Our traditional year end review features a musing from each writer who cared to contribute. As always, we remain grateful for our readers and their support of the site. We look forward to more to come in the new year!
2021 found me right smack in the middle of looking forward to rather exciting personal and professional growth, and lamenting the long recovery from COVID and our indefinitely masked future. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the nature of my writing for Malt, whisky and spirits played a center role in this year’s story. To quickly recap: I launched a whisky related business, and within a couple short months, found myself working with some of the most respected restaurants in Los Angeles. On the other side, after six months, I finally have my smell and taste completely back after a very scary sensory deprived tango with COVID.
Highlights this year from the whisky and spirits I’ve consumed include 1979 Dallas Dhu I wrote about, 28 year Glen Keith from Old Malt, 17 year Braeval from Hart Brothers, and some Hampden rum from Thompson Bros. One of the more disappointing things consumed was a 1996 Chateau Y’quem that wasn’t “bad,” but clearly didn’t compare well against other vintages.
All in all, I’d say this was definitely a whisky and spirits friendly year. I also have to give a big thank you to all my fellow Malt writers for keeping the site moving forward and especially to Taylor for his hard work making Malt as great as it can be.
What a year it’s been for me! I officially had my debut on Malt in January of this year. Whilst I’m proud of having 12 articles published, the toll of completing my masters has subsequently diminished my ability to produce more.
I look forward to the New Year, but do so with mild trepidation. Irish whiskey sales and popularity have soared in the last year, possibly due to more and more new brands starting up. This has resulted in price increasesm, due to the reputation. The new year will see stocks of aged whiskey decline, too, and what is left will undoubtedly be overpriced. It’s not all doom and gloom though; next year will be significant for many Irish whiskey brands as their own whiskey comes of age, an exciting time indeed. Echlinville, Killowen and Shortcross are all on my reviewing radar.
The old hallmark of two souls intertwined, so plunged in amorous synergy that they find it only natural that they begin to finish each other’s sentences. It’s charming to witness, when genuine, and built on the sturdy foundation of shared experience, substantive synchronicity, and an elusive harmony that many of us aspire to in our most valued relationships. There’s something quite simple, but stark, about one setting down the path toward a conclusion borne of their own inventiveness and being met at the destination by another – not by chance, but due to keen insight and a common ideal.
Where does any of this have relevance in the world of whiskey, particularly bourbon, in 2021 you might ask yourself? Allow me to welcome you to our final destination – finished bourbon. Using secondary casks, or finishing bourbon has a long tradition that extends back to the pre-Prohibition era and beyond. The practice did not spring up in the last year, but it did however seem to inundate the market at a pace hitherto unseen. At the very least there seems to have been more fervor on the part of we the consumer for these products, matched only by the willingness of certain brands to produce said expressions.
Absinthe, Armagnac, and assorted brandies are only the start, joined by a cavalcade of heavily charred or lightly toasted barrels, additional staves and spires, maple syrup, honey, various wines, and anything else an enterprising distiller might concoct. I wouldn’t go so far as to consider 2021 the ‘Year of Finished Bourbon’ because for as innumerable as these expressions are, there are very few capable of being considered among the year’s best. It was, however, impossible to escape them. Whether dripping in kitschy wax or sporting a label with an eye-catching-if-also-unseemly color palette, finished bourbons were simply everywhere in 2021.
Dear reader, I do believe I can say on behalf of the Malt staff that it is our duty not to dismiss these expressions simply for their unsightliness or peculiarity. On the contrary, we owe it to you to give these products proper context within the wider world of whiskey so that you might be better informed. However, I’d be remiss if I didn’t state outright my own personal bias against the vast majority of these products. I too often see little difference in their use now to their last big moment – when embraced by rectifiers seeking to mask the flavor of caustic materials in their bathtub hooch.
I don’t want to be the love-hating curmudgeon who turns his nose in time with his stomach at the sight of those so enamored with “finished” things, whether sentences or whiskeys, but it also hasn’t escaped me that the vast majority of brands doing the latter seem to be doing one of two things. One, attempting to innovate and expand the palate of the modern drinker – a noble attempt that even the curmudgeon couldn’t besmirch. Or two, capitalize on a trend that offers little in the way of improvement and much in the way of marketing misdirection. “We don’t just sell sourced whiskey…we throw it in a second barrel and then sell it with a pretty label!” I need a break.
2020 was a year that will go down in infamy and its impact has most certainly bled into 2021. But as we’re already forced to deal with the repercussions of that Very Bad Year seeping into this one, do we also have to deal with young, readily available bourbon, seeping into even one more shitty secondary cask? Let’s all answer in unison.
Hope at the bottom of Pandora’s box
Another year has blown past us, yet the bedlam shows no sign of abatement. Pandora’s box continues to spew forth Greek-lettered variants and extreme climate events. Apparently, you can now make (or lose) a decent nest egg from trading 8-bit cartoon images?
Amid this muddle, there have been interesting trends and new developments that drew me into writing about whisky under Malt, and my personal editorial, 88 Bamboo.
Same Things But Better
Whisky has existed for many centuries. Yet, there’s always room for betterment. For all the weirdness of the past two years, I’ve tried to keep an eye on objective silver linings. None of that forced optimism stuff.
So, for one, there’s now genuine commitment to environmental consciousness within the mainstream whisky industry. All Suntory distilleries would now run on renewable energy, while the wider Scotch industry has committed to net zero by 2040. After all, distilleries have been selling to us the importance of terroir, clean water source and climate. So clearly, the future of whisky would depend on the continued health of the environment. This is better.
We also have a whole score of new distilleries announced – some brand new that will add to the tapestry, some revived. In Scotland, ghost distilleries such as Brora, Port Ellen and Rosebank are being resurrected. Heck, even Lindores Abbey, one of the earliest recorded medieval distillation sites, is back in operation. Over in the East, talks of revitalising Karuizawa Distillery are back – and I mean the whole gang is getting back – distillery manager and all. This is certainly better.
An Asian Awakening
Living in Asia (specifically, Singapore), I’m as far from the spiritual home of whisky as can be. But it is heartening to see some Asian influence on the whisky world – that a Japanese distillery, Yamazaki, could be crowned Drinks International’s 2021 “Most Admired Whisky Brand”. Oof! That hit home.
It’s not so much a testament of the quality, but more that an Asian whisky could occupy somewhere at the top of a drinker’s mind. Japanese whisky has certainly come a long way. And there’s more to come! China will soon be home to two malt distilleries, while Korea’s first malt distillery is already pumping out spirits. I can’t be more anxious to try them.
Asia has come very far as a maker and consumer of whisky. It is an underserved market with many new stories to tell. With Malt and 88 Bamboo, I hope to do my little part in giving a voice to the Asian palate andshining a spotlight on more Asian whisky.
And to the reader: Thank you so much for your time and attention. I’ll do my best to bring more interesting whisky stories your way!
Cheers, Kanpai and have a Happy New Year!
Earlier this year, I was boosted to Malt series regular from my previous recurring guest status. I knew that murmurings of an Malt divorce was afoot, yet I was certain that all they needed was a woman’s touch. I thought, as women often do, “I can fix him.” I was overconfident in my diplomatic abilities, my mediary prowess, my fence-mending skills. I have been in couples counseling four times, yet married zero (my most humorous if self-deprecating stat). I was determined to hone my therapeutic tools and save Malt. That turned out not to be the case.
In any relationship, when issues are not clearly expressed immediately, they fester. The next stage is Communication Breakdown, where every olive branch, bid for acceptance, and conciliatory admission is too little, too late. This is why divorce lawyers work with mediators, suppliers work with distributors and surgeons work with anesthesiologists. One needs a buffer, a middle man, someone to inject you full of Ketamine to stem the uncontrollable shrieking.
Sadly, Malt was beyond repair. The organization was split into two warring parties with diametrically opposed views and it was not possible to sustain both visions. It was heartbreaking. To this day, after enough years in the industry, I am still learning how to navigate egos, manage expectations, and roll with the punches. And yet, I still struggle with the same question: why do so many dudes throw the baby out with the bath water?*
I’m going to safely assume the expression, “taking one for the team,” was coined by a man. So why don’t more men do it? When did compromise become defeat? When did not having everything done your way all the time become a personal tragedy? And listen, egregious-ass shit happens. People act on impulse. I’m always so bewildered when I hear grown men whine, “this is unfair!” “It’s not right!” “He ignored my request and did the exact opposite!”
Uh, welcome to being a woman, gentleman. I’ve had my ideas stolen, my contacts taken advantage of, my pitches ignored, only to be appropriated later… I don’t throw a tantrum. I don’t quit. I play ball. (I hear men respond well to sports analogies.) A simple sucking it up and moving forward for the greater good is more in alignment with my values. Furthermore, public conflict makes for a more juicy whisky-review read, in my opinion.
BUT… This isn’t about me. Nor is it about you. By which I mean, this business. This article? Oh, actually, yes. This is all about me. My entry into Malt is the story of my life: jumping into something incredible either too early or too late. I have been an enormous fan of every writer on MALT for years previous. I felt like I knew them all.
After writing a handful of articles for Malt about Scotches that excited me, I soon discovered that most don’t excite me at all. In fact, I have become bitter. Bitterness is a natural phase of passion. Every day I learn things about whiskey I wish I didn’t know. I try to look at the industry through the lens of a kid and a dreamer, but every day I read the new scuttlebutt in whisky, I scowl at my phone, I sneer and scoff. I can claim professional fondness for just about any brand out there, but in terms of what I spend my money on, what I can’t wait to try: it takes a lot to make me feel like a kid on Christmas Day. I like my whisky innovative yet classic, familiar yet strange, rebellious yet obedient, and from Scotland.
Another fun thing this year was watching the same gaggle of “whiskey reply guys” fall into the same traps over and over and over, blithely unaware they were either inadvertently arguing my point for me, missing my point completely, or missing my point intentionally. There’s nothing like a long, emphatic screed beginning with a drawn out, “Actuallllllly,” to reveal to the world one’s limited capacity to read, feel, comprehend or think with nuance. Sometimes these toxic whisky bros got angry that I used profane language (oh my stars and garters!), sometimes they were furious that I dared to hold an opinion about the sexism I have encountered in my career. Sometimes their logic was too dizzying to follow. But let me say–the first one to hurl insults is always wrong. Get ahold of yourselves. Go touch some grass.
Everyone has their own unique gifts to bring to the table. Mine are very specific. I’m a geography and etymology fiend. I’m obsessed with historical whisky family trees. I tend not to give a fuck about age statements, mash bills, or the level of barrel charring. It’s all been done. Hurray! I can’t help but clown on transparent marketing language. I’m sick to death of lore that doesn’t hold water. I am allergic to anything in whisky that seems like it’s jumping onto a trend that is already tired, passe, and transparent, like “Natural” or “Woman.” I like things that are brand new, even if it’s just a new box design. Or, better yet, produced for the first time without a box to responsibly diminish the carbon footprint. Good on ya!
I like whisky that changes with the times. To write about whisky with integrity, I believe the writers themselves must be committed to changing with the times as well. This can also be called, “growth.” The conservative approach, to stand athwart history and scream halt, is to be left behind. Change, as they say, is the only constant. Whisky used to be mixed with goat milk and mint leaves. To great acclaim! It doesn’t matter if you’re a novice or a nerd, as long as you are passionate. As long as you have something to bring to the table.
I’m so happy to have a home at Malt, where a brilliant group of passionate misfits learns me something new every day. I’m very much looking forward to filling the shoes of our very much missed, to me anyway, absences.
*I used to work for Balcones, I’m just happy a gun wasn’t pulled.
To describe the year in Japanese whisky as eventful would be an understatement. It began with new standards announced by the Japan Spirits and Liqueurs Makers Association (JSLMA). Some companies, such as Nikka, responded with increased transparency on their products, but with no certification or approval system and no penalties for noncompliance, these guidelines only apply on a voluntary basis.
In March, two of Japan’s smaller distilleries, Saburomaru and Nagahama, released the first bottles of blended malt whiskies in Japan to officially use swapped stocks. This was followed in April by the announcement that Venture Whisky’s Ichiro’s Malt and Hombo Shuzo’s Mars Whisky had exchanged stocks on the QT back in 2015, releasing the results in May 2021.
We also saw the birth of T&T Toyama, the country’s first (of sorts) independent bottler of Japanese whisky.
Japanese whisky prices rise upward and upward, propelled by hype, stock shortages, and a growing global demand for whisky by drinkers, collectors, and investors. Whatever the price, they are all selling out almost immediately and commanding multiples in the secondary market. At the end of November, Suntory announced they wanted a greater piece of this pie, with domestic price hikes of 5-28% on their entire premium lineup to come into effect on 1 April 2022.
New distilleries continue to open at a pace, and those that have hit the three-year mark have been dropping liquid that bodes for a bright 2022 for Japanese whisky. Kanpai!
“Fortunate and grateful”
I think many of us entered 2021 saying to ourselves “…it’ll be all over by next year. Right?” but here we are entering a new year facing most of the same challenges from the past 12+ months.
2021 for me was a good year, personally and professionally. Amid the post-Christmas lockdown in Northern Ireland, the most notable even of the year was when I married my best friend in January, with our immediate family members able (legally) to attend our ceremony. We secretly always wanted such a quiet day, but it was a joyous occasion given the pandemic.
Professionally, my mental health took quite a hit. Working from home since March 2020, I totally suffered zoom fatigue was pretty burnt out. I was open and honest with my team members on how I felt. A big help knowing I was not alone in the burn out. A change is as good as a rest as they say, and moving teams helped the 2nd half of my year greatly. Well, as did the ability to go outside and socialise!
I was never the most confident when it came to attending whisky clubs, or online whisky tastings. The pandemic seen the industry and whisky festivals switch over to this format. Not only did I hate the thought of doing such a thing on zoom, but it was never something I’d be comfortable attending and enjoying.
When Whisky Social Belfast got the green light in November it was great to see such an event held. Safety precautions in place, it was the new norm producing vaccine proof/negative tests and mask wearing throughout. Plenty of drams enjoyed that night with friends and whisky lovers alike. I’m hoping in 2022 I can attend more whisky festivals in the U.K and Ireland.
Throughout the year, at home tastings were the prevalent end to a busy week. Amusement came in the form of great food and enjoying a tasty IPA or bottle of wine as well as whatever was in the whisky cabinet. 2021 was the search for more engagement, flavour, and grip when it came to whisky. Where did the value lay? As prices crept up, where would the most gratifying whisky come from? I’ll continue with this whisky mindset going into the new year, and hopefully branch into more than just Scotch and Irish whiskey.
I then took the plunge and wanted to do more in whisky. Plucking up the courage, I’m glad I decided to contribute my voice and reviews to the world of Malt. It has been so much fun contributing as much as I have at the end of this year. I’m looking forward to 2022 to write more reviews and enjoy more unique whiskies. I’ve played with the idea of a dedicated Instagram account for whisky reviews. But there’s a saturation of whisky review accounts both on Instagram and YouTube. Maybe I’ll keep my thoughts for the Malt reviews.
Health and happiness to you all as we enter another year together. Hopefully plenty of enjoyable drinks had over the holiday period and beyond.
In years past, I’ve urged friends to open more of the bottles they have locked away for “the right time.” (Is there really such a thing?) I was tired of talking only of new releases and exotic cask regimens. With whisky prices continual climb and new releases becoming less and less interesting I was keen to look at the bottles around us collecting dust. However, the temptation of a “brand new shiny” is strong, and my whisky conversations didn’t change much.
In the long shadow of 2020, this year has had a slow intimate pace. We’ve all been dipping our toes back into public life. While that may be fraught with mixed emotions, I have found the slower pace a good opportunity to practice what I preach. It’s been easier to keep my eyes off the shelves and open the bottles I already have. I really enjoyed dusting off a bottle of Exclusive Malts Dailuaine and taking more time to get my head around it, even if it wasn’t my cup of tea.
Not going to spirit shows, tastings, and other such public events means I have had more time to enjoy and ponder what I drink. When we slow down it is easier for us to find reverence. This, too, is true of whisky.
2021 was a year of transition for the world generally, and for Malt specifically. Coming off a record-setting year in 2020 (in terms of site traffic), it felt as though the wind was in our sails and our momentum was unstoppable. I won’t re-hash the details of what happened next, other than to say that I was surprised to find myself at the helm of Malt when its survival was far from a sure thing.
Looking back on what we’ve done here since then, I’m humbled and proud. This site is more work than I ever could have fathomed. There are several instances in which execution on the daily to-do list fell by the wayside as personal and professional obligations took precedence. Despite all this, we’ve maintained a nearly uninterrupted flow of daily reviews… not bad for a bunch of amateurs doing this without compensation, on a volunteer basis.
Speaking of volunteers: I am incredibly thankful to each and every one of our contributors. Whether they produced a single piece or a reliable stream of weekly reviews, they have enlightened our readers and enlivened the conversation. I’m perhaps most gratified by the number of new voices we’ve showcased. They’re learning in public, on a big stage, but they have acquitted themselves marvelously and I expect more great things to come from them in the years ahead of us.
I’m aware that the changes Malt has undergone have not been received with universal positivity. I can’t tell you whether or not we’ll be vindicated in the long run. However, I can tell you that maintaining the status quo would have eventually pushed Malt into dull predictability and – inevitably – irrelevance. The world is changing, whisky is changing, and Malt will continue to evolve accordingly. What that looks like is still to be determined… but I’m excited to be on this journey, honored to have the companionship of my extraordinary colleagues, and grateful for the support and attention of all our readers.
My warmest wishes to all of you; here’s to a great 2022 and beyond!