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.
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I've been enjoying whisky for 10-12 years and I am balking at the prices. That was the real motivation behind my (sad) month of checking out the sub-$20 blends.ReplyDelete
If one is responsible about one's expenditures, then comparisons start being made in order to justify the rising expense. The 11.6oz of alcohol content in a 46%ABV whisky bottle equals that of three and half bottles of wine. So one can pretend that a $52 bottle is like buying four $13 bottles of wine. Though whisky is better. :)
But $50-60 can be a week's worth of groceries or one month of electricity. So if a budget is tight and there's tasty aged bourbon and rum at half that price, then eventually scotch whisky will lose.
Thanks for this post. I know some folks will defend the companies for practicing occasional near-predatory capitalism, but personally I'll side with the drinkers.
Admittedly, I have a rathe privileged position: I live in a city with a fairly low cost of living, no dependents, and get a very steady paycheck. So I have plenty of disposable income. But even under the circumstances, there is a point where I'm going to balk at prices when I feel like they're not justified. I enjoy trying new spirits and you're right that when I could easily pick up two bottles of something good for the price of one bottle of whisky, I have to ask myself if the whisky is really that good. Sometimes it is and I've paid $70+ for a bottle on a number of occasions. But even then, it's usually because I've had one of the cheaper expressions from that distillery and liked it. Going into something expensive completely blind is... unlikely...
So while I think the companies can charge whatever they think the market will bear, I have no obligation to buy their products at those prices. And when their lowest priced offerings are $50 and above, I wonder how many other people are going to feel the same way.
We'll soon see how a steadier paycheck flavors my gripes.Delete
I agree that the companies are testing (successfully) what the market will bear. I wonder how long will it bear? And will some bottlers play up whisky scarcity over the next couple of years to further buoy the pricing?
That Ron Matusalem 15 was looking pretty good when I was at Hi Time on Tuesday: all of $20.
Sorry, I just realized I went slightly off-topic b*tching about whisky prices in general. Great post! :)ReplyDelete
All good. They're definitely tied together. WIthout the rising tide of whisky prices, the distilleries wouldn't have felt like they could get away with raising the prices on their own whiskies quite so much.Delete
Jordan, I'm with you and Michael too. I want to be drinking 46%, NCF malts, but I just can't afford to go drop $61 on a Springbank 10, $57 on The Laddie Ten, etc. Actually, I'm even getting priced out of the decent lower-ABV malts. $45 for Glenlivet 12 around here! I recently made the decision to forget about malt-obsession for a while (some of the time - still going to drink some malts) and drink some blends (and of course bourbon). Still haven't tried any rums, maybe I should. I would rather be drinking malts, but there any many nights when I want the taste of scotch but I'm not doing the whole flavor-analysis thing, just having a drink while reading or watching TV. The much cheaper blends do the trick there.ReplyDelete
Ryan, I'll give Springbank a little big more wiggle room. They have much higher costs, given that everything is done in house, and the quality makes me willing to pay a little bit more. But even there, the 12 year old cask strength release is only ~$10 more than the 46% 10 year old. Where's the sense in that? Even worse, I've figured out that I can probably get a lot of Springbank/Hazelburn/Longrow whiskies cheaper by ordering from the UK. That makes no sense whatsoever when the shipping is $10-15 *per bottle*. Something is seriously wrong with their U.S. importer is the markup is that great.ReplyDelete
Given this post and the comments from you and Michael, I think I'll move up my reviews of some of the decent blends in my cabinet. Isle of Skye 8 and Pig's Ear are both right around $30, which isn't nothing, but at least puts them in the same range as better bourbons and ryes. It's always good to show that you can drink well without spending too much money.
I will say that cost is one of the reason's that I don't buy scotch. I'll buy cognacs and Armagnacs til the cows come home, but it's pretty easy to find a decent VSOP for under $30 if you have a good liquor store around.ReplyDelete
Sadly decent value brandies are harder to find over here in OR. I've picked up a few, but it's still not a category I have a good grasp of. Additionally, the low bottling proof has always been a pet peeve of mine, especially for making cocktails.Delete