Well, dear reader, it’s been a rather good year for us at Malt. We’ve got through plenty of good whisky, we’ve rebranded and gone daily, and we’ve become one of the true whisky powerhouses online – with around 50,000 readers in December alone and we’ve broken 100,000 page views for a month. Enough of the dick-waving though – as with great power comes great responsibility. It’s time to get straight to business.
There has been a lot of good stuff to celebrate in the world of whisky, and a lot of terrible stuff too. So we thought we’d give a shout out to both. Our team has assembled, as the clock winds towards midnight for 2017, to have a bit of a rant about the good and bad. I’ve got the summary at the top of this post, to see what topics we’re going to touch on, but see what we have to say about our own personal reflections of the good and the bad of whisky – or whiskey – in 2017.
- Swedish whisky is truly fabulous right now (Mark)
- Cadenhead’s 175th Anniversary releases were awesome (Jason)
- Access to US whiskies in UK supermarkets is much better (Adam)
- The Irish whiskey renaissance (Phil)
- The general quality of Scotch whisky has declined significantly (Mark)
- Bottle flippers are arseholes (Jason)
- Many whisky commentators are doing harm to the industry (Adam)
- And… the Irish whiskey renaissance (Phil)
I’m starting with the bad: that the quality of Scotch whisky (as a whole) has greatly declined, and it’s starting to show. Let’s face it. This observation is largely from my reviewing for Whisky Magazine this year, which put me in the rather ace position of seeing what current releases are like in general. But there was one striking thing that I noticed throughout the year, and that’s just how utterly dull a lot of Scotch whisky was compared to world whisky.
I speculated last year about some potential reasons for historical changes in production. Now, we could target the biggest problem with Scotch whisky as a wider category, and that’s it’s reliance upon romanticism and cliché to carry products over the line. Most Scotch producers give you the impression they couldn’t give a damn about how they make whisky, or that they only communicate the superficial things to create the illusion of quality. This is, of course, untrue for the most part – many people who make it do care, but the people who make decisions about how whisky is sold don’t let that show.
The fact is you could write Glen McShit on the bottle and it would still sell a lot right now, so many producers don’t even have to try – and this has led to so much boring, tasteless stuff being sold. Whisky that has spent its life in highly passive, fourth-fill or worse casks, and which share the same weak grassy-vanilla profile. There’s simply so much of it about, and it’s not good for the industry. There is good stuff available now – Bruichladdich, for example – and promising stuff coming with the likes of Dornoch distillery and Inchdarnie. I speak, as you may realise by now, in the sweeping generalisations we need for our online reading.
Naturally, the bad state of affairs is more so a thing with the independent market, where great casks have long since been scarce, and the distilleries have bought up most of the good stuff. But we convince ourselves, when we get an aged whisky from a well-used cask, that it’s all about subtleties. We convince ourselves that this lack of flavour is possibly even a good thing – but to me, it is not. It is nothing more than a signifier of a producer just banging out the spirit and not really caring all that much about character, flavour and integrity.
Certain producers of Scotch whisky are successfully selling rust-buckets to fans of classic cars. We all desire the E-Type Jag, but we buy mid-1990s Ford Mondeos and tell ourselves this is a wise choice.
But all is not lost…
One of my great realisations in 2017 was that European whisky – Swedish whisky in particular – is truly fabulous right now.
Yes, it’s not very helpful that I have not reviewed many Swedish whiskies on Malt, because most of my experiences have been off the site, and especially for Whisky Magazine. And I should also say that World whisky, on the whole, has some outstanding producers doing some brilliant things. New producers now have aged stock – and guess what? They’ve been making high-quality products.
But it’s to Sweden my eye has settled, as there are just a handful of producers putting out some super tasty whiskies. Box distillery, in particular, can do no wrong – it’s utterly brilliant. (Some of the best whisky in the world will be coming out of this place in time.) Smögen is putting out some wild and wonderful whiskies, with huge flavours on show. Mackmyra continues to show excellence and consistency. There are even smaller brands such as Spirit of Hven to explore. I’m going to make a big effort to showcase some more Swedish whiskies on the site in 2018, so watch this space. There’s not a lot of it about, but it’s worth highlighting.
So in short, if you want tasty whisky, it’s time to start looking away from Scotland. Japan. Australia. They’ve each had a bit of time in the spotlight. But let’s look to Europe: and to Scandinavia in particular. That’s where some fantastic flavours can be found, because these new producers can’t simply trade on old romance; they have to make good spirit.
I would say to any reader of Malt, it’s time to embrace the global industry properly – if you are interested at all in flavour, proper innovation, and quality production, then purge yourself of the romance of Scotch whisky. Romance has made the industry lazy.
Is this heresy? I don’t mean to ignore it all. No, I mean it’s time to ignore stories, and any Scotch I buy will be based on what production information there is – where possible – so I can make a judgement call on how arsed they’ve been about quality.
In short, I just want to drink the good stuff; there’s plenty out there in Europe.
When faced with the prospect of summing 2017 and another year in whisky I suppose the best approach after much deliberation is the good, the bad and the ugly, or the Tormore, the Jura and the Highland Park as it transpires.
Firstly though a few words on where you are now. Earlier this year we decided to pool together our resources and writing approaches to take Malt to a new level aided by a team of handpicked whisky enthusiasts who – despite our differences – unite behind the core principles of transparency, fun, honesty and knowledge. Every day since October we’ve brought you something new and original with plenty of irons in the fire for 2018. My thanks to Mark, Adam, Paul, Justine, Linh and Noortje for their support and belief, as well as those who now frequent Malt on a regular basis.
That’s the sensible part of this message in the bag. So let’s have a little fun now eh?
You cannot reflect upon 2017 without mentioning Cadenheads and their own 175th Anniversary celebrations. In reality, this topic could have covered all 3 strands featuring elements of good, the worst of human nature and behaviours that can only have you questioning the sanity of some consumers. Scotland’s oldest independent bottler threw open its inventory and unleashed an assault on the general public that we’ll look back upon with glee. Wallets, credit cards, bank balances, relationships and mobile phone bills have all taken a battering in the pursuit of whisky. Rather than reflect upon the ones that got away – and there were plenty – some of my highlights included that Knockdhu 10 year old, the Caol Ila 33 from earlier in the year and the ancient Glen Keith 43. Even now it’s hard to take all of the delights in and just highlight a couple although the Glenlossie 23yo is a real gem. My thanks to the efforts of the Cadenhead staff who no doubt have had to put up with some disappointed customers.
The sense of a whisky community. Not one fostered by Instagram and ill-informed accounts pushing brands as human billboards as we’ll come back to this, but rather the Whiskybase Gathering, the Tormore4 and everyone who seemed interested to meet the artist formerly known as Whisky Rover. I hope I have lived up to expectations and not cursed too much. Ideally, you can see the logic and potential in this joining of forces for the Malt before you. My tenacious criticism and dog with a bone approach will continue. Also to Kilkerran for a stream of engaging releases priced with an affordable tag and to Dornoch Distillery for arriving and staying true to their core beliefs.
There are so many candidates so I shall focus on one area – that of the flipper. These beasts have little interest in whisky. Chance opportunists in the pursuit of profit they are often quick off the mark to acquire a bottle to sell on to the secondary market immediately. Some now even just ship from retailers direct to the auction houses never actually seeing their purchase. In situations such as these, I wish the retailer would insist on banning such accounts. The demand for such bottles are high and easily sold but those merely content never to open their purchase or package should be removed from the sale. Yes, it might not stop these bottles being moved onto an auction thereafter but at least it would make things more difficult.
Such antics ultimately affect Malt. I have stood in several queues this year including on occasion for friends. The worst experience was the Dornoch whisky festival. A limited number of Wolfburn bottles especially for the festival were made available at the Carnegie Whisky Cellars and the Gala event itself. Last year you could have walked into the shop a few days later and purchased a bottle with ease. This year the allocation sold out within 20 minutes and the majority of those buying multiple bottles often as a household couple meant that a large proportion of buyers were not recognised by staff as being whisky drinkers or frequenting the store. After the allocation had sold out, the queue evaporated before my eyes and the shop itself became eerily empty. There was no interest in whisky generally and unable to secure a bottle this meant no online review here at Malt, which ultimately affects the wider readership who do wonder whether Wolfburn is capable of an interesting whisky. The Gala itself prompted several with tickets simply to walk in and purchase the Festival bottling and immediately leave, uninterested in the efforts of those organising the event to create a welcoming atmosphere and range of whiskies that as an attendee the bottle hunters were entitled to try. For 2018 either ditch the festival bottling completely or offer an allocation of 1 per person and somehow try to identify regular customers who frequent your shop all year round.
Instagram. Or should I say Instagram and Highland Park? Earlier this year I had a conversation with a leading Instagram account who seemed well endowed with free whisky. These bottles formed the basis of their daily onslaught. When questioned about this, in general, he responded that he didn’t care about the whisky or where it was from only that it was free and he was having a great time. This is disappointing although representative of the human character. Instagram seems to have an influx of accounts – mainly in North America – who proclaim on a daily basis how great this whisky is etc. There is no critique, categorisation or real debate. Only the procession of human billboards, outdoor backdrops or Star Wars figures.
In reality, Instagram has become a grey area and why bother with sponsored official posts, when a mere sample or bottle can unleash a series of free adverts to a readership who seem oblivious as to the expertise, knowledge and validity of the post itself. Here at Malt, if a whisky has been sent to us it’ll be mentioned, even if it is from a mate or god forbid we purchase a whisky ourselves!
Highland Park has been making major inroads into Instagram of late utilising this tactic. Every official release of Highland Park is heralded as great, awesome, knockout etc. Except you know, as do I, that this is often far from the truth. Other brands are now utilising the same tactics and seeing through websites that clearly offer little value, with fake followers often purchased by portly gentlemen to inflate their ego.
In summary, then, 2017 was just another year in whisky. The usual walk through a minefield of dangers towards those moments of bliss that a great dram can deliver. It is, in reality, all part of the whisky experience. The more you engage with whisky, the more disappointed you become with the behaviours of some individuals and distilleries. It is very easy to be swamped by the negatives but when you settle down for the evening with the dram of your choice, those shallow and profit-driven vermin seem very far away. Such moments and visiting Malt every day makes things worthwhile.
As ever, the year seems to have gone by in a flash. A rather itinerant year for me on the writing front; abandoning my own blog last December and scribbling for a few different websites before arriving at my new digital home on Malt.
A good year too. Getting across to Tasmania was a personal highlight, as was Spirit of Speyside and a few particularly special tastings, particularly with the British Bourbon Society (thanks, chaps!). Many whiskies tasted, many unsought-for opinions released into the digital wilderness.
So. Per Mark and Jason’s request: something I think is good, and something I’d like to see change in the world of whisk(e)y. No shortage of candidates in either category, so I’ve gone for a couple I didn’t think m’colleagues would call ‘dibs’ on first.
The aspect of the UK supermarket’s spirits aisle has changed dramatically in the last year. Arguably not for the better where Scotch (particularly single malt) is concerned, but for fans of US whiskey, a much-needed and long-awaited improvement has been made.
18 months ago you couldn’t find a single rye whiskey on supermarket shelves. The other day at Asda I counted four. And that’s not the end of it; no longer are Jim and Jack the only noticeable names, tentatively supported by Maker’s and (if you were lucky) Woodford Reserve. These days you’ll find the likes of Eagle Rare 10, Old Forester, Four Roses and Tincup. There are single barrel offerings, higher proofs, and wider ranges.
Granted the overwhelming majority is still fairly entry-level, but the fact that the biggest retailers now stock more interesting ‘gateway’ whiskies is emblematic of the seriousness with which the UK now takes whiskey made across the pond at every level of price and quality. The sneers of the malt-only mob are increasingly drowned out by the enthusiastic tumult of those who realise that there are more things in heaven and on earth than are dreamt of in Scotland’s philosophies.
Perhaps the biggest positive of the year is Canada’s major first step on the road to proper UK recognition. Beginning with the arrival of Pike Creek, Lot 40 and Wiser’s 18 back in June, and continuing with word of the Rare Releases – Canada’s loudest ever statement of intent – arriving on our shores. Having been planned for November I now gather that they’re due to land in early 2018, and I personally can’t wait.
There is a caveat though, which is that prices of some US whiskeys are now escalating at an alarming rate. Sure, the Pappys and the BTACs and so on have been fetching eye-watering sums on the secondary market for a good few years now; more worrying (to my mind) are the outrageous sums being demanded for some very ordinary juice.
I’ve seen one-year-old – one-year-old – stuff being sold for £100+. I’ve seen average-age whiskey sourced openly from MGPI traded at Antique Collection RRP, with only a threadbare marketing fairytale and a smartish container to back it up. Craft whiskey will always struggle to be priced competitively – and I completely understand why – but inaugural expressions from unproven distilleries now cost several times more than they would have done even two or three years ago.
Only a tentative ‘good’ then overall, which sounds about right for a curmudgeonly grump like me. And I shall tentatively look forward to seeing what happens in the North American category next year.
In all honesty, there’s a worrying plethora of options here. But, merited or not, the industry comes in for a lot of bashing in whisk(e)y enthusiast circles; not least from us here at Malt. So today, for a change, I’m taking a quis custodiet ipsos custodes approach, and making my beef with certain aspects of the whisky commentariat instead.
Fine. I’m on feet of clay. I’m sure – in fact, I know – there are plenty of people who take umbrage with my writing and opinions, and that is entirely their right and prerogative.
But there are some practices which cause genuine harm. To the industry, to the consumers, and to writers ourselves. Many of them are as old as whisky blogging is, but they’re not going away – in fact, they’re becoming more prevalent. So they’re worth calling out.
Firstly: samples. Occasionally some of us at Malt will be sent samples by distilleries and distributors. (I’m not, incidentally, but that’s because I’m an insignificant little toe-rag). We’re pretty open about this, and a free sample is no guarantee of a good review. See here for further proof. What’s worrying, however, is that dozens and dozens of bloggers (and vloggers) appeal directly to companies for handouts. Alternatively, they operate on an understanding that a free sample is a guarantee of, at worst, an ok review.
If you’re going to review something online, you have a duty of criticism. People put money down off the back of what they read or hear, and whisk(e)y is very, very expensive. Giving good reviews of bad whisky is quite simply dishonest. It hurts the consumer – your reader and entire raison d’être incidentally – and it enables powerful sections of the industry not to worry too much about quality.
What’s more, it puts those sections of the industry in command of vast amounts of supposedly ‘independent’ online content. They don’t need this! They have vast marketing departments perfectly capable of spinning their own bullshit, without bloggers and vloggers touting their nonsense for them in exchange for a paltry 50ml freebie. My God – I’ve even seen an online video in which the vlogger – mid-review – appealed to companies for an extra few samples. It’s unhelpful. It’s uncritical. It’s pathetic. If you’re asking for handouts directly, please get some self-respect.
That’s not the only shoddy practice, of course. From turning blogs and magazines into giant advertorials, to putting out only safe, lukewarm content that isn’t going to get you ‘yelled at’, to regurgitating opinions with no originality – which readers/viewers could find in a million other places, the list goes on and depressingly on. I haven’t even mentioned the tedious ‘this is old and rare, so it must be amazing’ mentality.
Of course, there is some absolutely brilliant online content. The practices above are very much the domain of the minority. But look: we non-professional writers come in for so many patronising sneers and so much disrespect from the professional quarter. It’s irritating, it’s (mostly) unwarranted, and it’s unfair. But it will only change with a shift in our own attitude and approach.
In 2018 I’d like to see that shift take place. Or at least to see the rot begin to slow, if not stop. We can all push to do better. Myself as much as anyone.
The Irish Whiskey renaissance. It is an exciting time for the Irish Whiskey industry with a proliferation of new brands appearing on shelves across the island of Ireland but more importantly the number of new distilleries opening or due to open in the future suggests that there is indeed a phoenix rising from the flames. Bear in mind that only three decades ago Ireland had only its third distillery in operation with the opening of Cooley, breaking years of the Bushmills and Midleton duopoly. Of particular interest to me are Echlinville in Kircubbin, County Down who are set up to produce a variety of whiskey styles and crucially who only use barley produced locally on the Ards peninsula highlighting the importance of provenance in their product.
The one to really watch will be Waterford distillery who is taking the idea of provenance and terroir to different levels with each distillate being made from barley from individual farms. Soil conditions, micro-climate all logged to highlight the individuality of each batch. Quite a task of logistics, but an experiment worth watching.
The Irish Whiskey renaissance. Yes really! Irish whiskey has a problem at the minute. The majority of the new brands that have come to fruition taste quite similar to what has gone before and often not quite as good. Why? As stated in the preceding paragraph Ireland has only had three distilleries in operation until relatively recently and only these three distilleries have aged stock. So brands are having to buy stock from Bushmills, Cooley and Midleton to make their products, especially where age statements come in to play. The Quiet Man 12, for example, is from Bushmills as is Knappogue Castle, Glendalough 13 is from Cooley, Hyde is bottling Bushmills and Midleton. Ebrington Distillery that will ultimately produce The Quiet Man in the future won’t open until next year at earliest so we will have to wait a while before we can sample their own 12 year old product. In reality, only time will tell if the new kids on the block will pass muster when we will finally get to try whiskey made from their own stills.
In the meantime, consumers will have to put up with ‘new’ whiskies of dubious provenance that are more marketing than anything. Also, the prices of some of these whiskies are just ridiculous. For example, (not to pick on people as this problem affects most of the new whiskies available from Ireland at present, I’m just using them as examples) the Quiet Man 12 year old is a bourbon cask matured Bushmills but costs £55 a bottle, the Glendalough 13 is a bourbon cask matured Cooley and costs upwards of £65 a bottle. Really? It beggars belief how they justify these prices that are essentially cast-offs from the ‘big three’. I mean I could buy 2 bottles of Kilkerran 12 year old at those prices and I know what experience I would enjoy more. I fear that much of the present Irish renaissance is hype and that the final experience is rather underwhelming and risks damaging brands before they even get off the ground.
Just to sign off for the year, I hope people have been entertained, delighted and infuriated in equal measure by what we’re doing on Malt. Yes, some of us are involved in the drinks industry to some degree or another, but that doesn’t mean we pander to the greater concerns. As I said in the intro: with great power comes great responsibility, so if we can use what influence we have to help steer things in a certain direction, then that’s all for the good.
Yet, that really very much depends on you, dear reader. Don’t be swayed by romance and stories. Question everything. Interrogate brands. Show curiosity. Call out rubbish.
And we’ll all be drinking far better whiskies in years to come.
Note: the image of Box distillery © Kristofer Lönnå.