Last year I wrote a series of posts called Drinking to Drink and since then I have been emailed non-stop about these articles from readers. Apparently they resonated with a number of folks.
I thought an update on the subject might be in order.
2014 has been an interesting year for whisky at K&L. I feel as if the transition from an older generation of whisky fans to a newer, more-hungry group of drinkers has finally taken place. Many of our long-time customers (who used to email me every single day) have seen their orders dwindle, while new names continue to populate the order queue each day. Guys who used to stop by every weekend are no longer coming in, but they are being replaced with fresh faces that introduce themselves to me on a weekly basis. There was a rough patch in 2012 when prices started to skyrocket and availability began to decline—the grumbling began, the bitter annoyance with newbie naivete was everywhere, and everyone kept harping about a bubble, but nothing ever gave way. Sales never slowed, prices never plummeted—the whisky machine just kept churning and we kept growing.
People talk about cycles in the industry—ebbs and flows, busts and booms—but no one ever mentions the cycle of the serious whisky collector; the guys who discover single malt, become obsessed with it, and then burn out in a supernova of passion resulting in total liquidation. It's what happens when people stop purchasing with the intention of drinking and start looking beyond the spirit, deep into the vast world of cache and cool. Their curiosity to taste more whisky becomes an all-encompassing obsession, and the more they buy, the faster they explode. But as one star comes to the end of its life, another is born to take its place in the night sky of whisky consumerism—and many of these new stars do not care about blogs, the way things used to be, or the fact that when you were a kid Yamazaki 18 only cost a nickel.
Because highly-revered bottles like Port Ellen are so expensive, and must-have bottles of Pappy impossible to find, there's an acceptance of the idea that cult whiskies are out of reach. This new mindset has helped to refocus our gaze back towards what we can actually afford to drink and what's actually on the shelf. Instead of hearing, "I'm slowly sipping my last few bottles of Brora and Stitzel-Weller," I'm hearing, "I'll probably never taste those whiskies, so I don't really think about them." Seasoned whisky veterans are skeptical about the marketplace because, in their experience, most of the value has vanished, but the absence of these consumers—the ones who are sitting on their backstock and waiting for the old days to return—isn't really being felt. In my humble opinion, this is because the consumption of boutique spirits is no longer a side hobby for the super geeks—it's at the point where a greater proportion of the general populace is involved and the liquid is actually being consumed.
Today's spirits customer is more excited about drinking than collecting—at least today's K&L customer is. Most of the new drinkers I've met over the last year are buying bottles, emptying them, then coming back wide-eyed for more. I have become one of these drinkers, and I've been taking my queue from the passion this younger generation is bringing. I'm still interested in old whisky, rare whisky, and new whisky—it's just that I'm interested in drinking it and then moving on to something else. I don't pine for the old days, I don't wish things were back to the way they used to be, and I do not give a flying fuck about batch numbers. I simply look forward to the next glass and I love that more and more drinkers are adopting this mentality.
The bubble for collectables might still be forming, but there is no cap for new enthusiasm or new boutique consumerism. We're continuing to find new products that inspire us and more people than ever before are drinking them. When you drink for the sake of drinking, there is no collector burn out; there are no cycles.