Why Whisky Could Be Bordeaux

Sometimes whisky bloggers will team up to tackle a topic simultaneously on their respective webpages. I've never really had the chance to go back and forth with another whisky blogger, but this seems like the right time to do it. Oliver Klimek writes an awesome whisky blog called Dramming that continues to follow market trends much like I do here. The man is German, lives in Germany, but writes in English, adding further embarrassment to us American bloggers who can barely write in English ourselves. Oliver wrote an interesting response to a series of pieces I did a few days back, comparing the rise in whisky prices to Bordeaux. While no one knows for sure what's going to happen with the market, I thought it would be fun to think of the top single malt brands in comparison to the top Bordeaux brands. Oliver, however, does not think the comparison is as strong.

Let's look at some of his points:

I beg to disagree. On first glance, the argument makes sense. First Growth Bordeaux prices have climbed to ridiculous levels, but still the top châteaux sell their wine easily. And whisky prices have been going up and up bolstered by strong demand even for very expensive bottles. But there are two fundamental differences between the whisky and the wine market. Firstly the wine market is huge, much bigger than the whisky market.

I think the first thing that we need to point out is that I'm not comparing the whisky market to the wine market. I'm comparing the premium whisky market to the premium Bordeaux market. Just like there are inexpensive Bordeaux wines, there will continue to be inexpensive whiskies. My point is that the pricier whiskies many of us are interested in, but can still afford right now, may be going up to a level that we can no longer afford and never coming back down. It wasn't so long ago that Macallan 18 could be had for $80. I'd be surprised if it's under $200 anywhere by this time next year. That prices me out.

There are many thousands of producers across the world, and the top class Bordeaux wines only make up a teeny tiny little fraction of that, much less than the ‘premium’ single malt whisky segment that is giving us a headache right now compared to the entire whisky market.

I think this sentence summarizes exactly my point. Bordeaux is a niche market, as is the premium whisky market. This would seem to strengthen my argument, rather than weaken it.

For this reason I don’t think the First Growth prices have too much of an effect on the market of ‘affordable’ wine. There are shitloads of wines below $/€/£ 20 per bottle, and not all of them are plonk, while in single malt whisky we can see a definite rise in anything but the most basic expressions, fueled by the laws of supply-and-demand.

If I had been talking about wine in general, this would have been a strong point. However, I think Oliver misunderstood me. At no point do I think that rising Bordeaux prices have had an impact on wine prices as a whole, but rather only on other classifed-growths. If Lafite and Latour raise their prices, it allows Pichon-Lalande and Cos de Estournal to do the same. I think this analogy is the same for whisky. I've been privvy to some insider info that really nailed this point home. I know for a fact that a certain company raised the price on one of their top expressions just so they could be 5% higher than another competitor. They wanted to be seen as "more luxurious" than this particular whisky. This is happening in Bordeaux and in single malt. Believe me.

The second difference is even more striking, and probably also more important for answering the ‘bubble’ question: The correlation between price and quality is much greater in wine than it is in whisky. I am not sure if you can find many €20 bottles that can match Premier Crus – if at all. But it is not unusual to find a €50 single malt receiving the same score from reviewers as a bottle ten times as expensive.

When studying the results of the Malt Maniacs Awards 2012, you see that indeed most of the top scorers are old and expensive single cask bottlings. But this is by far not a one-way street. The quite affordable Elements of Islay Pl1 and Yamazaki Shery Cask bottles managed to get the same 90 point score as the much more expensive old Longmorn and Glen Grant, for example. And it also works the other way round. Some rather expensive bottles only managed to get a silver or bronze medal. For example the latest Talisker 25 yo (price: €250) received 85 points, the same score as the Lagavulin 16 yo retailing for €50.

If we were going to talk about our own opinions, which wines we liked personally or even the public perception as a whole, I think Oliver could have made a case here. However, if we're going to use points to determine quality (the absolute worst way we could possibly do it, in my opinion) then we're only going to prove that Bordeaux and whisky are even more alike. Shall we?

Let's use Robert Parker's reviews of the 2011 Bordeaux vintage as an example:

2011 Lafite - $700 - 90-93 points

2011 Lynch Bages - $109 - 90-93 points

Identical scores. $600 price difference. Should we keep going?

2011 Cos de Estournal $154 - 92-94 points

2011 Fonplegade $36 - 92-94 points

Cos is a Bordeaux legend. Fonplegage not so much. Identical scores. Big price difference.

I could list another twenty examples like this, but I don't think it proves anything other than the fact that points are the stupidest way possible of assessing quality. I don't think Robert Parker really believes that the Fonplegade and the Cos are on the same level. However, if you just look at the points you might think otherwise.

I would argue that Oliver's point is even stronger about Bordeaux than it is for whisky. You can more easily find great Bordeaux for less money than you can great whisky. I think it's entirely the opposite!

I'm really glad that people are feeling the need to chime in on this topic. It's an important one. I really appreciate that Oilver read the piece and used his own blog to offer more dialogue on the issue. This is one of the best parts about the online whisky community. That being said, I've yet to hear a convincing argument as to why the Bordeaux market and the whisky market are different. After reading Oliver's response, I'm even more convinced that they are alike.

-David Driscoll


I'm on a Boat

Where are the Glendronach and Benriach whiskies we've been selling on pre-order? They're on a boat. However, they're not hanging out with T-Pain, sipping Champagne in tuxedos, the wind whipping through their cardboard canisters. They're in a gigantic queue outside the Long Beach port, packed inside a pallet of plastic wrap, waiting to clear customs after a long and drawn-out dock workers strike. If you've ordered one of these bottles as a holiday gift for your favorite whisky drinker, I'll be happy to get you a refund and help you find something else. If you're waiting for your own personal bottle, please hang in there just a bit longer. We're doing everything we can, but there's not a whole lot we can do at this point. The whisky has been here for almost a month. We just can't get to it.

-David Driscoll



Whisky season really gets into full swing once the Diageo limited malts start making their way in. Lagavulin is here.

Lagavulin 12 Year Old 2012 Edition Natural Cask Strength Single Malt Whisky $109.99 - A limited edition, natural cask strength single malt whisky from the essential Islay distillery, Lagavulin, on Islay's rocky south coast. Ninth of a series of special 12 year old releases from the original distiller's stocks. Vatted from refill American oak casks, each at least 12 years old. Available in limited quantities worldwide. An elegant classic; massive smoke and purity of flavour supported by complex aromas and delicious sweetness. Less rich and plummy than the 16 year old, this starts with a fresh moss nose that is well hidden in the standard bottle.

Lagavulin Distiller's Edition Single Malt Whisky $109.99 – The 2012 limited edition is here, loaded with the Pedro Ximenez sherry from the double maturation. Big, cakey, and round with tons of richness. Smoke comes soft on the finish. Always a big hit. We’ve been getting about five requests a day for this lately, so it appears the DE Lagavulin is the new hot thing! I have never been a big fan of this whisky, but I had a sample bottle to pop so I just gave it a try. I was quite taken aback. This 2012 edition is exactly what I hope Lagavulin with extra sherry will taste like, but never seems to actually do. A burst of rich raisiny sherry comes first with all the classic Lagavulin smoke and brine on the back end. I've found that previous editions have overdosed on the sherry and drowned out the peat. Not this one. It's perfectly harmoneous. It's totally balanced and right where it needs to be. I think it might be the best Lagavulin I've tasted in years. Much better than the standard 16 in my opinion. Fans of the distillery will be very pleased.

-David Driscoll


Second Wines, Third Wines

For those of you who don't drink Bordeaux, let me explain what second and third wines are. The top Chateaux have their namesake labels, their tete de cuvée, that they produce every vintage without fail. Chateau Latour makes Latour and Chateau Lafite makes Lafite. There are sometimes great vintages in Bordeaux and there are mediocre ones as well. You would think that good vintages would mean plenty of Chateau Latour and in bad vintages less, but that's not quite how it works. When you're in the luxury business you can't have too many bottles available on the market. That would lower your product's perceived value! That's what second and third labels are for - "we'll just put the extra wine into a different wine called Les Forts des Latour," something Latour has been doing since 1966.

In lean vintages, the best grapes are obviously all used up in the top cuvées. In better years, you can really get some great values in the second and third labels because of the surplus in quality fruit. The point, however, is that even when they have extra juice they make sure not to let that affect their market price. Right now we're experiencing a shortage of mature whisk(e)y and prices are therefore on the rise. While I received quite a few emails from readers last night who didn't think the Bordeaux analogy held up, I think it might be dead on. Readers disagreed that whisky stocks would forever remain low and that prices would eventually go back down. However, the quantity of stock is always fluctuating in Bordeaux, yet the prices keep going one direction - up!

Let's say that the whisky industry does eventually reach a surplus after all this extra-production kicks in. Do you really think companies are going to lower their prices as a result? Make less money? Not if people continue to pay them. Everything that happens in the booze industry, or in any industry for that matter, is based on what people will pay and what they won't. I remember when people kept complaining about how major magazines were only reviewing $300 - $500 whiskies on a regular basis. "No one actually drinks that stuff! We need reviews about whiskies we can actually afford!" However, people are buying these bottles. We're selling them at K&L just by putting them on the webpage, letting internet shoppers pick from our finest selections. There's much more money to be made from $300 bottles of booze than $30 selections. A lot more, which is why Bordeaux producers put everything into their top wines. That's where the money is, so that's where their focus is.

What happens if whisk(e)y companies start focusing their best barrels and back stock into $200 and $300, or $2000 and $3000 bottles? I think this is already happening. We might see older expressions before if the distilleries had the mature whisky to bottle, but now we're seeing concerted efforts to produce luxury-status booze whether it should be luxury or not! We're currently facing a shortage of Elijah Craig 18, but Heaven Hill still found a way to release some 20 year whiskey this year. The 18 sells (or once sold) for $50. The 20 ran for $130. That's only two years difference. "Wait! You're telling me that if we wait an extra two years we can charge people an extra $80. And they'll still pay it? Gentlemen, tell me about this 20 year old whiskey we're working on!" We might see all the whisk(e)y we used to enjoy for a reasonable price start going into pricier, more luxury-focused bottles with very limited quantities. Especially when there are no age statements.

Another facet that readers disagreed with was that prices could remain high with newer producers getting into the game. This works in just about every other industry when prices get too expensive. Some new start-up will always come along, a la Jet Blue, and begin taking business from larger companies by offering discounted rates. Is this really happening with whisk(e)y though? How many new producers (in the last three years, let's say) have you seen pop up that have been bringing value back to whisk(e)y drinkers? I can tell you how many I have seen: zero. If anything, new producers are having the opposite effect! They're facing larger upstart fees, sliding scale production costs, and a need to start selling their product before it's even ready. They're coming into the market with higher prices for younger whiskies. When people start paying $40 for one-year old or even unaged whiskies it makes the larger companies scratch their heads.

If the public is willing to pay $40 for new make, then what should our 12 year old Bourbon cost? Hmmmm.....

Everything is relative to what people will pay.

-David Driscoll


Movies For Guys Who Like Movies

I'm the kind of guy who never buys the same bottle of whisky twice. I like to always keep something new in the bar. Right now I'm sipping on the new Royal Lochnagar Distiller's Edition, a whisky I have never before purchased, but am enjoying immensely.

However, I am finding that as I get older I am less interested in new music. I am less interested in new movies. I just want to listen to and watch the things I am already familiar with. They comfort me. They help me through the cold winter weather. I am getting old. That's what old people do. They're not up to speed with pop culture.

All time greatest albums?

1) Pavement - Wowee Zowee

2) Red Hot Chili Peppers - Blood Sugar Sex Magik

3) MF Doom - Mmm....Food

4) Deerhunter - Microcastle

5) Tears for Fears - Songs From the Big Chair

At least, those are the five albums that I could listen to on repeat and never get tired of.

Best movies of all time? In this order:

1) Ski School

2) Roadhouse

3) Kickboxer

4) Bloodsport

5) Rambo 4 (I am watching this right now, hence the motivation for this post)

I could put these movies on a 24 hour loop and I would never get bored. If they are on TV I will invariably watch until the end from whatever point I tune in at.

Whisky, however, is an entirely different animal for me. I do not want to taste the same thing over and over. I want new stuff. New products. New flavors. New producers.

I want more.

Pass me that unopened bottle, please. John Rambo is telling the missionaries that they have no business in Burma.

-David Driscoll