“But the price went up. And then it went up again until no-one on Todday could afford even a dram. So they all lived unhappily ever after. Oh, except for Sergeant Odd and his Peggy, for they were not whisky drinkers. And if that is not a moral tale, what is?” (Whisky Galore, 1949)
The Thames slurps and curdles its gralloching way through autumn London. Gelatinous, glutinous grunge-grey, like the bottom of yesterday’s roasting pan. It gulps and slops at HMS Belfast and gloops past the haughty loom of Old Billingsgate. A warship without war and a fish market without fish. Almost Ozymandian; two vast and trunkless legs. Though we’re hardly standing in the desert here. You couldn’t accuse Southwark of being lone and level sands.
The fish might have flopped off, but Billingsgate still throbs and pulses with bustle and reek. Roll up, roll up – The Whisky Show’s in town; The Big One. Definite articles and capital letters. Three days, seven-hundred-odd whiskies, hundred-quid a ticket, six hours a go. Eating’s cheating, spittoons are for wimps, last one to Karuizawa’s a rotten egg, and ten points to whoever first spots a pro whisky writer off their noddle.
Priciest whisky here? God knows. A house deposit? A few kidneys? 100 years before The Dutchman’s mast? Come back next year and it will have doubled. A former satirist holds sports-jacketed court on the main stage: “if you have money, you can make money.” The Tower of London is just down the road, but whisky’s crown jewels are here. Bottles beyond thought; a brain-mangling cornucopia. Sipped and gargled and goggled and gawped at by dewy-eyed neophytes, slick mixologists, tweedy Rumpoles, pinstripe hipsters, meat-handed Vikings, vaulted luminaries and thruppenny hacks. This is The Whisky Exchange’s gift to the world; Sukhinder Singh’s pedestal. Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair.
Brothers and sisters, I must whisper a confession: I love it.
I try not to. Every year I try to flint my heart, to curl my lip, to flicker a knowing, long-toothed gaze of seen-it-all-before nonchalance over the whole shooting match. And every year it crumbles into boggle-eyed, bambi-stepping, wet-eared Tiny-Timmery. I am the kid in the sweet shop; the dog on the way to the park; Quixote with a windmill; haggis with neeps and tatties. I totter and flit from stall to stall, clutching my glass (upgraded, this year, by the way) like a little lost waif; a mendicant with a stemmed alms bowl; a boozy Oliver Twist. “Please sir, may I have some more?”
As close as I get to an ambivalent shrug, as more forbearing Malt readers will know, is my use of the spittoons, which is absolute. I am an equal-opportunities spitter. From Pappy Van Winkle and Dalmore Constellation to rubbishy new Allt à Bhainne, it all goes out the way it came in. But even then, it’s not careless insouciance. It’s just a wino’s force of habit. Expectoration for robots.
The Show’s trump card is its breadth. Its ability to winkle out tiny distilleries from Scandi nooks and Alpine crannies that you’ve never heard of but whose whisky is breathtaking. I’ve never come away from The Whisky Show without some new illumination, and if you have, then you’ve wasted the entry fee. I first tasted Langatun here, and High Coast, back when they were called Box. I’ve globe-trotted through Old Billingsgate from Australia to Israel, from Denmark to South Africa; around the world in 80 glasses.
I’m not sure why I thought this table was going to be my 2018 Damascus moment. Maybe I didn’t. Maybe I just toddled up having clocked low-level punter coagulation. Their stuff wasn’t even whisky yet; I’ve churned out words longer than they’ve churned out spirit. But it was terrific.
I mean really terrific. Eyebrows-on-trampolines, stardusty tingle-tingle, purringly, shiveringly terrific. Fireworks that no two-and-a-half-year-old spirit has any business setting off were wheeling and fizzing with sparkles and glittery pops. The fruit – my God – the fruit. It was (possibly) better than The Cotswolds was at the same age. Then a range of single casks; virgin oak, Pedro Ximenez, Bourbon, Port. Each one crackling and blasting; dazzling an embattled palate; waltzing over a jaded tongue.
Better still: the brand ambassador – and that’s a tawdry undersell – was brilliant. Everything that we grouse and bleat for on Malt. Enthused, knowledgeable, passionate, genuine. Or a jolly convincing actress. Reader, I came away inspired. It was my cool water in the desert. It was just what I’d hoped to find.
As is my wont – millennial and all that – I took to Twitter at once, trilling over my discovery. I felt newly wise and informed. Whisky, I imagined, had an imminent new star. And – what luck – an English star. Whose galaxy wasn’t far, far away, but a short schlep along the M4. I could visit. I would visit. This very weekend. I was armed with a business card and first name terms. All I needed was the postcode. With eager fingers I tapped their website into my phone …
And felt no end of a moron.
That two-and-a-half-year-old spirit? That beautiful not-even-whisky-yet? Yours for £120. Or, to put it another way, 48 quid per year of ageing. As for the single casks, forget about them. Two hundred and fifty notes each. Or all four for four times the price. As though they saw the lambasting of the Lakes Distillery for the avaricious vanity of their Quatrefoil Collection and said: “hold my drink”.
The wind dropped from my sails like a fan turned off. I thought about the brilliant, enthused brand ambassador and my online oh-my-Goddery, and the deflation set in. The full popped balloon. The geophysicist had to ask if I was feeling alright. But, really, I don’t know why I was surprised.
If I had a pound for every time I’ve grumbled about whisky’s price I’d be able to actually afford some of it. It’s one of the tenets of Malt malcontentment; possibly the central tenet, given I’ve a hunch that a few of my colleagues don’t really give a dodgy mushroom about terroir. And, as with all of our grizzlings, it inevitably inspires refrains of “shut up, “deal with it” “why do you hate on life?” “who the hell even are you?”. Usually from one breed or another of industry peon who knows which side the butter’s on. Or else from folk to whom price isn’t really an object.
But my price-gripery this week is more specific. It’s not about whether long-loved expressions are creeping out of reach, or well-aged whiskies not being priced as they once were. Instead I’m concerned with the financial statements being made by brand new distilleries without so much as a shred of history, pedigree or reputation behind their minimum-age-or-younger liquid.
The current era of new distilleries is unprecedented. Distilleries have opened at rates of knots before, but never to so much public speculation; never in such visible form as the class of 2010-or-so onwards.
Say you’re a whisky lover (and, given you’re reading this, you most probably are – in addition to being clever and attractive). Say a new distillery opens somewhere near you. Say it’s the first in Fife or York or Toxteth or Tidsbury or Butlins or Glamorgan or Skegness or your Granny’s kitchen since Wee Angus MacSmuggler strode the fair, ericaceous glen. Say you schlep over to see the new build, to see the stills lifted in, to see the new make splashing through the spirit safe, to see the casks rolling into the warehouse, to see the novice distillers realising a dream. Say you ping a juicy post on social media, declaring to the world that exciting things are happening in GlenBilious. Say GlenBilious retweet it. Say you get on first name terms with their charming tour guide, brewer, distiller, owner, café soup-seasoner. Say you give them a cheery wave at festivals and chew the fat about how their spirit’s coming on. Say you spend three years getting excited, telling your friends, waiting for whisky, giving a toss. And say, when the three year klaxon sounds, it’s only to herald a rapacious, small-minded, exclusionary piece of contemptuous vaulting ambition. A price you couldn’t possibly stretch to. An exorbitant price. A f*** you price.
That, largely, has been the story of 2018. Daftmill, Eden Mill, The Lakes Distillery, Annandale. Not one of them has launched their first whisky with change from £200. Daftmill’s follow-up in the summer cost £95, and Eden Mill released their rather unusual hip flask series, but besides that there’s been nothing under three figures. And all of them, with the exception of Daftmill, were young-as-possible nappy-rash toddlers, whose bottling wasn’t dictated by when the whisky might be ready to drink, but by a century-old law instigated by a Welshman, inspired by the Temperance Movement’s ropey conviction that aged spirit got folk less pissed.
The bottlings won’t slow down. Jason highlighted it all rather wonderfully in his piece on the subject, accompanied by more-than-reasonable advice to run and hide. Kingsbarns and Glasgow Distillery Company are standing by for launch, and all the while, watching from Twitter’s periphery, are Torabhaig and Raasay and Ardnamurchan and Lindores and my Whisky Show friends Bimber and Spirit of Yorkshire and Waterford and so, so many other distilleries. All with friendly, smiley social media accounts and engaging communications teams. All sounding so reasonable, so switched on, so passionate. All of them perfectly capable of launching their first grog with another two fingers to anyone on less than a six-figure salary.
Perhaps you’re snorting that that’s how capitalism works, and that I ought to live in the real world. Where art moulders in locked vaults, Russian-owned London houses rattle with emptiness, wind and woodworm, and whisky makes the headlines only when it’s a bottle that will likely never be drunk.
Here’s the problem with that. Exorbitant prices are sustainable only for as long as there are people willing to pay them. Macallan can sell its rarest barrel juice for the price of a mansion because it has spent decades cementing itself into the premium sector. And because, once upon a time, it made (probably) the best proprietary-bottled single malt in the world.
Right now, these newbies are a fad. A novelty. Something adventurous and exciting. And people are happy to pay their inaugural pots of gold for the “I was there” factor. For the story to tell their friends over late evenings, when plates are cleared away and the glimmering decanter is popped to a peal of clinking tumblers. “First in the Lakes, don’t you know?” I get that sentiment, even if it’s a bit of a sour grape. I get why those who are able will pay that sort of money. First-time bottlings are peacock feathers. Up to a point, that’s fine.
But when they’re not new, when the copper’s worn down a bit, when the bottles aren’t show-off crystal nestling in velvet and hardwood, when the social circus moves on to the next opening, when they’re just another infant distillery without the age statements and dark colours that the non-whisky-literate understand, what then?
So I suppose, as much as I rage and blast, what I most feel when confronted by these prices is worry. Worry that these smaller, obscure, niche, crafty distilleries are trying to be Dalmore before they can walk. Worry that they’ll be written off by whisky-loving folk before their liquid even gets a chance to really strut its stuff. Worry that the end to these genuinely interesting, friendly, quality-minded distilleries could be as sudden as their beginning. And that their gleaming inaugurals will sit, dust-sprinkled, on somebody’s shelf unhappily ever after, glanced at occasionally and never opened.
There is another way. Look at Arran, and at Kilchoman. Both distilleries built from the ground up during my lifetime, and both now with established faithful and reasonably priced core rages. Look at Kilkerran, so highly prized and praised (not least on this site), albeit built with the financial might and established credentials of J&A Mitchell behind it. Most pertinently, to whiskymaking freshers, look at The Cotswolds. Released last year at £45 per bottle, and already backed by thousands of global admirers; able to consolidate and build; both in range, and quite literally, as they break new ground on their site. The Cotswolds Distillery is here for the long haul.
£45 isn’t cheap. Most of my friends wouldn’t pay that for a bottle of whisky. But, given the quality of what the Cotswolds produce and the expense they go to in producing it, it’s a price that they can justify. A price their following can aspire to. A whisky aimed at the drinker. I know I’ve been pretty glowing in my praise of the Cotswolds (though I’ve not always given them the highest scores) but honestly, what’s not to like?
The theme of The Show this year was “the future of whisky”. That meant (quite rightly) stands celebrating the burgeoning European rye scene. It meant a broader range of whiskies available. It meant new ways of presenting whisky, of drinking whisky, of promoting whisky. And all of that was laudable and proper.
But the subject of cost simply isn’t arising when the great and the good of the spirit we love sharpen their stylos. New distilleries are being trumpeted, appropriately, but not one paid professional seems prepared to stick their neck out and question the asking-prices for brand new whiskies of unproven provenance. No one in a position of influence, whose voice carries meaningful weight, is encouraging distilleries to look past the green notes and crystal of bottle number one.
I worry that if these powerful voices remain silent on the matter, then the future for new distilleries may be one of cynicism and scorn and contempt. In which the people genuinely interested in trying new and diverse whiskies are either priced out, or are not prepared to pay what is asked. In which the party, inevitably, comes to an end for these nimble, process-focussed, labour-of-love operations.
This isn’t a rant. It isn’t an accusal. It isn’t a witch hunt. It’s a twofold plea. To new distilleries: consider your following when you launch your first bottling. I get that it’s a unique, special moment. I get that it’s a celebration. But that’s all the more reason to welcome your most fervent supporters.
And to further-reaching, louder-voiced professional writers: speak out wholeheartedly against the industry’s more unsavoury shades. Question and highlight those areas in which whisky can do better. It’s not negativity; it is criticism. It goes beyond flash-in-the-pan, sniffy-sippy tasting notes; it is part of an effective, useful and evolving conversation, and it is vital to both the industry and the consumer. Proper criticism is accepted and encouraged in every field from cars to sport to restaurants to media. Its paucity along the spectrum of whisky writing is both astonishing and damaging.
The future of whisky ought to be one in which all parties – industry and commentator – are held to a higher standard for the betterment of the liquid and the benefit of the drinker.
Right now all I can do is keep my fingers crossed.
(Credit to Wells snr for digging up the wonderfully apposite opening quote.)