The New Guard

If you read through the vast array of prevalent whisky blogs and message boards, you'll eventually recognize a common thread weaving its way through the various posts: the idea that things aren't as good as they used to be in the world of Scottish single malt whisky. It's a growing complaint among consumers and it appears to be gaining more steam as of late -- the idea that standard brands are not providing the same bang for the buck they once did. Besides the numerous comments and posts that all of you are able to read online at any given time, I have access to a gigantic hub of consumer mail and opinion in addition to that. I get messages from people all day long that have nothing to do with K&L business, placing orders, or inquiring about bottles. Whisky fans everywhere simply send me their thoughts, their ideas, their triumphs, and their complaints about the modern day booze crisis -- to the tune of about 30-50 random emails a day. And that doesn't even account for the time I spend talking with people on the sales floor. I seem to be someone people want to vent to.

So when I say that there's consumer angst over the declining quality among major single malt producers, I'm not making it up. There are piles of email in my inbox right now asking for my opinion on various issues surrounding this idea.

"David, I bought a bottle of ______ last week. It's not as good as I remember it. Have you noticed anything out of the ordinary with this brand lately?"

Yes. I have. It's called global demand. It's stretching stocks of single malt whisky more thinly by the day and that squeeze is affecting the quality in your bottle. Everyone is noticing it and they're a bit unnerved by the idea.

I went to lunch today with one of my sales reps and we discussed this very topic while eating.

"The only advantage that brands have anymore over smaller single malt producers is pricing," I said. "Diageo can sell its single malt whiskies for less than Benriach or Kilchoman because of their scale -- they make more. But what happens when the prices start going up and the quality starts going down in the face of demand? Where's the advantage then? I'd rather pay a little more for better quality, wouldn't you?"

For years I've listened to old school single malt fans scoff at the pricing of the Kilchoman single malt whiskies. They are expensive, there's no doubt about it -- especially considering their youth.

"Why would I pay $100 for a 5 year old Kilchoman single cask when I can buy 16 year old Lagavulin for $65?"

That's a fair and reasonable question. However, are you talking about Lagavulin 16 from 2009 or from 2014? Because if you're talking about Lagavulin 16 from 2014, there's a very simple answer to that question: the Kilchoman tastes better. If you're talking about Lagavulin 16 from 2009, then you're talking about the past -- a past that big brands are relying on to help carry them through to the future, despite the fact the fact that things aren't quite as good as they used to be.

The two new casks of Kilchoman that I received today are better than the current releases from any Islay distillery we carry here at K&L. They're brighter, they're fruitier, they're smokier, they're more interesting, and they're more nuanced. They make you want to jump up and down, to shout, to pump your fist in the air and smile at the person tasting next to you. It's a feeling I haven't felt in some time while tasting Islay whisky -- the feeling of something electric and new, positive and optimistic.

Why are these two new casks so good? Because in these two Bourbon barrels you're getting a chance to taste the very best whisky that Kilchoman has to offer -- period. We went through their stocks and wound up with two cherries. We received that access because we've been loyal to Kilchoman since the very beginning, even when people thought their pricing was outrageous. In most current release expressions from larger brands and global portfolios, you're getting the very best whisky that those distilleries can offer to millions of people around the world in gigantic quantities. However, when you're looking to satiate millions of thirsty drinkers, can you really be at your very best? Can you really blend together incredibly nuanced and flavorful casks in the volume that it takes to satisfy demand in China, the UK, America, India, Europe, Japan and Brazil?

I think the answer to that question is currently in the bottle, and those bottles are currently being opened and reviewed by bloggers everywhere. What's the consensus? You tell me. Keep telling me. Keep sending me emails letting me know what you think. It's because of those emails and those complaints that we went out and found the best peated whisky we could possibly find. And, yes, it's expensive. But, after trying these bottles, not one of you will be sending me an email about how these whiskies don't deliver for the money. You'll be sending me an email asking, "Why doesn't more peated whisky taste as good as this?"

Except that we already know the answer to that question, don't we?

Kilchoman K&L Exclusive Single Bourbon Barrel #172 Cask Strength Single Malt Whisky $109.99 - If there is one battle we're not willing to fight in the spirits world, it's the idea that "craft" whisky is better whisky. We don't think using quarter casks to mature whisky faster makes for better whisky. We don't think using organic grains or designer barrels make for better whisky either. What makes whisky better? Time. If you're not willing to let your whisky come around naturally, then you're not going to convince guys like David and me to support your stuff. Kilchoman, in my mind, is the one "craft" distillery that does it right. Their whisky is still young, but it's already light years beyond what we're seeing from standard Islay releases these days. There are reasons for this. They operate their still at a slow drip -that takes TIME. They only use standard size Bourbon and Sherry casks, which take TIME to mature. And, they hired John MacLellan, the former distiller for Bunnahabhain who has decades of experience from putting in TIME! And they keep getting better. This Bourbon cask #172 is so delicate in mouthfeel, yet bursting with white pepper, smoke, and fresh peat that it almost seems unreal. At 60% it tastes like 45% because it's in complete harmony with a small dose of butterscotch on the finish and then a lingering floral note. At only five years of age it's more flavorful, satisfying, and exciting than anything I've tasted from any Islay distillery over the past year. While others still look to the future, I think Kilchoman's time is now.

Kilchoman K&L Exclusive Single Bourbon Barrel #74 Cask Strength Single Malt Whisky $109.99 - This Bourbon cask #74 is zippy, lively, peppery, and bright with cinnamon red hots and bursts of sweet wood. It's like a mezcal made on Islay, but with more vanilla and sweetness. What's more amazing is the sheer drinkability at 59%. It's never hot, overpowering, or out of whack. This is one of the most vibrant and exciting whiskies I've tasted in years.

-David Driscoll

David Driscoll