My inbox has been inundated with emails recently – not solely about GDPR, which accounts for a large proportion of virtual landslide. Rather, a pulsating and inescapable Scotch theme. Yes, I’m talking about the inaugural whiskies from the booming sector of new distilleries.
Both share similarities upon further consideration. There should be rules to govern such things but in reality, the advice around compliance seems to vary. Ranging from the formal and structured to the more haphazard and essence of we’ve got to do something because everyone else is! For whisky, it’s the artificial maturation benchmark that brings about the chequered flag from the Scotch Whisky Association to bottle. When it turns to green there’s a stampede as everyone tries to make it onto the track that’s already pretty hectic with releases from established distilleries and independent bottlers. For onlookers, the spectacle becomes a little messy, bloated and insanely expensive.
It’s become a free for all in reality. The business plan and shareholders dictate that the revenue streams need to be maximised. Regardless of whether the whisky is ready is a mute point. Here we should pause to acknowledge those that will only bottle when it’s ready. Namely examples such as Ballindalloch, Abhainn Dearg and Daftmill, the latter we’ll return to in a moment. It’s not about the whisky but rather the symbolic act of being able to bottle when it’s ready, or when it’s at its peak, as for how in reality do you know? Mark Watt put it succinctly suggesting a year later you’re left thinking this was really good last year now it’s a bit shit. When it tastes good and satisfying seems a reasonable formula to calculate when to bottle. Time and patience is key alongside financial strength. Yes, some of these new arrivals on the track might be good but they’re unlikely to be at their best and several will be lacklustre needing more time.
Things kicked off with the bottling of the debut Cotswold whisky. This English distillery didn’t ask the earth for their whisky. Priced at around £45 it offered enough of an experience backed up by an affordable price tag. Plaudits to them as clearly things were about to go mental and they could have sold it for a great deal more.
The biggest surprise came when Berry Bros announced the debut of Daftmill single malt that is a vatting of casks distilled in 2005. The distillery is an oddity so much so that some brand ambassadors I had a few drinks with last year didn’t even know of its existence. Francis has sought to create a classic Lowland style of whisky with the maxim of when it’s ready and now apparently it is. Although, the numerous Fife distilleries set to bottle I’m sure was also an influence. Stealing thunder is never recommended.
Priced at £210 this was greeted with some sense of amusement although since then its transpired to be rather good value for what is essentially a 12 year old whisky, limited to just 620 or so bottles. Little did the critics know what else was in store from the fledgeling distilleries approaching that Scotch Whisky Association mythical border. For Daftmill an additional summer release will hit the shelves later this year priced at a reasonable £95.
Eden Mill then picked up the baton and to be fair tried to do something a little different. Yes, there was a single cask release limited to staff and punters who have supported the distillery since its inception. A small reward, and priced at £395 a release that won’t hit the retail market at least. Their Hip Flask series wasn’t without its flaws, as previously highlighted, but played to their experimental side whilst offering a more accessible price point. Even these small batches sold out pretty promptly confirming there is demand for new whiskies. Whether that’s driven by a genuine desire to discover or plain financial greed remains to be seen.
Then economics came into the equation with sets of both being offered for sale on an online whisky auction site. The first 10 bottles that arguably form part of the history of Eden Mill sold to the highest bidder. A symbolic act and recognition that the secondary market is making pricing difficult to evaluate for those debating their own bottlings. By doing so and Eden Mill isn’t the first nor the last to utilise an online auction, it sets an inflated value and gives another green light. If the distillery is utilising this sales channel then individuals can as well. The only winners here are the auctioneers and not the consumer or the distillery.
Kingsbarns remains quiet on the subject of their inaugural release, which perhaps is a reflection that what I’ve tasted of maturing stock from this distillery needs a bit longer. I’m sure other distilleries such as Lindores, Raasay, Torabhaig and the rest are watching with a mixture of bewilderment and glee. Given the trend, we’re seeing the realistic expectation would be that when these are ready to bottle they won’t be cheap. Unless the mythical and long overdue drop in demand manifests itself in the meantime.
Then things went bat crazy apeshit with the Lakes Distillery. An English whisky with big ambitions including it seems to grab some of that action. Putting aside Genesis for a moment, they revealed the Quatrefoil Collection. A set of 4 whiskies called Faith, Hope, Luck and Love that sounds more like a Korean K-pop band. Instead for £895, you’ll receive the set over 4 years and its limited to 3500 units. The initial bottle is a vatting of different cask types, which the cynic could utilise to highlight the whisky itself isn’t quite ready, but that cash flow potential certainly is the prime real estate.
Not content with its K-pop endeavours, Lakes has also sought to sell the 99 bottles from the Genesis edition via – yes you’ve guessed it – an online auction site. In total 99 out of the 101 bottles will be up for grabs later this month. Again we’re swimming in the monstrous currents of speculation, investment and pure profit. The fact that this edition is a muddled cask recipe seems beyond the point. Initially matured in Oloroso hogsheads before moving into casks made-up of American and European oak, this finish wasn’t enough and the liquid then continued onwards. Being married in Orange wine casks from the Andalucía region of Spain. The end result on paper is a whisky that isn’t representative of the distillery but a concoction of casks. Such a concept doesn’t float my boat whatsoever.
Last by not by means least, we have the Glasgow Distillery Company, who revealed their 1770 debut whisky that will be available later this year. They’ve gone for a fairer method it must be said with a ballot and the asking price of £100. A couple of years ago that would have seemed a crazy price but in the context of this article, its fairly modest and palatable isn’t it? The only criticism is that for the ballot winners they’re quite happy to take your money now but won’t ship until November. A question I did ask via Twitter and would have utilised the answer right here although sadly we’re still waiting for a response.
This isn’t the end. There are more new distilleries appearing across the UK than midges currently devouring unsuspecting bystanders. The easiest remedy is to cover up and run away for both. Chances are such inaugural releases act as trinkets and physical decorative items. For the trophy collectors and investors. The whisky itself potentially will be a bit blah; and instead, you’ll look towards the debut core expression that will hopefully offer some resemblance of a memorable experience. Until then, cover up and keep safe.