Our traditional yearend 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!
Another year in the books, and what a year it’s been; with ups and downs, smiles and frowns, I say, “what the heck, let’s do it again.” I know I tried a lot of great whiskeys in 2023, and I consider myself fortunate to be part of the whiskey community. Looking forward to discovering whatever 2024 has in store!
2023 was my first year writing for Malt, thanks largely to Taylor’s generosity of allowing a random person with a passion for writing about food and alcohol to start hammering out pieces for the site. For me, 2023 was about returning to first principles about what, exactly, I hoped to get out of my own consumption of distilled spirits and writing about them.
Bourbon has been my drink for well over a decade and a half. I made a very conscious choice to start drinking it largely because it was brash, American, and almost every brand was affordable for just about everyone willing to splurge a bit. Bourbon was – and is – inextricably linked to price, and the American culinary tradition for me.
During the period when I first tried American whiskies back in the mid/late aughts, I had the very good fortune of drinking a full bottle of almost everything that is now very challenging to find at suggested retail prices. At that time, a $50 purchase required solemnity and great thought about what I wanted in the apartment (usually Baker’s Small Batch, before it became a single barrel expression). It was – and still is – a lot of money and, at the time, meant non-trivial sacrifices in other aspects of my life.
Because of the rapid appreciation in the cost of American whiskey over the past few years, I primarily sought to serve an audience segment of people for whom a whiskey purchase is infrequent, and meriting careful consideration of options when I wrote reviews in 2023. After all, consumers with a limitless budget don’t really need reviews, since the purchaser could just buy and try everything. Malt’s receptivity to – and emphasis on – evaluating quality relative to price is what made me a consistent reader for years, and ultimately drove me to send in my initial review in the first place.
Ultimately, I have always felt spirits are really about culinary and social experiences. While Malt reviews can help with the former to maximize your value and shelf space, the latter is up to you.
Going into 2024, I have a few things cooking that I am looking forward to sharing. I also plan to write a bit more about rum and continue to cover more affordable picks.
If you like expensive whiskey you’ve had a hell of a year. Premium expressions blew up in the way that market watchers had been predicting that American Single Malt or Armagnac would in 2023. Is that a bad thing?
On one hand the premiumization of bourbon was bound to happen after years of complaints that the category wasn’t perceived as being on equal footing as its European counterparts. In the eyes of the producers (and the sales teams behind them) to be considered on par with Scotch, bourbon needs to be comparably priced and in some cases comparably aged. Thus we’ve seen a number of brands releasing bourbon that blew past the $100 mark hitting highs of $2,000 even $10,000 at retail. Seen in the global luxury spirits context it makes plenty of sense and will serve to further valorize the category the world over.
That’s not to say, however, that there aren’t a number of folks who are less than supportive of the trend. To my fellow bargain hunters I say, fret not. While many of the bourbons that were released in 2023 carrying a suggested retail price in the multiples on $100 were lovely, even exceptional, there were seemingly more than ever at that price point that fell far short of warranting such an exorbitant cost.
What a less-than-astute observer might miss, however, is a slight uptick in reasonably priced age-stated offerings. As craft distilleries have continued to come of age and master their production methods, more of them are offering whiskeys with some serious age and commensurate quality. Along with those we have the legacy distilleries who, while keen to capitalize on the burgeoning premium market, have continued to churn out high-quality products in the 5-10 year age range.
I suspect that only the bursting of the bourbon bubble will result in falling prices, and even that might not affect consumers’ wallets as much as one would hope. However, I also suspect that whether the bubble bursts in 2024 or not (with “not” being the most likely outcome) your favorite distillery will be producing better whiskey next year than they did last year. Young distilleries aren’t youthful anymore, legacy distilleries are multiplying their capacity, and still new players are entering the game – the competition for your dollar is tighter than ever. At the end of 2022 I predicted “more of the same” and on the precipice of 2024 I’m here to predict…more of the same.
But “same” in this case means change. “Same” represents growth, and as the American whiskey industry continues on its current growth trajectory I expect the premium bourbon market to swell. At the same time, those of us who appreciate moderately priced everyday offerings will likely see our boats lifted with the rising tide. Double-digit age-stated limited editions be damned. My favorite brand has several high-quality reasonably priced expressions within shouting distance of a 10-year age statement, and I’m willing to bet that yours does too. Let this is your reminder to cast FOMO to the wind and weather the storm.
I’d simply like to thank those readers who continue to support us, especially those who comment and email their support. The long-form article is less popular these days but there is simply no other way to examine some of the challenging topics.
For me the story of the year in Bourbon was that the rise of the craft distillery. You might have heard this story before, but this year was exceptional, as several offered age stated and delicious drinks at competitive prices compared to the big boys.
Brands like Holladay, Green River, and Still Austin expanded distribution with exceptional quality in their product. No longer do we have to qualify craft whiskey as “good for its age.” These are just good.
My favorite was the Still Austin cask strength that proves to be a worthy adversary for Booker’s at a lower price and competes with favorites like Old Forester 1920.
Nancy Fraley has begun to graduate her students, and one of them is Joe Henry from J. Henry & Sons in Wisconsin. Another one to be on the lookout for is their 4-grain rye. The even more amazing part of this reflection? Only one of these four brands is from Kentucky!
First and foremost, I look back on this year – as on years prior – filled with gratitude. Thanks are due to Malt’s ever-evolving team of writers, who devote themselves tirelessly (and without compensation) to providing the in-depth content that is the lifeblood of this site. Sincere thanks as well to our readership, especially those of you that take the time to leave comments, provide praise, and to correct our occasional factual error (because of you all, I now know that Orkney is not part of the Hebrides). Speaking personally, this was the year that several of my Malt teammates turned into real-life friends. Meeting writers in the flesh whose work I have admired from afar has been a true pleasure, and one I hope to continue in the year to come.
On a less positive note, I believe that when the history of whiskey is rewritten in the future, 2023 will be a reference year… and not in a good way. I suspect that, with the benefit of hindsight, much of what transpired this past year will be viewed as obvious signs of a market top. In the U.S., heritage distilleries (or their corporate parents) seem to have gotten wise to the game, now pricing their prestige bottlings in line with “secondary” market prices. Not deterred by Ardbeg’s ill-fated dalliance with the blockchain (can anyone else remember a limited edition that had to be repriced because the “currency” it was denominated in depreciated so precipitously?), we saw a number of brands pop up with associated NFTs and the like. It’s clear that NDPs are increasingly struggling to differentiate themselves in a field that becomes more crowded by the day. Behind the scenes, there is more and more whiskey coming off the stills (and more barrels maturing in rickhouses), in anticipation of endless demand growth at home and abroad.
Now, I’ve been pessimistic (and wrong) for a long while, so I’m duly circumspect about my forecasting abilities. Whatever the future holds, I can promise you that the Malt team will be here, providing our takes on the vicissitudes of the whiskey market generally, and of the quality (or lack thereof) of whatever ends up in our glasses. Here’s wishing you and yours a happy and prosperous 2024 full of whiskey and friends to share it with. Cheers!