In 1899 a litre of the cheapest Scottish new make malt spirit would have cost £5.02 per LPA (Litre of Pure Alcohol). In April 2018 that price was down to £2.18. Reductions in the cost of materials and transportation, changes in production regimes and major economies of scale have led to whisky being increasingly cheap to produce over the last 100 years. And yet, we are now at a point of time where price pressure is starting to push consumers away, whilst also creating market warping trends that seem to defy all economic (and personal) logic. Over the next week, the Dramble will be touching on the thorny subject of pricing, and considering how it affects all segments of the whisky market – from entry bottlings through to chase-Japanese whiskies and the first offerings from new distilleries.
If you’re looking for an excellent read on the subject of pricing, look no further than this well-argued piece by Adam Wells on Malt. Adam eloquently highlights the current malaise within the industry – the wealth of new distilleries coming on stream is being joined hand-and-hand with price labels that scream of short-sightedness. Paying over £100 for a 3 year old whisky (or in some cases, well over for this figure for whisky that’s too young to be legally called whisky) smacks of both producer greed, and, importantly of a consumer-base that has unwittingly bought into the same marketing verbiage that they publicly denounce as drivel.
Adam importantly highlights what many professional writers and arm-chair commentators omit – that this sustainability is being driven by the consumer, and consumers can be very fickle beasts when it comes to the latest shiny things. It is ill-considered to suggest that what is sustainable now will ergo be sustainable in the future. You don’t have to look far for examples - which of these new distilleries will end up being consigned to the same dustbin as ‘New Coke’?
Of course, there’s much more to spirit pricing than just LPA - international distribution (and operating at scale), marketing, PR and all the other things associated with running a 21st Century industry have led to cost increases for producers – and like in any other industry, the more these can be passed onto the consumer, the more shareholders are happy. However, even without a rose-tint of the quality of whisky’s past, we seem to be on a trajectory where both producers and consumers seem content to push as much of the industry into the ultra-premium category as possible. For producers – a field day – strike whilst the iron is hot. For consumers – a vague notion of cachet, and of convincing ourselves that we’re buying in to some piece of significant liquid history.
The good times might be rolling for producers, but many have been here before and see the boom times turn to bust. As such, contrary to the new entrants with their highly questionably priced entry-level offerings, many (but not all) long-established distilleries are keeping their gateway bottlings set within a range that at least seems vaguely accessible. Thus, they always have a bottle (or two) which, provides drinkers of all (or at least most) income levels with a route into the market – an importantly, their brands. The prices of entry-level bottles has of course risen – but not nearly by so much as limited editions and seemingly exclusive new releases. Once the shine of the new distilleries has dulled where will drinkers turn to? I think it unlikely that £100+ will become the new norm – established players are mindful of this fact also – and have maintained their offerings at levels which will eagerly scoop up those enthusiasts who have dared to explore the new and exciting only returned to the mainstream fold when their wallets can no longer afford the trip. Adam has it spot on – significance is both hard to quantify, and transitory. In a world where over 5,000 new whiskies are being released every year, insignificance is potentially just around the corner.
So, onto today’s review with Bowmore 12 year old. A long-standing bottling which in many ways defies the current pressures of the new and shiny, the innovative and the reinvention.
Nose: Warm and honeyed brine meets a coastal smoke (charcoal and a tinge of medicinalness) before being lifted by lemon and orange peels. Maritime notes of fresh oyster, tarry engine smoke and salt are offset against more floral inland aromas – heather, dried hay and bergamot tea. In the background, a touch of cask vanilla and tropical syrup.
Taste: The arrival delivers plenty of flavour, but in no real surprise the 40% doesn’t do it much justice – it’s thin, whilst still being slightly textural (greasy) – at least for a few seconds. Terry’s Chocolate Orange, bright and tart lemon juice and honeycomb provide a foundation on which ashy peat sits. The development is brief but consistent, leading to a back-palate that reveals salinity (rock pools), a hearty sprinkle of pepper and some underlying florals – sunflower and lavender.
Finish: Short to medium combining citrus, orchard fruits (apples and pears) and coal-dust touched ashy smoke.
Bowmore 12 year old is an accessible and well-defined entry point to the wider Bowmore range, or to Islay whiskies in general. It’s strength lies in its crisp composition and straight-forward delivery. It’s weakness? A rather thin mouthfeel which doesn’t provide much of a bedrock for development or nuance. Nevertheless, it is what it is, and I shouldn’t be overly critical – few distilleries deviate from 40% with their entry-level offerings. Costing around £35 (and offer found on offer for less) this is a sound starter/daily drinker choice and certainly a better proposition than the NAS No.1 (which has replaced Small Batch) which clocks in a very comparable price.