It's interesting to me how many people out there are still completely unaware of whiskey's renewed renaissance and freshly-inflated prices, but I'm starting to notice a pattern. When I talk to whiskey drinkers who also love fine wine, they're completely unsurprised by the changes the industry has undergone over the last decade. This current market of cult fanaticism and short availability is nothing new to those who cut their teeth on Bordeaux in the 80s. Whiskey fans, however, who only drink whiskey and have never been interested in anything other than whiskey are sometimes a bit insular in their pain, but this is far from a spirits-centric market issue. Now that I'm taking over directorship of K&L's wine club (starting in February, so watch for a dozen or so future blog posts where I try to convince you to sign up), I'm reading more wine-related media than ever and I thought famed critic Antonio Galloni's recent quote summarized this issue from the wine perspective:
A generation or so ago, the average wine lover could afford to buy top-flight Bordeaux, Burgundy and Italian wines...by the case. Sadly, that is no longer possible, as the demand for the world’s best wines has escalated at a rapid pace and driven prices into the stratosphere in many regions. In this context, it is easy to be discouraged.
In case you were unaware, our K&L predecesors went through the exact same situation with their wine habit "a generation ago." They were filling their cellars with the best wines the world had to offer at reasonable prices, available any day of the week whenever they wanted, but then the word got out that wine appreciation was cool, thousands of new consumers began diving into the hobby head first, and the prices went through the roof. It's gone through a few peaks and valleys over the last couple decades, but the prices never again returned to what they once were. I talk to whiskey customers all the time who are waiting for the bubble to break and for these now-rare whiskies to become everyday items again, but I don't think that's ever going to happen. While a bottle of Pichon-Lalande from Bordeaux might fluctuate between $90 - $170 these days depending on the vintage, it's foolish to hold out for the $15 - $20 price tag my colleagues paid in the late eighties. Once the bar is raised and new legends are created it becomes the jackpot for any drinks company. It's their dream come true! To be able to charge more for your bottles and earn more profit? That's why multi-national corporations exist!!
Galloni's next words really brought the reality home:
Yes, the last thirty years have seen an explosion of wine quality in regions that were once considered backwaters. There can be no doubt that today’s consumer has more choices than ever before, and that is a very good thing. Even so, there is something magical about the best wines from the world’s top regions. These wines have the ability to speak to history, culture and their place of origin with great eloquence, which is one of the reasons they are considered benchmarks.
I've talked with plenty of avid drinkers who are exploring brandy, mezcal, gin, and rum, but the facts of the matter are this: Macallan is a benchmark. Pappy is a benchmark. Many of the great, impossible-to-find, now incredibly expensive whiskies of the world are great, impossible-to-find, and now incredibly expensive because they are the criterions of their genres. I listen to the accounts of dozens and dozens of spirits drinkers every single day. I read their feedback and thoughts in my inbox. I can sense the hesitance in their voices as they try to convince both me and themselves that they're over this whole whiskey thing and they're going to start exploring small production Calvados. If there's anything that I'm grateful for as a retailer who enjoys expanding horizons, it's that rising whiskey prices have forced discerning customers to look elsewhere for options. That being said, there's a reason we sell more whiskey than Armagnac, Cognac, rum, gin, mezcal, and Tequila combined.
It's just like Galloni describes. There is simply something magical about the best wines from the world's top regions, just like there's something awe-inspiring about old Laphroaig, Lagavulin, or Talisker. It's the reason I'm still willing to drop $100 or more on a great bottle of Bordeaux when I'm feeling flush. It's the reason I'm willing to spend the same amount on a bottle of Champagne or white Burgundy when my wife and I are looking to celebrate. While my colleague Ryan Woodhouse has done an absolutely incredible job of monopolizing my mid-week drinking with scores of affordable, high-quality selections from New Zealand, Australia, and South Africa (check out the two most recent OTL posts for some of the best he's ever found), when I'm looking for something truly special I still end up shopping through the French benchmarks. As do my esteemed older colleagues who, despite the continuous increases in pricing, have never waivered from their Bordeaux love affair. They may grumble, rehash memories of the old days, talk about the incredible deals they scored before this whole wine appreciation thing became a global affair, but in the end they still pine for the same wines they've always enjoyed.
It's standard practice for old people to grumble about the glories of the past and how the current status quo pales in comparison. When I was your age Coke cost a nickel. That whole thing.