Take a look at the numbers – 54 new distilleries were opened across the UK in 2018 (39 in England, 11 in Scotland 2 in Wales and 2 in Northern Ireland). More than one a week. Nine new whisky distilleries are set to open in Scotland this year, and according to Scotchwhisky.com there are more than 40 new and resurrected sites due to open over the next decade. That’s a *lot* of spirit. A lot of young spirit.
Current perceptions would suggest that we’re in an age where demand outstrips supply – but this characteristic is usually associated with the more mature end of the market. I’m not hearing the same clamours of demand for young whisky (outside of chasey inaugural editions). To my mind, there’s a real danger that in less than a decade there’ll be a near ‘loch’ of young whisky – and a variety of repercussions to go along with this.
Young single malt is fundamentally interesting – it provides markers to the emerging styles of distillate being produced and at the same time allows folks to trace the journey of a distillery from birth, through to coming of age. But, that really only applies to enthusiasts like you and I - to the wider market (who are still largely driven by the vast blended output of the industry), young single malts are niche of a niche. I’d posit that there’s only some much of it that the market can take. Fast forward a decade to a time when over 50 new distilleries across the UK are pumping out sub-10 year old whisky and it’s likely that not all of the new starts will have survived.
Young whisky is exactly that – young. Its characteristics have not yet fully developed, and once you’ve sampled enough of it, whilst you’ll be able to earmark those whose make is of higher quality, the commonalities between them become ever closer. Personally I’ve no problems with stocking a handful of new whiskies on my bar – but more than a handful? A glut? I’ll pass thanks – my tastes, and I suspect the tastes of many of you are much more diverse. There’s only so much young spirit that any of us need.
The market is changing. Rapidly. Many well-established distilleries didn’t foresee the exponential growth in the single malt market some 15-20 years ago. But, rest assured they’re on to it now. There are regular announcements of capacity increases and new facility developments – the bigger boys are not going to let the new upstarts corner the market. Demand is still outstripping supply, so the recognised players are trying their hardest to ensure that their stocks can sate this.
All of these factors add up to a potential for an ever-growing loch of young whisky which we might well be faced with over the next decade. But, remember - the established players are more adept and geared up for handling inventory concerns – they’re used to blending younger whiskies with older ones to create new expressions. Many have got the depth of stock to do so. When compared to a new start with only a pool of young whiskies as a palatte to play with – the old hands, with large multinational backing and well-established distribution networks are unlikely to be the ones to be squeezed.
An overabundance of young single malt seems almost inevitable at this point – and many of the newer distilleries seem unwilling or unable to mark theirs out with a particularly unique selling point. Whilst presently this doesn’t seem to present a major issue, with increasing competition (and supply), the newer distilleries are going to have to complete with each other on a more fundamental basis than simply being ‘new’ or the ‘first’. Again, I don’t expect all of them to survive.
And then we come to pricing – several of the newer distilleries have decided to position themselves as ‘luxury’ products. Taking a lead from the Macallan and Dalmore playbooks, but without the brand recognition or depth of well-matured casks to back up these claims. Whilst the times seem good now, a future with 50+ ‘young’ distilleries will present a situation where pricing will become vital to achieving market traction. I just don’t foresee the age of £250 three year old whisky lasting – indeed it might have come and gone already. But, contrary to other commentators I equally do not see a huge increase in supply leading to a ‘bursting of the bubble’ at the upper end of the market. Ultra-expensive expressions are not competing with the new starts – not in terms of price, not in terms of liquid and not in terms of provenance. The new distilleries will certainly be fighting – but they’ll be fighting amongst themselves.
You don’t have to look far to recognise that producers want you to drink young whisky. It is afterall cheaper for them. I’ve seen IB’s bottling whiskies at an age which ten years ago was near unimaginable. But, they’re largely doing so (currently) from casks which are exceptional, and at prices which make the expressions accessible (see TWE’s Signatory Stoisha 4 year old as a case in point). But, that’s far from the same proposition as spirit produced at a fledgling distillery – a distillery where a 3, 4 or 5 year old malt is all that is on the table at the moment. As enthusiasts, we are, and we will be, drinking ever younger single malts. But with a growing breath of supply there will be a growing breath of choice. And as consumers, greater choice is empowering. But, there’s a going to be a lot of spirit to choose from. A lot of young spirit. Choice comes at a price.
Today’s youngest comes courtesy of Kingsbarns in the form of Dream to Dram, which was was launched at the start of year as the inaugural general release from the Fife-based distillery. It follows quickly on from a limited release ‘Founders Reserve’ and three year old bottling for members of the distillery’s Founder’s Club. Dream to Dram is composed from 90% Heaven Hill ex-bourbon casks and 10% STR (shaved, toasted, recharred) red wine casks and is delivered at 46% ABV. It’s available from Master of Malt for £44.95.
Nose: Temperate but well-composed. Creamy toffee and vanilla pods sit with tinned apricots and peaches whilst milky breakfast cereals are joined by crumbly shortbread. There’s plenty of grassiness here – reeds, flax and freshly mowed lawn alongside some slightly alluvial clay and granite. Running throughout – copper pipes and feinty-ness – it’s three years old and you’re left in little doubt of that fact. A few drops of water presents pear juice and wild honey with some additional touches of creamy custard.
Taste: The arrival is nicely oily, but it’s also somewhat aggressive with immaturity and boozy sharpness. Orchard fruits (apples and particularly pears – both tart and sharp), lemon peels alongside honey and toasted cask ends. The mid-palate offers some cookie dough and vanilla cream toffee before the underlying spirit takes over – copper and aluminium – very metallic – rather raw. Reduction doesn’t alter the overall composition greatly – adding just some creaminess and sawn wood from the ex-bourbon cask.
Finish: Short with pear juice and apple peels, bitter milk chocolate and a scattering of coffee beans.
Kingsbarns Dream to Dram offers a glimpse of the future for the Fife Distillery, and an indication of the quality of the underlying spirit being produced there. It’s entirely authentic to their new make spirit with plenty of light fresh aromas and flavours and a maturation which has not run roughshod over the spirit with an overabundance of oak (a commonplace occurrence across many of the newer distilleries with an overuse of both tiny casks and virgin oak). That’s certainly pleasing. But, at the same time, examined in isolation, this three year old whisky is exactly that – a three year old whisky. It’s still quite underdone and feinty. The nose is arguably more successful than the palate where the immaturity is unavoidable – and yet, as a whole, it’s far from unpleasant – and a spirit I’d happily take over a pile of ice on a hot summer’s day.
Many distillates have an ideal bottling horizon when their fundamental characteristics weave perfectly with the qualities of a particular cask. I believe the same is true at the younger end of the spectrum – different makes work to different timeframes in terms of when their initial maturity levels are ‘ready’. I have no doubt that Kingsbarns will achieve this – but to my mind it’s not yet there.
All this said, it’s important to look at the price point of Dream to Dram. At £45 it’s far from unreasonable when compared to the raft of inaugural three year old whiskies released over the past two years. Indeed, it’s refreshing to see a new distillery recognising the importance of offering a product which is immediately accessible and designed for consumption. I’ve seen all too many hyper-priced first edition releases positioned as if they’re already top-quality high end expressions with little actual substance to back up those claims. If Kingsbarns Dream to Dram is anything, it’s honest.
With thanks to Brian (@MaltMusings)