There's a lot of changes going on in the scotch whisky business these days. One of the latest trends is for distiller's to revamp their product lines by releasing higher proof (46-50%), non-chill filtered versions of their standard whiskies that were previously bottled at lower (40-43%) proof with chill filtration. Given that whisky enthusiasts have been griping about the lack of heft in many single malts, this is an answer to a lot of requests of the years. However, as I talked a bit about with Michael over at Diving for Pearls, there is one major downside.
In many cases, this change is being carried out by less well-known distilleries such as Bunnahabhain, Aberlour, Tobermory (and their peated Ledaig expression), and Glen Garioch. This helps them to stand out from the crowd and usually brings a certain amount of critical praise. Which is awesome. Better whisky on the market is almost always a good thing.
But here's the downside: almost all of these distilleries have used the relaunches of their product lines to bump up their prices, often significantly. Take, for instance, Aberlour 12. The 43% version has long been an extremely good deal, regularly available for $40 or less. With the release of the new 46%, un-chill filtered version, prices have jumped up to $55 or even more. At that point it's getting really, really close to Aberlour's cask-strength A'Bunadh whisky, which usually runs for about $65. Right now it's fairly common to see all three on the same shelf. The question is, when a potential customer looks at this lineup, which are they going to choose? If I was going to hazard a guess, they're either going to pick the 43% version because it's relatively cheap or the A'Bunadh, because it literally offers a lot more bang for your buck. While there are some significant differences between the two beyond the bottling strength (A'Bunadh is sherry cask only, the 12 Year is a mix of bourbon and sherry cask), I just don't see the 12 Year as being a good value anymore. Even once stocks of the previous 43% version sell out, is the 46% really going to be an attractive proposition?
The other distilleries I mentioned above have also started to push their base 10-12 year old whiskies into the $50-60 range (though Bunnahabhain was always that expensive). To a degree, this just seems to be where scotch whisky is headed. Demand is up, so prices are rising. But I've got to wonder when we're going to cross the threshold when customers start to balk at the prices. It seems especially difficult to tempt prospective buyers to take a risk on an entry-level single malt, doubly so if it's not from a well-known distillery like Glenfiddich, Glenlivet, or Macallan. Even worse, how many new scotch drinkers are going to be put off and stick with blends or just keep drinking other spirits? Personally, I know I wouldn't have even dipped my toes in if it hadn't been for reasonably priced single malts like the 43% version of Aberlour 12 or Glenmorangie Original. At that point, even $30-40 seemed like a bit of a risk for an entire bottle. If the prices had been 50-100% more, it wouldn't have even been a question.
So here's where I stand: I applaud the decision to increase bottling proofs and get rid of chill filtration. However, the price increases are hard for me to swallow. Getting rid of chill filtration means one less step of processing before the whisky is bottled, which should cut costs. Increasing bottling proof does mean that I'm getting more alcohol, but the price increases are much larger than can be justified on those grounds. So as things stand, many of these whiskies have simply priced themselves beyond what I'm willing to pay. And if I'm not buying their entry level whiskies, the odds are that I'm not going to take an even greater risk on their older expressions. Maybe I'm the exception and this is a great route to extra profit. But I can't imagine that I'm the only person looking at the little tags on the shelves of the liquor store and reaching for something else.