R

RoboCop and Bunnahabhain 12 Years Old

Within whisky circles there are many speculative theories about why it is so difficult to get our hands on the latest bottle of whisky. One of the more controversial is the idea that automatic computer prrogrammes known as ‘bots’ are buying up all the whisky before mere mortals have so much as moved their mouse. I decided to investigate.

Bots have been commented on by Jason here and well discussed on Roy’s Vpub here. But what are these ‘bots’? Bots are software applications that will perform any task they have been programmed for via the internet. These bots are usually utilised for mundane or repetitive tasks. The use of bots can be ‘good’ and ‘bad’. Good bots include those that aggregate news into a single feed or more complex bots that can search for copyright infringement within social media whereas bad bots can include those used to spread misinformation on social networks. Bots in general are becoming an essential part of our daily lives.

Both good or bad, bots can cause problems for any website for example when new content is added to a website the search bots can aggressively ‘crawl’ the website to index the new content this alone can cause high server loads that can crash a website. Whisky industry website crashes are now a regular and frustrating aspect of whisky buying.

Bots within retail in general account for 20% of internet traffic to retail sites. Many of these are price checking bots regarded as ‘simple bots’ and there are more advanced bots that search for specific newly released products. Imperva’s 2020 Bad Bot Report highlights the issues in retail and the ‘Sneakerbots’ that are regarded as advanced persistent bots (APBs).

Source: Impervia 2020 Bad Bot Report

One report highlighting the issues around Sneakerbots for hyped releases revealed almost 100% of internet traffic can come from bots. Third-party companies are now profiting from being the middlemen for sneaker fans creating an ‘Add to Cart’ service where sneaker fans pay a fee to secure the trainers. Examples of bot users securing extreme numbers of sneakers are presented by Queue-It a company that aims to prevent bots.

Source: Queue-IT Everything You Needed to Know about Preventing Sneaker Bots

As a whisky fan frustrated seeing releases sell out before the official email arrives in my inbox it is easy to draw the conclusion that Sneakerbots are now used for whisky purchasing. Afterall 84 Arrrrrdbegs at Whisky Auctioneer in a single sale suggests the whisky equivalent of the sneaker picture above.

However, retailers are not seeing the sort of activities described above. When contacted by Malt, Arthur Motley, Whisky Buyer and Director at Royal Mile Whiskies pointed out that “RMW, perhaps more than any other retailer, has spent time monitoring customer behaviour and buyer profiles and simply cannot find any evidence of advanced bots actually making purchases.” Arthur notes that the increase in scraping bots that monitor for new releases or low prices are increasing significantly and those alone can cause weak websites to crash. RMW has invested in protecting against these bots and the other big sites like Master of Malt and Whisky Exchange appear to have done the same. Other retailers report a similar pattern.

So we can fairly confidently say that the Sneakerbots phenomenon has not transferred to whisky. So bots are not automatically purchasing whisky in any detectable volume. But there is plenty of evidence of the development of Whisky Watching services providing email updates using new release scraping bots for a significant monthly fee. But before you rush out and start googling you should be aware I have also encountered many free ‘communities’ offering the same service for nothing. One Slack based service recently updated members on the status of their bots:

  • The Whisky Exchange bot is now live.
  • Master of Malt bot is now live. Thanks for the last century layout used by MoM’s code monkeys bottle names and links can sometimes become scrambled when multiple bottles appear simultaneously.
  • Royal Mile Whiskies Bot has passed testing and is fully functional. However, owing to the advanced anti-bot software on the site the bot will not being going live until I am able to purchase a rotating proxy subscription. This is rather expensive so I will trial next week and introduce it when I have the funds to subscribe.
  • Tyndrum Whisky bot will go live early next week following a final test.
  • Luvians Bot is now in Beta testing.
  • N&P bot posted Foursquare Redoutable 7 seconds after it went live on the site.
  • MoM and TWE bots are currently limited to a refresh rate of 2 minutes however following the introduction of proxy rotation we will likely be able to drop the rate across all sites to around 10 seconds.”

The Slack community mentioned above has more than 400 members already and appears to be growing by about 50 per week. That’s already more people in one forum than the number of bottles available in a typical single cask release. There is evidence of a significant number of ‘new release’ bots all working at the same time:

I reached out to other retailers to gauge their experience. Jerome Marks-Gardner of Nickolls & Perks, suggested that there is a perfect storm involving “the growing crowd of genuine whisky enthusiasts; plus limited stock of these sought-after releases” along with “website bots that allow you to complete checkout within seconds, notification alerts for new products hitting websites” and “the proliferation of information about quick returns from whisky investment.” The days of finding a recent release on a shelf, or a dusty bygone release still at retail are now consigned to fireside legend. Expect more ballots and shop only offers as N&P try to get the whisky to the whisky-lovers.

Stuart Easton of Luvians in Fife agrees that it’s not robots that are getting between you and the next release but your fellow whisky buyers. “We regularly get 10,000 entries at ballot for their allocations of sought after whisky like Daftmill. Actually whisky enthusiasts are really well informed these days and often know before we do when the next release is scheduled!” Luvians do not send orders to auction houses and do what they can, as a small business, to combat the flippers. Their recently developed idea is to hold back some allocations to sell by ballot at the end of their online tasing sessions. With no guarantee of a bottle, it should ensure that the flippers are deterred, and only serious whisky lovers remain in the small tasting ballot.

You can conclude that the proliferation of ‘new release’ bots that inform prospective buyers of new whisky the moment it is posted on a website is narrowing the purchasing window from minutes to seconds. This results in the frustration of receiving an email about a new release and clicking through only to find it sold out.

It’s also worth noting that a single poorly coded bot can send tens of thousands of requests to a retailer’s site in minutes, which can be enough to cause outages on some websites. Recently a whisky distillery website suffered a significant unexpected outage on the release of a single cask after over 40,000 visits to the page within a couple of hours and a couple of thousand for any given second in the minutes after the release went live. Of particular note is that just one IP address was responsible for over 7,000-page refreshes indicating bot automation rather than a frantic human; one bot was responsible for 17.5% of the traffic. There were only ever 327 bottles available.

Could more complex bots be developed for Whisky retailers? I contacted code writers on the Freelance site Fiverr who were confident they could write a myriad of complex APB bots for the retail price of a bottle of Arrrrrdbeg. However, the coder had never done it for whisky before. As tempting as it was to gain a competitive advantage the risk of handing over a significant amount of personal data including full credit card details to someone the other side of the world I only know as ‘mm80dxion’ to create code seemed exceedingly risky for whisky! One code writer in my whisky club quickly wrote some code that would find a bottle on Master of Malt add it to the basket and open up the basket tab ready for personal details. Whilst the speed and ease of writing the code were impressive the actual performance of the code was surprisingly slow; certainly, it was no quicker than if I had completed the purchase myself. I’m not sure how APBs would handle the website crashes we often see on release days either.

In some ways, the winds of change are already blowing in a worrying direction but there are significant barriers to the adoption of APBs which will hopefully ensure whisky drinkers remain in with a chance of securing interesting releases. One is the distributed nature of whisky retail which significantly differs from sneakers or other streetwear that are often released from a single site. Desirable whiskies are spread thinly around multiple retailers. A prospective purchaser would require a specific bot designed for each retailer and their specific checkout process; regularly maintained and adjusted for any changes. This requires a reasonable level of skill at programming and coding that is beyond most.

It would appear that this competitive situation is here to stay. With so many new distilleries entering the market this clamour can be positive; buoyant prices help attract investment and give some financial certainty going forward which is great for Scotch whisky in general. So far COVID has failed to significantly impact whisky sales despite bars and restaurants around the world being closed for the best part of a year. Some have suggested that working-from-home has allowed more people to bottle chase online as no one is looking over their shoulder at what is on web browsers.

As whisky consumers; we’ve got to ask ourselves if the final pleasure is worth all the pain. Does the stress and frustration, not to mention wasted time, tracking down a limited bottle actually result in equivalent levels of pleasure when you drink it? Perhaps a greater pleasure/pain balance would be to quietly revisit the gems within the core ranges that can be found far and wide all of the time. And remember that if you do really want the latest single cask of whatever you need to be fit. Because when you miss out it will be not because you have been cheated by a bot but rather the buyers who you are competing against are well practised and experienced and simply more nimble around these sites than you or I. And as for acquiring your own bot? Retailers and distilleries are more aware than ever of the issues and are likely to take steps to combat the current issues and will be monitoring for suspicious transactions; I expect the time advantage currently bots provide will diminish quite rapidly. Then you’ll only have to contend with the other humans rapidly refreshing their browsers for whatever bottle you are after.

For a review I selected one of the most overlooked whiskies on the market. The Bunnahabhain 12. Malt Review has recently featured Bunnahabain from Scyfion, a range of specials, and over the years everything from 7 year old distillery exclusive from 2016, to 28 year old single casks from Thompson Bros.

As far as I can see the 12-year-old has not been covered on Malt before. Overlooked indeed. Prices for this whisky can be discounted as low as £30, Master of Malt at £38.95 and more regularly around £45. I picked up this on sale from Loch Fine Whiskies for £35.99 stress free and without it selling out before I completed the checkout process! It is 46.3% and non-chill filtered or coloured; already ticking plenty of boxes. Each batch is composed of a mixture of Sherry and Bourbon Casks.

Bunnahabhain 12 Years Old – Review

Colour: Burnished Copper – Whisky with this hue at this price is usually artificially coloured; all natural here.

Nose: Generic oloroso opening up into raisins and dried figs, new leather, some spirit lead brightness followed by Christmas Cake. Is there some slight salty coastal notes or am I just hopeful? A gentle floral note; perhaps walking on the wild flower machair.

Taste: medium-bodied mouthfeel, some alcohol-related white pepper, black tea and rich roasted coffee beans, a drop of treacle, salted milk chocolate, original recipe Irn Bru, with the finish shorter than expected mostly spirit lead with citrus and new leather.

Conclusions

Loads of sherry to tame the raw spirit which bursts through at the back end of the palate. It does not drink as old as 12 years perhaps more like an 8 year old. It’s uncomplicated, sherry forward but for the price range there is reasonable complexity. This is one of the best releases in the price range and should be a staple for everyone’s drinks cabinet. One to sit back and enjoy without ever once worrying about the secondary market.

Score: 6/10

(just 5 on taste alone but I added an extra point for value)

CategoriesSingle Malt
Graham
Graham

Graham is at the consumer end of the whisky world; constantly seeking out a bargains and generally very cautious with his limited budget. An occasional visitor to distilleries and a member of the odd whisky club. He does not collect whiskies but has a few nice ones put away for some future special occasion. He enjoys discussions with the wider whisky community and may resemble the ‘average’ Malt reader.

  1. TheWhiskySleuth
    TheWhiskySleuth says:

    A great read Graham! I have to say my takeaway is rather gloomy. Even if the bots aren’t automatically buying everything up themselves and only pinging release alerts, that’s already a level of complexity beyond a caveman like myself. I’ve see a few of these paid for services pop up too, though judging by your excellent detective work it seems that anyone capable of some basic coding can whip one of these up in no time at all. Perhaps a real demographic shift is under way with young tech savvy consumers maximising all the tools and knowledge at their disposal. For those of us in the dark ages who still read actual books, and take notes with paper and pen, I think it is time to return to the methods of old, and build a solid relationship with a friendly shopkeeper or two. The only issue is, who has the time for that in this modern busy world?

    As for the bunna, I reviewed it not so long ago , but it’s buried in my overall review of the pour and sip club subscription service. It’s absolutely deserving of its own piece so I’m glad you’ve shone the spotlight on it! I agree with your sentiments, though I have it pegged a little higher. For me a 7 verging on an 8. I think it’s a masterpiece considering the price of entry. Would be a great one to give people blind.

    1. Graham
      Graham says:

      Thanks Sleuth.

      I think the focus on collecting or investing in sing or casks right now also coincides with a reduction in available casks to the independent market and cask price inflation. So the positive is that this is a great time to revisit these sort of OBs and find the good ones.

      I’m glad you enjoyed the Bunna so much. Perhaps my score reflects just home much Bunna I have tasted this year thanks to Lord Bunna’s bottle shares. I think this score gives some head room for all the incredible Bunnahabhain that’s out there. But I agree as entry level whisky goes it’s hard to beat.

  2. Avatar
    DB says:

    I had an idea about collecting points each time you buy certain bottles (lets call them ‘standard’ offerings, nothing limited). Each time you buy a standard bottle, you accrue some points. When it comes to a limited release, you have to have X amount of points to spend on accessing that bottle to buy it. Once the points are spent, you have to accrue them again to buy something else limited.

    There’d need to be limits on the amount of points you could accrue (e.g. only earn points on an expression in a given time period), but would at least mean retailers are turning out other bottles.

    Obviously the real solution would be for people to stop flipping, but that ship has sailed.

    Or just ballot the lot.

    1. Graham
      Graham says:

      DB,

      A lot of good ideas. The big challenge is that each varied option creates a large administrative burden on the retailers that they cannot realistically manage or do not want to engage in. There is limited incentive for retailers to do so when sales are guaranteed too.

      Certainly the Luvians approach has been quite well received but it’s early doors so far.

    2. Avatar
      Tom says:

      While not as formal or sophisticated as you lay out here, many retailers already do this to some degree, particularly smaller mom and pop shops. The good ones know who their good customers are and reach out to them when the allocation stuff comes in.

      1. Graham
        Graham says:

        Tom,

        You are correct, and there are very few solutions that solve this problem without introducing new problems. Even ballots lack transparency.

  3. Avatar
    Bot Controller says:

    Hi Graham, this is Bot Controller

    Thanks for putting together such a well researched article, it made for a really interesting read. A shame you didn’t reach out to me for comment but no bother. I’m still happy to have been brought into the discussion.

    I see you also note the gripe of poorly coded bots causing websites to crash owing to excessive refresh rates. I’m happy to be able to say with absolute certainty that our bot is well coded and is strictly limited to a nominal refresh speed, less than the average web user at the time of new releases appearing.

    As to why I made the bot? I knew we were not alone and that there were already a multitude of whisky bots out there, some of which charging an extortionate amount of access. I made the bot as a kind of service to our malt-minded members having seen many express their frustration at constantly missing out on new releases. My hope was by levelling the playing field, I could help out members stand to have a fairer chance and I’m happy to say it has so far been rather successful, without the need for anyone to be fork out any significant sums for a subscription.

    If I had my way, we would all go back to 10 years ago, where you had a good few days to hunt down anything of relative interest with ease. I really do miss how enjoyable and less stressful that time was. But sadly, those days have long past and we must adapt the best we can.

    1. Graham
      Graham says:

      Bot Controller,

      Thanks for your feedback. I’m please you have taken the time to comment here and accept you would have liked these comments included in the main article.

      For me I was using your platform as an example of something that is occurring more widely rather than singling your group out for criticism.

      I think you’ll see that the whole article is about capturing the state of play rather than giving an opinion about it. I’ll leave that to the readers.

      Levelling up is laudable; whether it contributes to a technological arms race is a different thing.

      We are certainly agreement that the good ‘ol days of 10 years ago made for more enjoyable whisky hunting.

      All the best,

      Graham

    2. Avatar

      Bot Controller, some of your arguments are rather silly, like “It’s a kind of service” or “my hope was to level the playing field” or “it’s just the others that are badly coded”. In my opinion the fact that you were not the first or the fact that you don’t seem to ask significant sums for a subscription don’t justify the fact that it’s still a way of cheating. Whether or not your process is ethical doesn’t really matter – the outcome and the flipping practices supported by services like yours is clearly not.

      There was a big discussion going on in my country about people hacking into the system that controls vaccination registrations, in order to bypass hundreds of thousands of others that were in a queue. The same logic applies…

      1. Avatar
        TheWhiskySleuth says:

        Lol. Your opening statement there, followed by then comparing someone illegally hacking a healthcare system in order to preferentially jump a life saving vaccination queue, to someone who has rather cleverly worked out how to buy a bottle of whisky faster than someone else. Now that’s some serious irony! I think you are comparing chalk and cheese.

      2. Avatar
        Japawhisky says:

        What is the difference between having an army of people sitting there hitting F5 or a bot doing exactly the same thing? It is not cheating. It is what everyone is doing now, it is not difficult to have a page monitor bot, there are 100s of free browser plugins, etc, etc.
        What about the shops giving all their mates a heads up with the time it is going online or an unlisted link which 99% of them do, is that cheating? If you aren’t doing it then you don’t get the whisky, so if you don’t want to get the whisky, don’t do it. It is not a great comparison you make to vaccine registrations either. If you are doing 50km/h in a 50km/h zone but everyone else is doing 60, are you wrong or are they wrong?

        1. Graham
          Graham says:

          Japawhisky,

          Interesting thought and thanks for sharing them. I do understand the ‘if you are not fast you are last’ mentality. There is no denying that those running bots are skilled at it and also taking some risks themselves. The reward is the whisky.

          Perhaps a better analogy is the world of sport, athletes are always striving to get the edge on their competitors but at some stage that can become unfair and the rules have to be changed. That could be the shark skin swimming suit, the shoes that make marathon running more efficient, the carbon fibre prosthetic, or a new medication. Within sport this area is highly regulated but there is no controls over retail bots.

          How sophisticated does a bot have to be before it offers that unfair advantage?

          1. Avatar
            DT8 says:

            Hi all,

            I have to be honest, I like many was slightly apprehensive of how whisky buying would go, looking at the way sneakers/PS5 were being snapped up would happen to whisky. However, I am a member of the afore mentioned whisky community, and that’s just it, it’s a community. We share tips, tasting notes, a passion for ‘the water of life’. I know the view is that ‘Bot’s are used to flip whisky’ and on occasion, they are however, please remember, Bot Controller could easily have set up a bot for himself and gave himself a distinct advantage to buy every bottle he so desires! He instead, chooses to share this with the community, some that he will never speak to, never say thank you to him & lurk around in the background being hypocritical about the process while reaping the rewards! I agree the days of old have gone, I am however, glad to be part of a community and grateful to Bot Controller and the rest of the group for the support and the new dimension of enjoyment they have added to my hobby. Join us on ‘the dark side’ 😉

    3. Avatar
      TheWhiskySleuth says:

      Hi Bot Controller, a refreshingly measured response. While I remain frustrated that I am forever unable to drink Adelphi Caol Ilas, I see absolutely no difference between what you are doing and someone standing outside in the rain all night waiting for the Lagavulin distillery to open at Feis. I suppose a subscription bot service would be like paying someone to queue in the rain for you. It’s ingenious and well beyond my caveman like technical abilities. I wish I had the time to find a friendly shop owner and build years worth of rapport so that I can get on the secret behind closed doors good books. But I don’t. think I’ll have to look into this more myself!

    4. Avatar
      james says:

      I’m currently paying for a system like yours – where can I sign up to your free system?

      Would much rather not pay the £20 and buy the same bottles!

  4. Avatar
    Eric says:

    Excellent article Graham, this bodes well for the new Malt.

    I have my own frustrations with the mad scramble for bottles which seemingly ends only in failure and disappointment. And I for one do NOT welcome our new Whiskybot Overlords, who if not quite dominating the scene just yet are clearly on the horizon.

    Having said that, stepping back a bit and trying to view the scene with a touch of distance and philosophic detachment, there are really two driving forces here that fall on the producers rather than on consumers or on parasitic middleman.

    The first is MSRP.

    The motivating forces behind hoarding and flipping is the large gap between MSRP and secondary market price. The producers could raise their MSRPs to take some of the wind out of the sails of the auction circuit. I understand why they are reluctant to do so, not knowing when the next Whisky Loch might be lurking up ahead, but it is an option.

    The second is the extreme fragmentation of whisky today in the form of single cask bottlings, very small multi-cask vattings, and special editions which are truly limited in size. If one looks back either thru old reviews or further back into dusty books on whisky from a few decades ago, it is stunning how much whisky has changed in the last couple of decades, first with the rise of single malts putting blends to shame, and then with single casks putting conventionally vatted single malts in the shade.

    What this means in practice is that there is still an awful lot of whisky to be found and enjoyed, as thousands of new & different expressions come out like clockwork every year. But one’s chances of getting a hold of any one given specific bottling are practically nil. One of the unintended consequences of this is that much whisky purchasing these days is of necessity done on blind faith – one will almost never see a review of a single cask or small batch release before it is long gone.

    There is some irony here insofar as discussion and review of whiskies on social media sites like this have helped to whip up the current frenzy and yet in turn are being rendered increasingly irrelevant as people grab frantically bottles that nobody has had a chance to review in a timely fashion.

    I don’t know if this bodes well for whisky in the long run. Perhaps it doesn’t matter if people simply never open the bottles which they’ve lusted after to the point of automating the purchasing process. But it does make me wonder how much secret disappointment is happening out there when a dram that should have been more carefully scrutinized before purchasing finally at long last makes its way into a glass and down the hatch. Or maybe people simply don’t care, what they are enjoying most is the flavor of excitement and competition for its own sake, regardless of how the prize actually tastes – and even a bad whisky is going to taste better than chewing on sneakers.

    Cheers

    1. Graham
      Graham says:

      Eric,

      Thanks for taking the time to give your thoughts. High initial prices would squeeze the secondary market but price me out too!!! So let’s avoid that one.

      Buying blind is a big stress. Opening a bottle and finding you don’t like it. Disaster! But also there is some serious pleasure in taking a punt and bagging a cracker.

      As for the proliferation of single casks. That can be no accident. I’d love to follow this with some honest discussion from marketers about how whisky buying trends drive their release strategy. Every shop, bar and restaurant had exclusive casks now, that’s popular. Both Jason and Taylor have found some of these single casks lacking as often as they have discovered great ones.

      Thanks again for your thoughts.

      Graham

  5. Avatar
    James says:

    Graham – to say the paid and free bot services are equivalent is not quite right, especially if you have not used the paid service in the first place!

    I know for a fact the paid service covers 10x more sites than the few listed by the free service you have posted, and they are already at 10 second refreshes rather than 2 minutes.

    1. Graham
      Graham says:

      James,

      I’ve no doubt there is some variety in the bots offered and some services will be able to demonstrate ‘value added’ for the interested whisky buyer. Custom bots, all in one bots etc. What exists and what maybe around the corner.

      For me this article was about identifying the current state of play and informing the readership. Dispelling some rumours and providing evidence to back up others.

      An informed consumer can than make up their mind about what they want to do.

      But one this it isn’t is a bot comparison article.

    2. Avatar
      WhiskyNotes says:

      Mind that I wasn’t talking about professional hacking or anything illegal to get into the vaccine registration. Merely people pressing F5 on the right moment, journalists reporting it and about one million more people trying it. I’m just saying I’m seeing a lot of selfish people in the whisky community, some not even remotely interested in the liquid, and those people will always minimize the effect of their acts when they’re benefiting at the expense of others.

  6. Avatar
    DC says:

    Really great article Graham, thanks for taking the time to research and write, no matter how depressed it makes me realising the state of the industry! Now, who do I have to pay to create me a bot that finds Bunna 12 for £30! Cheers.

    1. Graham
      Graham says:

      DC,

      Not a bot but some good old fashioned sharing of whisky info. Waitrose seem to discount it to £30 a couple of times a year or for £6 or so more you could try Loch Fyne Whiskies. It always pays to search the special offers.

      Thanks for taking the time to comment.

      1. Avatar
        Heeksy says:

        Graham,
        I have taken advantage of Bunna 12 at 30 quid from Waitrose on a number of occasions. There have been times when it was combined with an”£18 off your £90 shop” voucher (augmented by the £30 for the whisky), it effectively means that I’ve paid 12 quid for a 12 year old malt. I feel very pleased when that happens.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *