The entire distillery workflow is usually framed in linear terms. Afterall, whisky making is the very definition of a process - a continuous, planned and predictable movement from ingredient transformation and distillation through to maturation, bottling and finally on to the point of sale. A constant and consistent conveyor belt. Rinse and repeat. But this one-dimensionality is not always the case in reality. There are many variables, junctures and difficult decisions involved in the creation of whisky that do not take place on production floors. Distilleries as businesses are faced by an ever-changing array of assessments and choices. Outside of “what are we making and how?”, there are other pertinent calculations that need to be made – least of all “how much are we making, when are we making it and how long are we planning on keeping it?”
Distillery capacity expressed in terms of LPA (Litres of Pure Alcohol) doesn’t encapsulate all of the complexities of how whisky is produced. It’s not necessarily indicative of the volume of production taking place right now, nor planned for the future. It’s also not necessarily indicative of the market size right now, nor the market size predicated for the future. It’s simply a measure of the highest possible amount of spirit that any one distillery *can* produce given the particulars of its plant, processing and profile. Whilst there are some distilleries out there going full tilt with multiple shifts each and every day of the week, many are not. Either those businesses have decided not to flog all their horses all at once, or perhaps - more likely, they are evaluating the creation process further downstream.
Questions. So many questions.
When you start to factor in different spirit styles (from the addition of peat to mutable cut points and beyond) myriad wood types and the inherent difference between ‘core’ maturation stock and casks that are planned to be held for either shorter or longer periods of time, that spreadsheet is starting to look increasing convoluted. And that’s before you’ve factored in what you’re predicting to actually sell. This month. Next year. And in 10 to 20 years’ time. Rest assured, spirit production and inventory planning and management both talk to each other. Regularly. And in any well organised distillery they should take just as much interest and pay just as much attention (potentially more?!) to what’s being planned for the longer term as they do to the necessities of the here and now.
Capacity planning is only one part - how much a distillery is able to produce? It’s another part - how much is deemed necessary to produce…and for what?
And that’s when it starts to become a little punty.
No one knows what the future holds. The whisky industry was not expecting, nor planning for COVID-19 – nor the huge head of steam it would generate for desirable, limited edition wotsits (N.B. there was no such deep purple patch for ‘standard’ whisky). Availability ran short. And so parcels of casks were raided to ‘cash in’ on the prevailing market conditions. In some instances this pillaged distillery stocks so heavily that various avenues that casks would previous leave a site (indy bottling for instance) have subsequently been put on ice to allow stocks to replenish. That won’t be quick. Equally the whisky industry was not expecting, nor planning for the cost of living crisis here in the UK. The noticeable contraction in expenditures has and will have an effect on certain quarters of the industry – some more than others.
As the adage goes – whisky is a long term game. Nowhere is this more true than with longer-term capacity and inventory expansion planning. The money and time required to upscale production for the perceived demand a decade hence is both hefty and far from a risk free investment. But whilst considerable calculation and planning is required for this – remembering that increasing capacity cannot ever simply be a case of “just install a bigger still” <sigh> – at the same time, over shorter periods the whisky industry needs to ride the waves of the market. It has certainly benefited in a variety of different ways from the conditions of the last few years – but at the same time, some parts of it have suffered (on-trade). Nevertheless, the whole endeavour is by necessity built upon a whole host of assumptions about market size, market shape and at the end of the day, what folks will want to enjoy drinking generationally. None of that is easy to speculate on.
For the most part, the whisky industry seems to have done a pretty good job of data-driven, sophisticated estimation – I.E. good guesswork. Nevertheless, it’s not perfect – otherwise some clever bod would have suggested greater investment and production 10 years ago for the today that we’re now in. Nevertheless, when you look at the expansion of distilleries – both new founding’s and the enlargement of existing sites – I daresay that there’s a host of analysts all in agreement that the future market for whisky will be a bigger one. Indeed, product and marketing teams will be beavering away to ensure just that.
Moving over to Ireland, which has seen a palpably large number of new distilling ventures over the past 10 years - the existing players have also not rested on their laurels in ensuring that they’ve geared up for whisky drinker 2.0. A new 200,000 LPA distillery is a nice thing for a country to possess. But a new £37m distillery that expands existing capacity from 5m up to 11m LPA is an altogether different level of magnitude.
Irish whiskey, like any other whisky category possesses maturation periods of many years – it therefore needs to continue to find an equilibrium between maximising its sales today and maintaining stock levels for the decades still to come. It cannot continue to achieve momentous growth without looking at consolidation - usually into the hands of drinks giants who bring with them vast economies of scale, sizable promotional budgets and market access and penetration that smaller outfits can only dream of. And of course that investment into both capacity, but importantly also into capacity planning and market preparation to exploit that said larger capacity. All powerful things.
Irish whiskey also has a difficult balance to strike in terms of where and when it digs into its older and more historic inventories. There’s only so much that can be unearthed at Bushmills and Midleton or from within the old Cooley stocks. Fast forward 30 years and that situation could/should be very different. The country could/should have 40+ distilleries all with mature stock and a desire to compete with the big boys. This is something which the existing players are only too aware of – and as such the speculating, planning and expansion has already been happening.
The latest indication of which came last week with the opening of Bushmill’s new Causeway Distillery alongside announcements for a core range 25 year old (£790) and a core range 30 year old (£1990). It’s great to see older Irish whiskies being more widely available but at the same time, those prices place both of these bottles well out of the means of mere mortals.
Moving slightly (but only slightly) toward the more affordable end of the Bushmills portfolio comes today’s review bottle - The Causeway Collection 1997 Rum Cask. Inspired by the Giant’s Causeway - which is situated just 5 minutes north of the distillery - and is a world famous area of 40,000+ interlocking basalt columns – the Causeway Collection presents a range of vintages and cask finishes – some unusual, some esoteric - from across Bushmills inventory. The latest releases are a 2002 vermouth cask and a 2012 Pomerol wine cask. But today I’m heading back into the annals of autumn 2022 with the “Great Britain exclusive release” which has spent its entire quarter of a century inside of 1st fill American oak, Caribbean rum casks.
The release of an unspecified number of bottles comes in at 46.2% ABV. It can still be found at a few outlets, including over at The Whisky Exchange for £345
Nose: Initially forgiving and graceful with soft brown sugars, peach melba, balled melon and lychee syrup. A little time unravelling in the glass is well worth it however – then a combination of mango slices, barley sugar and pressed spring flowers set against honey, sugared jellies and turned hay. Dilution broadens the profiles, introducing fleshy apricot and nectarine alongside candy necklaces and Milky Bars.
Taste: Mouth filling, though not oily per se. There’s just a good structure from 25 years of gentle tannin interaction. Sharp limes and a white pepper tingle develop into gummy bear sweetness together with syrupy orchard and white fruits. Again, patience is rewarded here. Resting before drinking provides underripe pineapple and mango alongside elderflower cordial, reeds and flax and touches of vanilla-imbued toffee. Again, water (when added sparingly) widens things – preserved lemon, honey, crumbled digestives, peaches dusted in fine powdered sugar.
Finish: Medium and favouring cereals, gentle cinnamon spice and final tang of lime.
Bushmill’s Causeway Collection 1997 Rum Cask is far lighter and daintier than most full-term rum maturations I’ve sampled. It’s either drawn from some well-judged refill wood, or the particular precursor rum has been selected because it possesses a tempered and measured interaction with the Bushmills spirit. Either way, there’s a lot of elegance and confident quality on show now. This is perhaps moreso the case on the palate which expresses more of the expected (and hoped for) fruit-bomb character than the nose – which is relatively more restrained. Undeniable expensive…but undeniably well put together. Sadly my capacity to enjoy it exceeds my capacity to purchase it.
Review sample provided on behalf of Bushmills