and many independent bottlers began scrambling just to keep up with their own demand.
One thing you have to understand, however, is the reason there were so many older, ancient, rare, and delicious single malt casks available is because no one was drinking single malt whisky. So there it sat, getting older, waiting for a day when it might find some use. I remember Stewart Laing telling us last year that they would have had several casks of 30 year Brora to sell, but they had already dumped most of it into their twelve year old blended brand about a decade ago. "We didn't know what else to do with it," he said, like a kid apologizing to his parents. "Obviously, had we known there was going to be a ressurgence for this stuff we would have sat on it, but we had already been sitting on it for twenty years!" Once the hobby of cask hunting began to really take off at the end of the 2000s, warehouses were being emptied faster than they could be refilled and the selection really started to dwindle.
Over the last six months, I've had many a single malt collector say to me, due to the recent price hikes for single barrel malts, "I'm done buying whisky for now. I'm just going to drink what I have." In a sense, that's what many independents like Chieftain's, Duncan Taylor, and Gordon & MacPhail are doing as well – they're looking at the current market and deciding that the price for new casks is simply too far out of whack. They're circling the wagons and focusing on their own labels and distilleries. Ian McCleod is far more interested in Tamdhu and Glengoyne than Chieftain's. G&M is steadily pushing Benromach over new independent bottlings. A.D. Rattray has a big development currently in the works, while Douglas Laing expects to make a bid for their own distillery sometime soon. Basically, these guys are all looking for ways out of the independent cask trade and into the production side of the business. They don't have enough casks to sell anymore, so they're not in any hurry to be rid of them. Since they're not in any hurry to sell, they're certainly not in any hurry to deal.
If you're wondering why our selection of single barrel single malt whisky has diminished over the past year, this is the main reason: price. David and I are not buyers who will simply buy things because we know they'll sell. We could buy a case of practically every single cask whisky that comes our way and someone would eventually buy it all – that's the great thing about the internet these days. However, neither of us wants to see a shelf with $150 bottles of Laphroaig 15 or $200 bottles of Ardbeg 12. That makes us part of the problem rather than part of the solution. We've also passed on many selections over the past six months because we have the capability of doing our own importation now, leading to much fairer pricing for consumers. The only problem is that the process of bringing whisky over the Atlantic is a long and arduous one, so there tend to be serious holes in our inventory while we wait for the newest batches to arrive.
While I do expect prices for standard single malt releases and older expressions to eventually level out over the next year, I don't forsee a future where old, rare, and interesting single casks re-emerge on the shelf. The spoils of the last decade were based on the serious glut of overproduction in the 1980s. No one ever set out to create 35 year old barrels of Banff, or a small collection of Ladyburn casks. It happened because no one wanted to buy these whiskies. With the demand of single malt whisky where it is today, however, we're not likely to see this segment of the market ever return to where it once was – at least not anytime soon. We're still able to find some great values from Signatory and a few newer bottlers that have popped up recently, but nothing like we once did only a few years ago. David and I simply scratched our heads at some of the cask pricing we saw this year.
It's going to take another glut to ever produce the circumstances necessary for serious, affordable, single cask selection. Plus another few decades of disinterested consumers to allow all of it to mature. Only when distilleries overproduce do they start shedding barrels, but most are still playing catch-up.
In other words, don't wait around.