Scotland Knick-Knacks

We got up at four AM to catch the six AM flight to Paris. Our plane, however, did not co-operate (nor operate, in general), so we had to disembark and assemble back in the main termincal for further instructions. Turns out they've got another plane coming to get us in a few hours, so it's not the end of the world. Charles Neal had sent us an email telling us he would be a few hours late picking us up, anyway. I think it said something like:

"Hey jokers, there's a tasting south of Dijon so you're going to have to entertain yourselves in town for a few hours while I attend. Find a seedy bar or something."

As we sit in the airport, reading books and perusing the internet, I've been thinking about a few tidbits I learned this week about the industry. I thought I'd pass some of them along:

- In order to make the big W (whisky), you need three other important W's: wood, warehousing, and water. I already mentioned the shortage of wood and warehouse space a few days ago, but I guess the mild winter didn't leave enough of a snow bank to supply many distilleries with the water they need for increased production.

"Do you remember what it looked like last year when you were here?" George Grant asked us at Glenfarclas yesterday. "It was covered in snow. Look at it now. We're running out of water fast."

"What happens if you run out?" we asked.

"We shut down," he answered.

It must be frustrating to know you need more whisky, but be unable to produce it due to a lack of natural resources.

- Pricing and quality is going to be a big issue this year. We tasted a lot of mediocre samples over the last week and even those weren't cheap. Some bottlers had absolutely nothing to taste, whatsoever. Even though I knew it was coming and expected it, I'm still a bit worried. We've got a few deals locked in that we're very excited about, but there are a lot of casks up in the air until further pricing review. 

Again, the issue isn't whisky in general. Most larger producers and long-standing blenders have plenty of whisky in cask. It's just that, for the single barrel market, they're not all that interesting. There's nothing alluring about a third-fill hogshead of Strathisla so light that it might as well be new make. There's nothing exciting or new about four year old Mortlach with a punch so heavy it could knock you down Mike Tyson-style. There's plenty of that stuff. But bottling single casks as a retailer is about presenting the consumer with options that are better than the standard market selection or are unique and generally unavailable. For us, it's also about providing value. Satisfying both of these criteria is not going to be easy.

- For those hoping for a bubble burst, we're right there with you. Nothing would please us more than a heavy discount on premium single malt whisky and the option to buy better casks at lower prices. We're not in the blended whisky business. We're in the premium single malt trade. Our customers aren't going to stop drinking whisky, in our opinion, because they're not following trends. They're simply people who enjoy drinking good booze. However, if the bubble does burst it's not going to change anything in the near future for the boutique whisky market, anyway. From what I've been able to gather over the past week, the increase in production by producers like Diageo is centered around the idea that India is scheduled to lower their tariffs for alcohol in 2017. That means one of the largest whisky drinking countries in the world is going to have access to Scotch at a much cheaper price than ever before and there will need to be a healthy supply to capitalize on this new demand. However, assuming everything goes as planned, we're talking mostly about blended whisky here: grain whisky with five to six year old single malts from places like Dailuaine, Roseisle, and Clynelish being married in. 

If tariffs aren't lowered and the market does crash under the weight of this expansion, it's still not going to result in a sea of cheap mature whisky for any of us – at least not in cask. Any surplus will come from the resale bottle market (from collectors who bought too much), but it's illegal for private citizens to resell spirits in the United States, so that's not going to help the consumer. A glut will possibly result in a firesale of young casks, as large blenders look to trim the fat and recoup expenses, meaning that independent bottlers will snatch them up, sit on them for another decade, and wait until they've come around before selling them off. Basically, what I'm saying is this: even if there's a crash (which I don't think there will be for some time) we'll still be another ten years away from a healthy supply of mature stocks. 

"You might want to buy two casks of Laphroaig this time," Des told me as we were finishing up at Signatory. "I don't think we'll have any mature Laphroaig available by the end of the year."

"Until when?" I asked.

"Until we get the chance to buy more, which won't be anytime soon," he replied.

-David Driscoll

David Driscoll