Whisky inflation is out of control. Inflation is rampant everywhere, but whisky started earlier.
Here in Australia, we’re currently experiencing a period of the most rapid interest rates increase in our history. My wife and I have a low interest rate locked in on our mortgage until August; after that, things might be dicey. It’s the awkward conversation we’ve been putting off until the absolute last minute.
Having said that, we are lucky to be overall in a comfortable position and shouldn’t expect to end up on the streets. Some costs are non-negotiable (the kids’ gymnastics and swimming classes), some costs could be subject to negotiation (cutting back on dining out, the Netflix subscription), and some spending will be the first to go (excess expenditure on whisky).
I have enough in my cabinet to last me several years; if I stopped buying bottles today, given my general drinking regimen I might not be out of whisky until the kids were in university. This has been the case for a few years now. So why keep buying? If you read Malt Review, you have your own answer to this, but we all love the golden liquid and collect (hopefully) within or outside our means.
Skyrocketing whisky prices makes it easier to rein in spending. Recently, a new set of Signatory Vintage releases made it to Australia. I am a big fan and try to buy a few cask strength bottles with every shipment. I was following along with a series of high ABV sister Bunnahabhain casks that were being bottled with every new out-turn, but have a look at what happened to the prices:
Bunnahabhain 2009 11-year-old (cask number 900074), 67.3% ABV, bottled 15 June 2020, $199
Bunnahabhain 2009 11-year-old (cask number 900085), 68.2% ABV, bottled 16 February 2021, $220
Bunnahabhain 2012 10-year-old (cask number 900789), 63.8% ABV, bottled 13 September 2022, $275
You may not be surprised to hear the 2012 is still available. I draw a line somewhere, and $275 is on the other side of it.
Another notorious whiskyflation example was the curious case of Balblair. Until 2019, Balblair released vintages, rather than by age statement. One of the final vintages released was the 26-year-old 1991, selling in Australia for $270. The relaunched 25-year-old is currently selling for a comical $999.
There are plenty of other examples, and I am sure you are aware of several in your markets. Famously, Diageo hammered through a broad swathe of price increases across its range around 12 months ago, the Talisker 18 year old hit especially egregiously.
These days, at a time when a new distillery opens both in Australia and the UK more often than I change my socks, I feel my whisky world shrinking rather than expanding. My days of limitless acquisition, exploring across a range of indie bottlers and distilleries, of buying a $180 bottle of Gordon & Macphail Tormore just for the experience, are likely over. If I become Malt’s go to guy for cheap blends, I’ll sleep easy at night (likely intoxicated on the aforementioned cheap blends).
Today it is another pair of these cheaper indie blends, a couple from North Star’s 21st outturn. North Star is an indie bottler probably over-represented on Malt, for which I bear most of the guilt. First up we have The Fool, a high strength 6-year-old blend of 20% malt and 80% grain whisky. Blended from Edrington Group (Macallan, Highland Park, Glenrothes) stock, the grain was sourced from North British distillery and the result was aged in (rumour has it Macallan/Glenlivet) ex-oloroso refill butts. Reportedly, this will be the first in a series from North Star focussed on various characters from Tarot cards.
North Star Spirits The Fool – Review
On the nose: A punchy mélange of sweeter and earthier notes. Cooking oil, a bouquet of flowers, olive brine, beach sand. Dark chocolate and black coffee. Black liquorice and scorched almonds. Raw chopped up mushrooms.
In the mouth: Definitely smokier than I expected, once again with the earth notes and firewood. The flavours come on in stages, some cinnamon and vanilla (classic for a grain blend, but if the shoe fits…), melted chocolate and cappuccino. The finish is a little short on the palate with honeycomb, musk sticks and roasted marshmallows.
This might’ve been an 8, especially given the price, but a lack of depth and development stops it just short of that. We are splitting hairs; this is a 6-year-old blended whisky and the fact it is in that conversation at all speaks to the skill at work here. There’s a balanced alchemy in this release crafted from what must’ve been some fine component parts.
Next up, we have North Star’s 2012 10-year-old Blended Scotch whisky. A bit of a come down from The Fool in terms of ABV, bottled at 46.1% ABV, this release was the result of a vatting of various malts and grains in two sherry butts. The label delightfully informs us this is from a “mix of distilleries around Scotland.” Outturn 21 from North Star also included 29- and 49-year-old blends. None made it to Australia, which at first I was miffed about until I saw the quantities; 50 for each bottling. I’d overlook Australia, too, if I only had 50 bottles.
North Star Spirits 2012 10 Year Old Blended Scotch Whisky – Review
Colour: Warm honey.
On the nose: Quite soft and mellow, floral, and sweet. Very strong on honey and jam puddings. Caramelised sugar and choc-chip ice cream. Earl grey tea and dessert wine. Shaved coconut.
In the mouth: Initially lacks a bit of punch, though the prickle of alcohol lingers in the mouth. The sweetness of the grain spirit eventually edges its way through, and I am getting sponge cake and stewed strawberries. Maple syrup and some boiled sweets and candied apples. I find myself warming into this dram the longer I stay with it. Its charms are gentler than The Fool; perhaps to be expected at the reduced ABV but a lesser bottling for mine.
First and most obviously, tolerance and appreciation for either of these blends will vary depending on your taste for grain whisky. Perhaps grain whisky or blends in general aren’t your go, and if so, no judgement from me. But if you are a blended whisky devotee, or a value for money enthusiast (and really, who isn’t?), I have a pair of whiskies for you. I can’t fathom how either of these are still widely available, but this means good fortune for the latecomer. The score below might’ve been a 4/10, but price considerations ensure a solid score.
Perhaps then this is where my future lies: value for money blends from reputable sources. With the cost of everything heading north, adjust your expectations, proceed with caution, and shop wisely.