I am happy to report that I sense a tide turning.
First, I should add a disclaimer: this is all gut feeling, with very little in the way of hard quantitative analysis. Perhaps this review will catalyze one of Graham’s superbly researched deep dives? I hope so but, in the meantime, you’ll have to put up with my highly subjective speculation.
When I’m not regaling you lot with my ill-tempered and cynical musings on whisky, I spend most of my time in the financial realm. For the last two decades, I’ve been watching markets of various types. Now, I’m not going to present a unified theory of market cycles or anything that will allow anyone reading this to get rich. Nothing that I’m about to say is investment advice, nor a reflection of any professional stance I have on the trajectory of asset prices. However, I’d like to make a few observations that I believe give us the basis for optimism about the future of whisky.
Whisky is very popular, and prices for all types of whisky (even objectively subpar ones) have been increasing. A certain section of the whisky commentariat is happy to inform you that this is just the beginning, that prices will continue rising into perpetuity, and that structural forces (such as the rise of the middle class consumer in emerging markets) will propel whisky ever higher forevermore.
I’ve heard these arguments before with relation to all sorts of assets: real estate, commodities, emerging markets equities, etc. Whisky itself has even been touted as an investment, with any number of schemes of questionable integrity ready to sell you a cask (or a fraction thereof) with the promise of essentially risk-free returns over time. In the last few years, new asset classes have joined this list. Cryptocurrencies and NFTs, to name but two examples, have been touted as the “way of the future,” with the promise of returns exponentially above those of traditional asset classes.
Whisky has intersected with some of these latter fads in ways that have seasoned spirits aficionados scratching – if not shaking – their heads. April saw the announcement of an Ardbeg whisky NFT, corresponding to one of 456 bottles from a pair of casks buried in a peat bog for two years. The price was denominated in cryptocurrency: 1 ETH (later changed to 2 ETH), which at the time was around $3,000 (1 ETH is currently less than $1,000; I believe there is important informational content there).
Though I haven’t tried the whisky, I’m willing to make the observation that nothing about the recent history of Ardbeg suggests that an NAS bottling at 45.5% would be worth four figures. The whisky community seems to agree with me; at time of writing, six bottles are still available for purchase from BlockBar, the digital marketplace that Ardbeg partnered with for the release. There’s a Catch-22 about certain types of assets: “if you can get them, you don’t want them,” implying that insufficient demand to sell out the initial offering (many times over) is a bad sign about the potential to profitably resell them.
Stepping away from the realm of digital assets, I was recently made aware of an independently bottled, high age statement single malt Scotch with a cask finish from a famous rum distillery and a hefty price tag. It was released at midday, and historically this bottler’s outturns have required anyone who wanted them to have a quick trigger finger within seconds of their going on sale. I was surprised when I visited the site later that day to find bottles still available, and even more surprised when just now – days after the release – I was able to confirm the same.
Without reference to any of the particular examples mentioned above, I’d like to describe some general theories of market “tops,” again based on my experience through a few cycles. Initially, stuff gets crazy. “Crazy expensive” in a conventional sense is just the first step. What used to cost 1x now costs 1.5x, then 2x, then 4x, and so forth. We’ve all seen this (and complained about it) in the case of whiskies that we purchased (or could have purchased) a long time ago for less, that now cost more.
The other part of the “crazy” is that things which didn’t even exist a while back, and certainly weren’t thought of as legitimate stores of value, are now indispensable… until they aren’t. The early adopters are followed by the quick converts, who are eventually followed by the fad chasers. Finally the skeptics capitulate and join the party, which is usually about the time that prices start rolling over. This creates a vicious cycle in which sales depress prices, causing more sales, and so forth. In the end, the pain is widely distributed, with a stubborn few left “holding the bag” in the form of now worthless tulip bulbs, Beanie Babies, or (perhaps) Ardbeg NFTs.
Could we be reaching this point? It’s hard to disentangle whatever is going on with whisky from the more general global uncertainty and market volatility. However, I’m hopeful that a combination of froth (in a way that is now starting to look excessive, in whisky as in ape .jpegs) and fatigue (on the part of whisky consumers who have finally found their limits and are passing on more bottles than they purchase) may be restoring sanity to the world of whisky.
Only time will tell if I’m right. In the meantime, let’s return to Ardbeg. July of last year saw the announcement of the release of “For Discussion” to the Ardbeg Committee. My last run-in with an Ardbeg Limited Edition left me disappointed, a sentiment shared by others who bothered to comment in this space and elsewhere. So, is there reason for hope that this one will be an improvement? Let’s consider the press release:
“This “For Discussion” release started out as a thought experiment by Master Distiller Dr Bill Lumsden. As he sampled Ardbeg casks at different ages, he found new dimensions of smoky flavour in the spirit. He asked himself: What if, in an alternative universe, Ardbeg Ten Years Old was not the Distillery’s “flagship” aged expression? Perhaps a new whisky, smokier, but balanced by ex-Sherry casks, could be a worthy centrepiece to the Ardbeg core range?”
In my head, I can’t help but hearing the clichéd “IN A WORLD…” voice they used to use for movie trailers. What if Ardbeg 10 were replaced by something else… something younger? Are they threatening us? Now, age is not necessarily a proxy for quality. However, younger whisky is inherently cheaper to make (due to storage costs and evaporation, to name but two factors) and most of the big whisky houses – Ardbeg among them – have given us no reason to believe that the bottom line of their profit and loss statement is ever far from their mind.
Suspending my suspicions for another moment, I’ll let Ardbeg set the terms of engagement. The company’s site for this release lays out the following conceit:
“Ardbeg 8 Years Old is a big, youthful, deliberately challenging whisky that we think our smoke-loving, insanely committed Committee Members will go wild for.”
A few more specifics, before I dive in: the age, obviously, is eight years. This comes to us at 50.8% ABV. It was released at a price of £57 from Ardbeg. This sample was a generous gift of P.B., who remains one of our most steadfast and appreciated supporters.
Ardbeg 8 Years Old For Discussion – Review
Color: Medium-pale yellow.
On the nose: Equal parts creamy oak and peat smoke (hey, that rhymed!) to start. There’s a faint touch of licorice as well as some underripe stone fruit notes of peaches that emerge with some time in the glass. A little toasted and buttered brioche note is a nice touch, and there’s vaguely maritime suggestions of iodine and saline. Maybe some ripe watermelon? This one shifts around in a way that make the individual notes hard to pin down, but the overall presentation is nice enough, if somewhat simplistic.
In the mouth: This presents a thin mouthfeel as the whisky passes the lips mutely, coming into a faint woody and ashy note only gradually. This is at its best in the middle of the mouth, where there’s a nuttiness married to some dry wood and mild suggestion of creosote. After that, juvenile malt flavors take over and the texture falls apart into the finish. Vague, dilute tastes of lemon, chalk, and stale smoke leave an aftertaste that is mildly unpleasant but which, fortunately, is fast to fade.
Returning to Ardbeg’s description: this is certainly youthful, less in the sense of being “vivacious” and more in the sense of being “immature.” It’s definitely not “big” in any of the way that any of our readers would understand: the aromatic and flavor dimensions are not broad, deep, or intense… in fact, this is mostly the opposite. Despite the respectably high ABV, I get a somewhat dilute impression from this. It’s not that the whisky is watered down, but the flavors just haven’t developed sufficiently to express themselves with any concentration.
How about “deliberately challenging?” Well, yes, but not in a good way. The more I think about this whisky, the more I dislike it. In fact, I struggled to finish a one ounce measure; this actually began to repulse me as I tasted it repeatedly; last few swallows went down the kitchen sink.
Like the price of an asset in the midst of a panicked selloff, my score for this just kept going down as I spent more time with it. On the basis of the nose and my first sip, I initially thought I would score this a 5/10, then dropped that to a 4/10, then to a 3/10, before finally settling on…
For the hardcore (ardcore? Oh wait, they already used that one) Ardbeg enthusiasts, I hope this does not end up being the permanent replacement for the 10 year old expression, as foreshadowed by the press release. It’s bad whisky considered in isolation, and is also emblematic of so many of the past few years’ depressing trends.
The thing about trends, though, is that (again, based on my experience) they can go on a lot longer than you think they can. This has certainly been the case with whisky; the popping of the bubble has been discussed hopefully at least since I started writing on this site in 2018. However, when things do turn they can turn quickly. My gut tells me we might be at one of these turning points. Will that mean increased quantities of better, more fairly priced whisky for us all to enjoy in the future? Let’s just say it remains up For Discussion.
Lead photo courtesy of Ardbeg. Etherium price chart courtesy of Trading View. Ardbeg NFT market screenshot from BlockBar.