2011 K&L Awards - Whisk(e)y of the Year

True, we haven't yet posted the Single Malt of the Year award, however both of us picked single malts for our overall Whisk(e)y of the Year award.  By that logic, our single malt choices should also have been the below whiskies:

David Othenin-Girard picks: 1994 Glendronach 16 Year Old K&L Exclusive Single Malt Whisky - I very much wanted to pick the 1998 Springbank Bourbon cask we imported as well, but the Glendronach was just too appealing.  Not just to me, but to everyone else too.  It's crazy to think we almost didn't visit the distillery.  We were trying to stick to producers we knew we wanted to buy from.  Neither of us imagined we'd ever be buying a gigantic sherry butt from Glendronach.  Now it's my favorite single malt of 2011.

David Driscoll picks: Glendronach 12 Year Old Single Malt Whisky - The story is this: David OG and I needed to find somewhere to stay after a long drive to the Highlands.  Glendronach offered us their guesthouse.  We accepted, but said to ourselves, "Does that mean we have to stick around and taste all their whisky?"  We had important things to be doing and Glendronach was not high on our priority list.  When we arrived we found a bottle of the 12 year sitting in our room so we cracked it.  After our first glass we said, "Wow, that's actually pretty good."  After our second we said, "Jeez.  I really, really like that."  After our third we were really excited, "Maybe we can find an older cask like that?"  That's how we ended up with the 16 year above.  Meanwhile, we've been selling the 12 year to everyone who comes in looking for a great whisky.  For the price, can you really tell me there's anything higher in quality?

-David Driscoll


2011 K&L Awards - Best Rye?

David OG and I picked the Sazerac 18 year as our favorite rye of the year, so I'll start by saying that.  However, the Sazerac 18 is almost always the best rye every year, so I didn't feel like it needed a big picture and an explanation.  I have a bit of problem with this category right now.  Rye is in such a transitory state at the moment that it's really difficult to choose seriously when analyzing the best specimen of the year.  All of the great ryes that I tasted were super limited, relatively expensive, and almost impossible to find.  They were released at the end of the year or not even released at all.  I'm talking about bottles like Sazerac 18, Pappy Van Winkle 13, Anchor Hotalings 16, etc.  While these whiskies were far and above the best of the bunch, they don't really paint a picture about the year in rye.  They didn't carry the load, nor did they represent what most people were drinking. 

2011 was about LDI rye.  Templeton, Redemption, High West, Willett, Bulleit, etc.  It was also somewhat about sourcing some Canadian rye - Whistlepig, Masterson's, Jefferson's.  Sazerac and Rittenhouse did make brief appearances, but there was nothing stable or dependable in 2011 besides what I call filler product.  Everyone drank Bulleit because Rittenhouse wasn't there.  Should Bulleit be the rye of the year?  To me, that would be similar to having a lockout in the NBA, playing the season anyway with non-union scrubs, and still awarding a trophy to the best D-League team at the end of the year.  Sure, it's still basketball, but we all know who the best players really are.  With Wild Turkey, Heaven Hill, and Buffalo Trace all out of stock for most of the year, it was really about finding someone to take their place.

However, before I go too far in naming 2011's rye candidates second-rate, there were some new prospects that showed serious potential.  Davorin Kuchan's Old World Spirits released a beautiful 1 year old 100% rye that didn't go over board with small barrique aging and still had fantastic flavor.  It was a fantastic debut and we all look forward to watching him master the process.  Same goes for 1512 Spirits and their newly released 100% rye, rapidly matured for extra richness.  While these ryes definitely made an impact, they're of an entirely different breed than the standard bottles we know so well.  Rye as we've come to know so far is much like bourbon - namely because there's still a fair amount of corn in the mashbill to add sweetness.  Rye in the modern age has been completely devoid of corn.  The LDI ryes are all 95% rye with 5% barley.  The micro-distillers like Anchor have been working with 100% rye mashbill.  The flavors are spicier, more peppery, and the palate far less rich.

Tasting something like Sazerac 18 next to Davorin's Gold Run Rye is much like drinking Buffalo Trace next to Leopold's American Whiskey.  Sure, they're both whiskies, but they're not really going for the same flavor profile.  It's tough to pick a winner when that's the case.  It's kind of like combining the Golden Globes Comedy and Drama awards into one category and then picking the best actors.  Oh wait, that's the Academy Awards.  No wonder they're meaningless now.

-David Driscoll


Collecting For Later, For Show

This is just a quick little thought, but I could probably write a dissertation about this subject.  I've noticed a lot of conversations on whisky blogs as of late that lament the nature of collectors - how people are no longer buying their whisky to drink, but rather to collect it.  There is a lot of frustration about the lack of availability concerning highly-sought-after bottles like Pappy Van Winkle and that frustration is being totally misdirected.  From my experience as a retailer dealing with customers, very few people are buying these bottles to resell.  From the people I've spoken with personally, everyone of them plans on drinking these whiskies or saving them for a special occasion.  Even the guy who pays $300 a bottle on Ebay probably plans on drinking it - he just doesn't feel like spending hours on the internet or on the phone trying to find one, so he's willing to pay the premium.

There is nothing going on here besides old-fashioned supply and demand.  People want something, it's hard to find, so the price goes up because someone is going to pay it.  It's a chance at an experience.  People pay $50,000 to eat dinner with the president.  It's not that different.  You can bitch and moan and say, "He's the president, he should be representing the everyday American by eating dinner with people for free, since we elected him anyway," but that's not really the issue.  That's really just bitterness about not being able to do so yourself.  The truth of the matter is: more people are finding out about wine, beer, and spirits and there simply isn't enough of some products to go around.  The more people talk about how great they are, the more people are going to want them.  The more people fear not being able to get them, the more people hoard them for later.  Both of those things will raise the market value and also limit availability.

The Van Winkles are not to blame (and their whiskies taste just as good as ever, so all of this BS about how the 15 is no longer good is just embarrassing to listen to).  It's just the frustration of limited availability talking.  The distributors are not to blame.  Retailers are not to blame.  Ebayers are not to blame.  Auctions are not to blame.  Collectors are not to blame.  There simply isn't enough product to supply demand.  If you want to blame someone, blame the people taking pictures of themselves drinking Pappy Van Winkle on Facebook.  Blame the people on Twitter saying, "I just drank PVW last night and it was amazing."  Blame the people who are turning whiskey from something that should be sipped and enjoyed into something that should be bragged about and documented for others to see. 

If it wasn't so damn cool to be drinking Pappy Van Winkle, there wouldn't be any problem landing a bottle. 

-David Driscoll


2011 K&L Awards - Best Blended/Irish/Japanese Whisky

David Othenin-Girard picks: Great on the rocks.  Full of flavor.  Goes down easy.  Makes a fantastic highball.  Nothing tastes better on ice right now. 

David Driscoll picks: This is one of the best deals of the year in spirits - period.  For $50, this is a wonderful single malt and it's so versatile.  You can sip it neat, or on the rocks and it's just as enjoyable.  I personally really like it straight.  A top contender on my overall whisk(e)y of the year short list. 

 -David Driscoll & David Othenin-Girard


Sound Investment?

The whisk(e)y blogs are rife with chatter right now over the idea of investing in a whisk(e)y collection.  Two articles have been written, representing both sides of an argument that might see the current trend as a bubble, or possibly an opportunity to cash in.  John Hansell's blog also has a ton of conversation going in the comments field about this issue.  There are numerous well-written opinions and it seems that people generally have a lot to say about drinking or not drinking your booze. Is it really possible to invest heavily in whisk(e)y and make a financial return on that investment?  According to some people it is.  However, I don't plan on personally investing.  Not for any moral reasons about the enjoyment of whisk(e)y or some evangelical belief in the soul of a single malt, but because I don't know where the future of whisk(e)y consumerism lies.  I don't believe we're in a bubble, meaning I don't think the whisk(e)y market is going to crash any time soon.  However, like pop music or fashion, whisk(e)y is trendy.  I don't mean whisk(e)y itself, but rather the specific whiskies that people are actively searching for. 

I've seen a few articles that advocate the purchasing of rare and limited edition bottles for an investment portfolio and that's a wise, if not overly obvious, piece of advice.  However, rarity alone is not enough.  As Dominic Roskow states in his take on the subject - the whisky has to actually taste good.  People have to want to drink it before it becomes valuable or else there's no actual reason to buy it.  In other words, if you want to become a whisk(e)y investor then you have to buy whiskies that people are going to want to drink five to ten years down the road.  There will always be wealthy people who have no problem paying a premium for the best possible drinks.  The question is - will you be sitting on what they want when that time comes?

While the pro-investment side of the issue believes that profit comes with smart selections, the anti-investment side thinks the time to get in has already passed and that a bubble is forming.  There is another factor, however, that is being ignored here and it must be addressed: pop culture.  I want to use SKU's analogy of baseball cards as an example (as he posted on Hansell's blog earlier).  When I was a kid in the 80's we bought baseball cards thinking we were going to get rich in the future by leaving them in our parent's basement for a few decades, waiting for their value to appreciate.  What we realized, however, was that every other kid was doing the exact same thing.  All of a sudden, there was a glut of "rare" baseball cards from the 80's and our dreams of living off Topps, Donruss and Upper Deck were crushed.  SKU believes that current whisk(e)y collectors are following the same pattern, putting away "collectable" bottles that won't be very collectable ten years from now if everyone still has them.  Pop culture, however, can throw that logic for a loop if the right elements fall into place. 

In 2001, Barry Bonds hit 73 home runs for the San Francisco Giants and everything linked to him went up in value - including a box of 1986 Barry Bonds rookie cards I had sitting at my parents house.  All of a sudden, the bulk of dead weight sitting in my old bedroom had tremendous value.  After communicating with a few collectors online, I was a few hundred dollars richer.  Boom.  Pop culture pays me for having the right product at the right time.  The American whiskey demand right now is no different.  Pre-prohibition cocktails are all the rage, people are drinking rye like never before, distilleries can't make enough, and suddenly there's a demand for more quality Bourbon.  People start gathering at parties and they're drinking Maker's Mark instead of Dewars, a few names get thrown around, "Pappy Van What?"  All of a sudden there's no more Van Winkle whiskey to be found.  Make no mistake about this - the demand for George T. Stagg and other rare Buffalo Trace Bourbons is not about some new awakening of the American palate.  It's also not the result of rarity or collectability.  People want Pappy Van Winkle because they've heard it's the best, they want to drink it, they can't find it, and that makes them want it more.  That's called popular culture and it's what makes people obsess over Justin Bieber, the iPhone, and any other phenomenon that drives people into a frenzy.

So, yes, if you bought a case of Old Fitzgerald in the 1970's and you're sitting on it now - you're going to make some serious profit.  That's the original Van Winkle whiskey and that's what people want right now.  However, Old Fitzgerald was dirt cheap back then and no one EVER thought it would be collectable.  The same goes for old Michter's Distillery juice.  People look at the profit being made by selling a bottle of Hirsch 16 year Bourbon at $600-$1000 right now and think - there's a sound investment.  At least it was a sound investment.  My point is, however, that no one saw this coming.  No one said, "One day these distilleries are going to close, Bourbon will suddenly become popular among a new drinking culture of Americans, and this will lead to an educated base of enthusiasts that will eventually recognize the superiority of long, forgotten classics," and then filled their basements with cheap bottles of grocery store Bourbon.  The Van Winkles have become the darlings of pop culture, desired by a rabid base of drinkers who are excited about drinking the absolute "it" whiskey of the moment.  However, will Pappy Van Winkle 20 still be as highly celebrated ten years from now or will people be over the hype?  I would ask yourself that question before spending a small fortune on an investment.  Sure, it's Stitzel-Weller whiskey and it's incredibly rare, but that was also the case three years ago and no one cared.  They may stop caring again.

As far as single malts go, that's a more difficult question.  People are fascinated with mothballed distilleries like Port Ellen and Brora because they're supposed to be great and they're gone forever.  The idea of drinking a lost whisky seems to captivate people - me included.  No one gave two shits about the Port Ellen 9th Edition last year.  Now it doesn't even make it to the States.  However, is that going to be enough down the road?  What's going to convince people to shell out serious dough for a bottle of whisky in 2020?  Will it be old bottles of Cooley Irish Single Malts?  Maybe Japanese whisky takes off and becomes the next must-have bottle for your house party.  Who knows?  The investor believes that if a whisky is rare now, it will therefore becoming even rarer as time goes on and increase in value.  As long as someone still wants it, that is.  In my opinion, pop culture will determine whether that is the case.  If you're a whisk(e)y investor, I'd research fashion rather than futures.

-David Driscoll