Scotland - Day 2/3: Unexpected Results
Last night, while having dinner at the India Cafe in Huntly, David and I discussed the current speculation that we might be in a whisky bubble. I compared it to real estate, in that while the prices of homes had been inflated, whisky was more like the rental market - the rents had remained stable, while demand only kept going up. Much like my current Bay Area rent, I don't think prices will ever be going down again. Do Manhattanites believe that one day all lower West Side studios will again drop to under $1500? Heck no. So why should we whisky drinkers think that now, after the internet and our globalized world has made the appreciation of whisky bigger than it's ever been, we should expect prices to one day fall back into a more affordable range? There's an insatiable thirst for brown booze right now and the distilleries in Scotland are feeling the pressure to produce. Yesterday at Glen Garioch, Fiona told us that the million liters they produce each year are a paltry offering to the actual demand. Much like we've talked about the growth in the East Asian market, Fiona is speculating that India is about ready to pop as well. The available properties in the Scottish whisky portfolio are drawing more offers than ever, so why would these landlords ever lower the rent?
David brought up an excellent point halfway through our lamb vindaloo. He said that the overcrowding and demand in sought-after housing markets always leads people to develop other new areas. Brooklyn has become quite hip over the last decade and I've had many San Francisco friends head over to Oakland for relief. Even Dogpatch, a once run-down neighborhood between the ballpark and Hunter's Point, is experiencing an injection of young blood and entrepreneurship. This analogy translates perfectly to whisky. When the prices for big names and desired bottles become too inflated and ridiculous, it's time to look elsewhere for more realistic pricing. We've done well to find independent bottles of Ardbeg or Brora in the past, but even the independents are getting quite pricy. At this point, we can't base our business on finding the big names or the lost casks in some forgotten warehouse because that's not a sustainable plan. We need to find the deals that others are missing. We need to use our palates to determine quality in places where others don't taste it. Little did David know, his metaphor couldn't have come at a better time.
Glendronach is a fantastic distillery. We came back to the haunting grounds just as the sun was beginning to set and took a brief walk before getting back to taste the samples. Along side our set of older sherry casks were two Bourbon casks of ten year old malt and a slew of ancient Benriach samples. Oh yeah….Benriach. Before purchasing Glendronach in 2008, the South African ownership group began with the Speyside's Benriach distillery in 2004, rejuvenating the former Seagrams-owned plant that had been moth-balled in 2002. Benriach is nice, I thought. I really like their 12 and 20 year old expressions and a new peaked PX cask I had recently tasted had been fantastic. Why not think seriously about a cask? After a few mediocre samples our optimistic enthusiasm waned. The 1985 PX barrels were too sweet and a port-finished cask completely overdone. However, we needed to be professional and finish the samples with the same precision and dedication with which we had begun. Didn't we just have an earnest talk about developing new products?
Then it came out of nowhere. Wham! My eyes widened and my heart began to race. "Taste this!" I screamed and I slid the bottle of 1984 Benriach over to David. I could see the shock in his face as the whisky passed over his palate. "This tastes amazing!" I exclaimed. "This tastes like Brora!" David yelled. What the heck was going on?
After doing a bit of research, we discovered that Seagrams had begun to produce a peated Benriach beginning in 1983. These two sherry butts were some of the earlier experiments from that process and they had held up incredibly well over the last 28 years. The first cask was magnificent. It began with rich, yet savory, sherry notes and a smattering of phenolic accents before evolving into more sherry and an incredibly long, peaty finish. It was absolutely stunning. David leapfrogged over me and moved to the second cask while I was still handling my notes from the first. "Jesus," he said, "I think this one's even better." He was right. It was better, but the quality wasn't nearly as obvious. It was like watching two pitchers throw a perfect game and then debating which player had the better performance. Cask one had all the flashy strikeouts and the swing-throughs, but cask two had thrown fewer pitches. The entry was pure, integrated sherry with enticing layers of toffee and cake bread that peeled away over each sip. The peat was still there, but not until the finish where it seemed to take a handoff from the sherry. It was like a beautiful song that flawlessly changes tempo mid-stride. David was right about another point - it did taste like exactly old, peated Brora - the most sought after single malt in the whisky geek world, and one of the most expensive.
I can just see the rolling of the eyes from other retailers and super enthusiasts when we tell our customers they're getting a glimpse at what peated Brora once tasted like, albeit for much less than what they would normally have to pay. It's a pretty bold statement that sounds like a selling point, which could easily be the sign of two young spirits buyers looking to cause a stir, yet lacking the requisite experience to make such a call - a signifier of brash naiveté, nothing more. I can guarantee you that we'll be called out for saying this and we'll undoubtedly be bashed by numerous critics who will laugh, "HA! Brora? Please. I've met peated Brora, David Driscoll, and you sir have nothing like peated Brora on your hands. How daaaaaaare you compare the lowly Benriach with the likes of such nobility!" We wouldn't say it unless we really believed it. Snide remarks and sarcastic quips aside, our K&L customers are going to freak out over this. Whether or not you know what peated Brora tastes like, as long as the idea of an old, sherried, peated Speyside from a single barrel at a drinkable cask strength sounds good to you then you're going to love this. It could end up being the great find of the trip - a distillery-direct, 28 year old relic from the Benriach cellar. Who would've thunk it?
Now we just have to figure out how much it costs. Gulp.
As for the Glendronach, we also tasted some spectacular samples. However, the one we want the most will be the most expensive - a 1990 21 year old sherry butt that just makes you close your eyes and smile. The two un-sherried Bourbon expressions were good. Maybe even better than good, but we don't know how much the 10 year olds will cost at cask strength. Price will play a factor in how much we like them.
I've now been up since about 3:30 AM, reading and writing. The sun starts rising at about that time and all the birds outside my window started chirping. The birds outside at home function as my alarm clock, so there was no way I was going to go back down. I fell asleep at around ten, and I slept a ton the night before, so I think I'll be alright. At quarter to six I strapped on the New Balances and hit the road uphill from the distillery and into the forest. I got a bit creeped out after a mile and a half, so I turned around and headed back for a shower. Running on narrow roads with little reaction time for a possible oncoming driver, coupled with the cold and the isolation, makes me a bit uneasy. There's a certain Twin Peakish character to the area, something sinister lurking in the atmosphere, but I actually really dig it. I think it's actually colder in the guesthouse than outside because I am freezing. Right now I'm fully dressed, but under a thick blanket, pouring over the Malt Whisky Yearbook, trying to familiarize myself with all the small distilleries we might run into when tasting over at Duncan Taylor later today. We don't have internet here, so I have to type it all up and get it ready for when we hit the wifi signal in Huntly.