Whisky is fraught with certainties. One of them is the rise in prices. For a long time, many would say that this rise was only the inevitable result of inflation, but nowadays, it seems that the price hikes are steeper and more frequent than ever.
Recently, here on Malt, Graham wrote a piece on Talisker 18 and the issue of price that has long been a subject of concern among consumers and speculators. In that piece, Graham provides a revealing window into the impending changes in price that Diageo plans to implement for the some of its popular premium whisky brands and expressions. While the issue definitely goes beyond Diageo, Graham focuses on that single mega-corporation, and he uses Talisker as one example to illustrate the issue of price. As he explains, Talisker 18 has the largest expected price increase percentage-wise among the specific Diageo products that he identifies to have planned increases in standard retail price.
In light of this issue, I wanted to humbly offer my own thoughts as, first and foremost, a whisky enthusiast and consumer and, secondly, as someone whose first favorite Scotch brand is Talisker (though I am probably only a part of a single subcategory of “Talisker fan”).
As can be expected, consumers would tend to fall under certain common taxonomies of perspectives or reactions when considering the issue of price. Some might be more apathetic, comfortable about their own purchasing power or financial future in relation to the kinds of whiskies they like to drink. Others might be more unfortunate and, thus, concerned about how their ability to enjoy whisky might be hampered. Within this spectrum of tendencies, perhaps my bias toward Talisker can help make my perspective on this issue insightful and indicative of the possible reactions of other consumers.
Allow me to briefly explain why I like Talisker: The first expression that I got to try from their range was their flagship 10 year old. Less than a year into my whisky journey, I blindly bought a bottle because of how some close friends of mine swore by it.
Needless to say, I really enjoyed it. I loved the flavors and how they developed, and the hefty texture was delightful, eventually leading me to look for whisky from other Scotch distilleries that, like Talisker, use worm tubs, which were often associated as largely responsible for the single malt’s texture.
Despite learning later on that the Talisker 10 year old is chill-filtered and has added e150a coloring (qualities that tend to make me less enthusiastic about a whisky, especially if the use of these methods isn’t stated on the label), I still very much enjoyed drinking the whisky. And it was affordable! While I typically buy only one or two whiskies from any brand before moving on to others (because variety is educational), all of the things I like about Talisker have led me to buy six different expressions from them. Definitely not a lot, but you get the idea.
Now, for the drawbacks. I still like Talisker, but none of their releases that I’ve had were the kind that irrevocably blew my mind or permanently changed the trajectory of my whisky journey. Talisker whisky isn’t what I’d call the “holy grail.” Some of those other releases that I got were not the most reasonably priced either.
Yes, I have a positive disposition toward the brand, but I’ve also been very much aware of the issue with cost. The local price of their 10-year-old expression, for example, has increased from around the low $40 range to nearly the $70 range. And so, learning about Diageo’s planned price hike has given me renewed cause to reflect and revisit my own position when it comes to a brand like Talisker, dear to me as it is.
The whisky I am reviewing today is Talisker 57° North, which I acquired last year. I’ve already tasted it since then, but this is the first time that I’ll formally write a review on it.
Named after the latitudinal location of the distillery, Talisker 57° North is a No-Age-Statement single malt that was released in 2008, initially as a travel exclusive, but has been discontinued. It was matured in refill ex-Bourbon casks and, in accordance to the theme, is bottled at 57% strength. According to The Whisky Exchange, it’s a cask strength release, which implies the use of blending to maintain a consistent ABV. Given the propensity of Talisker, this probably also has added coloring. I bought this for around $100; though sold out, Master of Malt lists it at $95.
Talisker 57° North – Review
On the nose: Rich and with clear minerality. Dried coral. Aromas of grilled eggplants, soil-coated toffee, and stone fruit stewed in nearly burnt brown sugar, all weaving through a consistent layer of peppercorns. A quiet assertion of citrus oil contrasted by tobacco ash left on an ashtray overnight. Tocino (sweet cured pork) being cooked for breakfast on a Saturday morning. Retronasal olfaction brigs out fried fish dabbed in fermented shrimp paste. Over time, a new distinct aroma comes up, one that reminds me of a fruity and acidic cup of coffee.
In the mouth: Powerful. Sweetness first takes the reins, leading with caramelized sugar, key lime pie, and a shake made with melon and graham crackers. The character is clean, and the flavors are distinct. Following the sweetness is a parade of strawberry seeds, warm buttered popcorn, steamed mussels, and, this time, a more restrained layer of white pepper. The texture is oily and hefty, with a very slight syrupy quality near the end. With time, the flavors seem to become narrower but without losing intensity. The phenols are muted a little, and a touch of strawberry jam shows up. The finish is long and steady, with faint lemon zest and tocino. Imagine just having taken a lit cigar out of your mouth.
I like that this is a kind of whisky that keeps me on my toes with the developing flavors, yet is fully transparent about what those flavors are. However, I didn’t necessarily get the impression that it was complex in a broad sense. Instead, its character is structured to be more focused. Still clean and clear but focused. The Talisker DNA is noticeable, too, which is to be expected since they use the same style of distillate for all the bottlings in their range. All in all, this is a good whisky and is proof of the potential that NAS bottlings have. Dave Broom puts it excellently when he uses Talisker 57° North as a good case for why flavor-oriented NAS releases are and should be capable of being better than their aged-stated counterparts. Without a doubt, among those I’ve tried, this is my favorite expression from Talisker distillery.
Here’s the rub (and why Talisker is my way of explaining my disposition toward the issue of rising prices in whisky). For all that I find special with Talisker 57° North and the Talisker brand, in general, my larger passion is still directed toward the spirits categories I enjoy: whisky and (recently) rum. I’ve never felt the need to just buy and collect Talisker whisky, so it doesn’t stop me from being curious about other brands or categories. If the status quo already fails to keep transfixed on just Talisker, what more if I start recognizing that Talisker is no longer accessible to me because of the rising prices?
Through my conversations with others and what I’ve heard people say, I’ve learned that these sentiments are not novel. They are very much capable of moving and willing to move given the right conditions. As proof of this notion, look no further than how many devoted fans of GlenDronach moved on from the brand after Brown-Forman decided to begin chill-filtering the GlenDronach core range in order to target a different market. This top-down corporate decision implied that Brown-Forman no longer valued GlenDronach enthusiasts as much compared to the wider consumer base who couldn’t care less about the flavor and tactile benefits of the absence of chill-filtration as long as the whisky looked good and food-safe on store shelves.
Diageo’s prioritization of profit and the interests of its shareholders causes consumers like me to become jaded and forego what praise we previously associate with the whiskies we like. You see, along with rising prices comes a shift – intentional or not – in the segment of the market that these increasingly expensive whiskies are accessible to.
If the prices of Talisker whisky go up far enough, I will no longer get to easily buy their releases. It’s already begun happening; for example, I feel no rush to buy the 2021 special release of an 8-year-old Talisker since I find it too expensive, especially if I’d need to find a way to have a bottled shipped to where I am. If I deem Talisker to be too inaccessible, I won’t lose sleep over it, and I am willing to focus more on brands that continue to remain accessible to the slice of the market to which I belong. After all, there will always be more whisky, so I’m sure consumers will find new brands or even categories to be excited about if this gloomy trend continues to worsen. Consumers will move on.