Are you giving up on whisky?
I’ve heard it online and in person. I’ve heard it from people in the U.S., in Europe, and in Asia. I’ve heard it from Scotch whisky aficionados, Bourbon whiskey drinkers, and Irish whiskey enthusiasts (Japanese whisky drinkers, in fairness, were among the first to this party). I’ve heard it from people who enjoy whisky every day, and from those who savor only rare drams on special occasions.
People are throwing up their hands, shaking their heads, and walking away from whisky. That’s not to say they’re getting on the wagon and going teetotal. Rather, they’re taking the time, passion, and money they used to expend on whisky, and devoting it to other spirits. Rum, cognac, mezcal, you name it… what we refer to as the “malternatives” are taking share of wallet and mind away from whisky from traditional producing regions.
Why? Going back several years into the Malt archives, there’s a common thread running through many of the pieces: we’re being sold less for more, and only the savviest of buyers can be assured of avoiding being ripped off. For years, established whisky brands polluted their core ranges with expressions that were less flavorful, while pushing up prices at the high end for increasingly scarce limited editions.
Those benighted souls who relied on brand reputation to select a bottle off the supermarket shelf were getting underpowered sips of watery whisky, bearing only the most casual of resemblances to the storied bottlings of yore on which these reputations were originally based. More astute buyers hoping to move up the quality spectrum were outgunned by flippers and their bots, or by the types of folks who have nothing better to do than to queue for hours ahead of an anticipated release. Often, these coveted expressions would reappear on auction websites or in Facebook groups with an asking price many multiples of their cost on release.
This combination led to a kind of Groucho Marx-ian Catch-22 for serious whisky fans: any obtainable bottle of whisky wasn’t worth obtaining. The best whiskies – the ones that inspire purple prose and sky-high scores from reviewers here and elsewhere – had already been snapped up by the type of person more likely to resell the for a premium than to open, enjoy, and share them. It has started to seem like the only way to win the game is not to play at all.
I could present arguments to the contrary; the excellent value for money delivered (at least in my own country) by some of the underloved mainstay expressions from established distilleries, for example. Or, some of the novel aromas and flavors delivered by the better startup craft distilleries.
It doesn’t really matter, though. People feel as though there’s nothing left for them in whisky, and it is this feeling, correct or incorrect, that is driving them away. What, if anything, can be done about it? In this space we have already proposed, over and over, potential remedies. These include actions taken not only by the producers of whisky, but by its consumers as well. I will not re-hash them here, nor am I holding my breath that a miraculous return to sanity is imminent. These trends have been ongoing for years (if not decades, at this point) and the tide against whisky is only just starting to turn.
I don’t control a distillery, and I certainly don’t have any way to compel others to behave in the way I think they ought to. I am in charge of, and responsible for, the activities of only one individual… and that individual doesn’t want to give up whisky.
Don’t get me wrong: I have been grateful for the opportunity to broaden my palate by exploring rum and mezcal and other potent potables, some of them on this site. However, whisky was the first beverage that I personally recognized as being worth of more attention, more careful consideration, and about which I started developing some connoisseurship.
So, recognizing all the aforementioned problems as real ones, and all the above noted concerns (some of which I share myself) as legitimate ones, what can I do to redeem whisky for myself?
I decided that the answer was to go out and find, with ease, a good bottle of whisky to enjoy. I set some criteria for myself: I wanted a Scotch whisky that I felt would satisfy me, and anyone with whom I chose to share it. I wanted to pay a price that felt like a fair deal for whatever specifications I was able to glean from the label and packaging. I was limiting myself only to the retailers in the few medium-sized towns within a short drive of my current residence. In total: I wanted to prove that I could go out and buy a bottle of “good whiskey” easily and, if not economically, at least for a reasonable outlay.
Setting off, I spent some time perusing the uninspired offerings at a large supermarket chain before stopping on the way home at one of our better provisioned bottle shops. Stepping behind the counter to explore the Scotches in stock, my eye wandered until it noticed this Cask Strength Glengoyne.
John most recently reviewed Glengoyne here on Malt; consult that review for some specifics about the distillery and its production methods. It must have left a positive subconscious impression, for I was soon departing the store with the bottle clutched hopefully in my hands.
As I’ve said before, I think a sherried Speyside (or, in this case, Highland) dram is what most people think about when they think about “good Scotch.” I’m hoping that this will hit that particular mark. Speaking of Mark: he reviewed batch 003 of this expression back in 2016, and it seemed to tickle his taste buds well enough, delivering the sherried experience he was looking for.
Some more details, before I get down to trying to redeem the entirety of global whisky through a single glass (pray for me). This is not colored, not chillfiltered, and comes to us at cask strength of 59.8%. This is batch 006. Prevailing retail prices seem to be between $80 and $90, depending on location. I’ll split the difference and use $85 as my benchmark for our price-sensitive scoring. Going rate at The Whisky Exchange for the most recent batch (009) is £70.
Glengoyne Cask Strength Batch No 006 – Review
Color: Fig jam.
On the nose: Sherry, yes, but a deft and light bodied sherry touch rather than a full-on “sherry bomb.” I’m presented with the expected dried fruits (raisins, dried apricots, dried figs, dates) but with the most lovely and enticing accent of spice. There’s nutmeg and Christmas spice and anise, but also more serious notes of leather armchair and cedar tobacco box that keep this from being too happy-clappy. There’s also a subtle meatiness to this that surprises me, given the reputed lightness and sweetness of Glengoyne’s new make. Regardless, this has layers to it that only become obvious over time, as they unfold for the patient sniffer.
In the mouth: The front of the mouth is a moment of perfection, the type of which I find rarely in whisky from Scotland or elsewhere. Whereas other drams typically build gradually to a crescendo for me, this Glengoyne is complete from the get-go. A perfectly harmonious marriage of diverse flavors – fruity, nutty, woody – is accompanied by a texture that achieves the ideal balance of tart piquancy, oiliness, and tannic woodiness. The migration of the whisky toward the middle of the mouth is accompanied by a blooming floral note, as well as a reemergence of the nose’s spicy accents. Toward the back of the tongue, this grows to fill the mouth with a tingly heat that is the first obvious indication of the high bottling strength. A lingering flavor of apricot marmalade and a reprise of the floral notes (this time in the dried form of potpourri) leave a long but gentle impression, enticing more and more sips until the glass sits empty.
One of my first thoughts was “I should run out and buy another bottle of this.” It does really hit the mark in terms of delivering the sherried Scotch experience, but not in a way that feels overwrought or caricaturish. Rather, it’s the unexpectedly spicy notes that are the star of this particular show, though they share the stage nicely with the dried fruit. The mouthfeel is exemplary, with a forceful character that never veers too far in one direction so as to lose its balance. The intriguing nose makes this hard to start drinking (as it’s so fun to sniff at), but the flavors and textures in the mouth make this nearly impossible to stop drinking.
In consideration of all that, and factoring in the price, I’m awarding this a score consistent with the overall excellence of this whisky.
I am genuinely relieved to report to you that I was able to go out and – without undue effort or expense – acquire a bottle of exceptional Scotch whisky. I am enjoying it hedonistically as I type these words, which is the sincerest compliment I can pay. My enthusiasm for this specific dram is matched by my relief at having been able to find it. I’m filled with hope that I may be able to find others like it, that good whisky at a fair price is not yet extinct, and that others who have found themselves giving up on whisky may be tempted back by reading about my experience today. When you’re ready to return, I’ll be here with a glass to share.