Paradise Lost?

Taste Review #149 – Glenugie 32 (SV)

“Times, they are a changing” sang Bob Dylan. Whilst it is true that nothing stands still, as human beings most of us thrive on being surrounded by things that are familiar, that we are comfortable using, things that make us feel happy. People like things, it’s no secret. For me, my first love is music. While I’m not a talented musician in any way, shape or form despite owning a handful of musical instruments, I do love listening to music and have a CD / record collection to back that up. I’m sitting here wondering how many readers have actually noticed that most of my articles or reviews start with some sort of connection to music, usually song titles. The hardest one was my Speyburn 18 review but that nicely tied into thoughts about the life of Queen Elizabeth II.

One thing I miss more than the Queen (and believe me, there are plenty of those) is the passing of my favourite record shop in Aberdeen, One-Up records. I seem to remember them on George Street, as well as a shop in Rosemount Viaduct. Both shops closed to amalgamate to a larger, single shop in Diamond Street, just off of Union Street which was formerly the main shopping area of Aberdeen. Eventually they expanded again and moved to Belmont Street, but events beyond the control of the owners were already in play. The beginning of the end was in motion and I’m not sure if either of the two owners realised this at the time. If I have timed my release of this blog correctly, it will coincide with the 10th anniversary of the demise of One-Up. And I’m still mourning.

Gone… definitely not forgotten.

The passing of this record emporium is pretty traumatic, and while this may sound over dramatic, it isn’t. I used to spend hours there looking for new music when I got home from a work trip. Walking out with less than 5 albums was rare. But with an increase of streaming and a decline in the amount of people buying physical music, coupled with crippling rates, the end was nigh. With one of the owners wanting to retire, the fate of the shop was sealed. Never to return.

About 10 months after One Up closed, I moved to the Highlands and found a new independent record store – Imperial Records in the Inverness Victorian Market. A year later it too was gone, with an all too familiar story of falling physical sales.

Music and whisky do have slight parallels if you care to think of it in a similar way to me. If the wider market rejects it, eventually it is lost. Things we treasure will either change or disappear completely. While we are told that for whisky we’ve never had it so good with choice and variety, the thing is that has been the same with the music industry. It is my curmudgeonly feeling that just because we have more, doesn’t necessarily make it better. That’s an unfair statement to make considering both are just a matter of preference and taste. But while it could be argued that there are no such things as bad whisky or music, I’d argue there is but thankfully these are very much in the minority. Loch Dhu or Fujikai 10 are the ones that spring to mind that got universal disapproval from the enthusiast, becoming the Marilyn Mansons of the whisky world.

The whisky I’m tasting for this article is from a lost distillery, Glenugie. Formerly the most eastern whisky distillery in Scotland, it had a chequered history throughout its life until drawing its last breath in 1983, the first of many to fall in the mass industry cull of the next 2-3 years. I’ve already tasted a whisky from this distillery for this blog, and you can read this here. This sample was a very generous swap from @ayewhisky on Twitter, and I’ve had it for two years while waiting for a suitable occasion. It never came, but if remembering glories of the past such as the best record shop in Northern Scotland, I might as well reminisce about a distillery long gone.


Glenugie 32 y.o (1977) – Signatory Vintage

The original bottling. (@ayewhisky)

Region – Highland Age -32 y.o Strength – 46% abv Colour – Russet Muscat (1.3) Cask Type – finished in Oloroso Sherry butt for 7.5 years. Colouring – No Chill Filtered – No

Nose – Very reserved at first. Sweet. As it was coming to a more normal room temperature sitting beside me on the table, I could swear I could smell apples and honey. Rubbing a bit on my skin, the aroma reminded of of Dark Milk Chocolate with fondant, similar to those Fry’s bars you used to get. Back to the glass and I get the sherry notes appearing. Raisins, figs, dark cherries. A hint of dusty leather and beeswax.

Palate – medium to full body, syrupy but not too sweet. Turns astringent and slightly woody. Plums, figs, expresso, nutmeg. Slightly dusty again. Still no real burn yet, Dark chocolate orange. Gets more spicy on repeated sips, ginger and black pepper. Adding water made the mouthfeel turn buttery, and for me accentuated the sulphur note that I initially got in the finish giving a burnt rubber taste. But left to breathe for another 15 mins, this turned into a sweet drop, with the darker fruit gums getting added into the above mix. The astringency gets minimised; I can’t believe how sweet this turned.

Finish – The whisky develops into more spicy and astringent notes, becoming tannic and reveals a hint of sulphur but not in a too unpleasant way. The fruit is still there, but there is a more prominent sharpness to it, like passion fruit. I have a slight off note similar to a corked wine, leading to a slightly mineral / metallic combination right at the end. After adding the water and waiting, the increased sweetness left me with a long, almost candy sweet finish, reminding me of sugared almonds. The metallic and mineral notes almost vanished, with fruity notes replacing them. A surprise finish for a dram initially that I wasn’t enjoying as much as I thought I should be.

My sample

You don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone.

There’s another music tie to my blog which any Joni Mitchell fan should recognise. It occurs to me that this is probably the very last dram from that bottle, and could very well be the last Glenugie I will ever taste. I would imagine that there can’t be a lot of stock left, if any. Even if there is, the chances of me being able to afford it are minimal. Who would have thought that one day Glenugie would close never to reopen? I remember childhood trips to Peterhead seeing the old distillery on the way past then bit by bit they knocked it down so that the land could serve another purpose for the offshore industry. In a paraphrase again from the same Joni Mitchell song, ‘paradise was paved’ and now is lost.

The fall of One-Up could be a tale for people in whisky to take notice of. Both have suffered (or could suffer) in part due to events outwith their control. For One-Up it was the loss of their market thanks to online streaming and downloads, negating the need for people to own a physical product. While the whisky industry doesn’t have that same issue while it’s in boom times, I feel that the industry has some serious underlying health issues that could cause problems.

The UK economy is not in the best of health either, but some of this is down to governmental ideology and incompetence, but also one has to look at the cutbacks at Goldman Sachs (here and here), Morgan Stanley (here), Barclays, Morgan Stanley and Citibank (here) as well as the warnings from the World Bank (here and here) that all is far from well in the global economy. If I was a luxury goods manufacturer then I’d be concerned, and let’s face it, whisky is such a thing. And there are signs that alcohol consumption hasn’t returned to pre-pandemic levels, indicating that globally the consumer markets aren’t going the way the producers may wish – see this link Alcohol sales lower than pre-pandemic level in Europe

The dram. Going to meet its destiny.

I’ve been speaking of the possibility of recession for a while now, more so since the global economy has been distorted by the COVID pandemic, and Europe has been affected by the Ukraine war, These sort of events aren’t predictable, but this is also a good reason for why unrestricted growth of an industry isn’t always a good idea, yet this is what is happening within the collective whisky industry now. Many distilleries are going flat out to make up stocks, with the past decade of expansion to existing sites such as Macallan, Glenfiddich and Glenlivet just to name three. There are a wealth of new distilleries over the past 10 years with many more yet to start selling a product. If there is to be a recession, have the distilleries yet to start missed the boat? Could be a disaster for those depending on selling 3 year old spirit, especially if nobody has the money to pay some of the adventurous prices some think is an appropriate charge for bare minimum aged spirit.


While I maybe wrong, over the past couple of years I have been mentioning that recession has been inevitable, though I have no idea of the size.

And this is the trouble with unrestricted and untempered growth; nobody is looking to the downsides. So far there is no sign that consumers are slowing down, but these things can happen suddenly, just like the effects of natural disaster. Producers have to be able to predict trends of what will be popular in 10-20 years time when the spirit matures, and that my friends is near on impossible to do. It’s like driving down a dark country lane at full speed, and suddenly switching off your headlights. You have an idea of the way ahead, but realistically you have no true idea of what is coming, and there could be a crash. In the event of that situation, one should have thoughts and prayers for those investing in casks. Should there be a change in customer demand resulting in a downturn in demand for matured whisky, then what about those privately owned casks? Who is going to pay a premium for a cask that there isn’t a demand for? Especially if everybody is trying to sell their “Glen Investment” casks at the same time, when many may mature at the same time? Could be sad times for those who let brokers overcharge them in the first place.

The health of the industry in my opinion is developing another sickness, and that of premiumisation. We’ve seen prices go up with the cost of inflation, but not all increases are so driven in my opinion. Talisker 18 doubled in price, Lagavulin 16 took a price lurch in the wrong direction. Premium whisky is going to place the whisky enthusiast drinker into narrowing price points they don’t want to be in, with more aged whiskies being less affordable. So while we have a booming production rate now, we could still effectively end up with less choice, and falling demand in one sector as many more become reluctant to push past the £100 barrier for a bottle.

Twitter user @whiskyresource has ran a poll for 24 hrs to get an idea of how enthusiasts see the future of whisky and it doesn’t paint that rosy a picture. Judge for yourself. NAS whisky is a backwards step that many enthusiasts reject. We’ve been pushing for years to gain more transparency, as an age statement gives us some sort of quantifiable quality. While it means we aren’t guaranteed of quality, we’ll get an idea that we aren’t paying through the nose for the youngest possible spirit that NAS bottlings can hide.

In the second poll, the next question is whether or not people are reconsidering their comfort zones for buying whisky. And it seems many are. I’ve heard stories that some drinkers are rejecting the primary market and using auctions for purchasing core bottles rather than retailers. Not only can this be a lot cheaper when buying bottles still easily available, producers and retailers should remember that this doesn’t put the money in their pockets.

Make of this what you will. But I agree with the result. Bottles like Glendronach 18 are now off the cards and I’m grateful for the bottles in storage. Both polls aren’t conclusive but show what some of the online community think.

I don’t think things will be as bad as in the 1980’s yet worryingly, many pubs are really struggling at the moment and it’s getting more regular to hear of breweries in the craft beer industry that have fallen victim to economic pressures. I’m hearing rumours that the gin boom is over too. And it’s due to get worse with the Bank Of England telling the BBC that “the UK is still likely to fall into a long, shallow depression.” This, coupled with staffing issues in many industries giving workers a good basis in pushing for higher wages will keep prices high and not necessarily helping inflation fall. But what if a predicted UK and global recession is deeper than predicted? It is not outside the realms of possibility we’ll see distilleries close, even if only temporarily. What if the war in the Ukraine affects the global economy negatively again? This is a risk that may be very real, and out of control of the whisky producers.

While I don’t mean to preach that the end of the world is coming for the whisky industry, which has been cyclic for most of its existence, the truth of what goes up must eventually come down still exists. Will it be the higher the climb the greater the fall? Make the most of what we have. Value the good whiskies. People finding how good the likes of Imperial, Glenugie, Convalmore and others can be are now faced with limited stock or non-existent stock, with what is available already being in bottles. Enjoying quality whisky now could be key to our experiences as affordable aged whisky becomes out of reach for us. Indeed, this Glenugie is already out of my drinking comfort zone, but something more relevant is that Glendronach 18 was under £80 and now, easily £105. Once a staple, now a luxury to many more people.

It’s little wonder I would find concerning when I read this latest article from the Herald Scotland where a Borders Farmer is looking to find funding to the tune of £53 million pounds to fund a brand new grain distillery. The article mentions the fact fianancial recession, the aim of premiumisation, and supplying grain neutral spirit for gin. I read it in disbelief as I somewhat believe he’s missed the boat totally. I hope it works out for him, but the timing doesn’t seem to be on his side in my opinion. The other side of the story though is that speaking to someone with more insight into the industry than I have is that this plant could well be needed if Diageo pull the plug on supplying grain whisky to other blenders. Still, a brave decision to have to make when hedging your bets.

Brave or foolish. You can read the story here

A fitting thought to attach as the conclusions from the tasting could be thus – now that the whisky is gone, the long sweet taste is reminding me of a time gone by as a child. Indeed, I still was one when Glenugie closed. My younger brother was born in the year this dram was distilled. Nobody had an inkling what was to be round the corner for the distillery or the industry. Perhaps this is where we find ourselves again now?

I’d be a fool in failing to acknowledge any potential upsides – the main one being that my opinion maybe completely wrong, and that we’ve really never had it so good and will continue to do so. Should interest rates not continue to climb to control inflation, and energy prices drop significantly, disaster will be averted. In the rhythmic ups and downs of the industry, probability means I’ll be right to some degree eventually, but I suspect it’s closer than many may want to think. If it comes to pass that the whisky enthusiasts have to endure limited choice due to price increases or lack of availability, then perhaps now was a good time to have my Glenugie, while listening to some music bought from One-Up and thinking about how good things used to be.

Yours In Spirits

Scotty

Index of tastings here

Index of articles here


Photo Credits

Signatory Glenugie bottle Nick (twitter @ayewhisky)

All Other Photos – Authors Own

Tweet Screen Grabs – Twitter.com

Street Spirit

Taste Review #146 – Inchgower 5 – Murray McDavid Spirit of Speyside 2022

Of all the spirit swaps I’ve done, this one was probably on track to be the most depressing one, entirely due to the weather though thankfully it had its high points, for I was delivering whisky for a fellow member of the social media whisky community that I hadn’t met yet. After all, isn’t whisky the reason we are all together?

It was certainly a mission of mercy. Aberdeen Whisky Shop had a shop purchase only of a Thompson Brothers release, and my fellow whisky enthusiast couldn’t get down from Inverness to Aberdeen to collect them. These were the Craigellachie and secret Orkney bottling. Fortunately I had business in Aberdeen and was able to collect. Due to work it was harder to deliver, but met a couple of months later in a supermarket car park on the outskirts of Inverness.

Such a dreich day you’ve never seen. On the way up the A9 over the Slochd pass and past Tomatin distillery, I can’t remember having seen rain come down quite as hard. As I drove I kept repeating to myself that it had to be better in Inverness. That thought was totally fruitless, as if anything it was worse. Despite setting a time to meet, I obviously turned up early as you can never predict the time it will take you to travel on that road. Sad fact is that there are too many people on the A9 that don’t drive anywhere near the speed limit, causing frustration on the single carriageway sections. At the other end of the spectrum are those who also drive nowhere near the speed limits but in the opposite direction, mimicking a world land speed record attempt and the world’s most hazardous overtaking manoeuvre all in one go. It’s no wonder that the A9 is pretty much the most dangerous road in Scotland, with around 11 people killed in this year on the stretch between Perth and Inverness, making slow and steady in the inclement weather the order of the day.

Yeah, hanging around a carpark with the rain beating down on the roof of my car, radio on listening to the weather reports of other areas getting it just as bad didn’t fill me with joy. I was starting to feel like a drug dealer and then I started to muse as to what street drug dealers do in the winter? It’s can be fairly brutal in the darker months of freezing rain, snow and ice. But before long, my contact turned up.

This is where being chatty and forgetful almost became my downfall. For not only did I stand for a while chatting in the rain, taking my chances with pneumonia, but also as my colleague walked away, he suddenly remembered that he hadn’t paid me for the whisky. Note to self: – don’t become a drug dealer, I’ll not make money.

Whisky. Hiding it’s true colours

I got some samples as a reward for picking up the bottles and one of them was this Inchgower, bottled by Murray McDavid for the Spirit of Speyside festival. My last review was for another Spirit of Speyside release that was bottled by Murray McDavid, the 9 year old Auchroisk. This sample just to look at didn’t give anything away due to the tinted plastic bottle, so my normal colour misconceptions didn’t kick in. The age misconception did not go missing in action though. While I know that age is not the only thing to determine how good a dram will be, I can’t say that I’m over enthusiastic about drams under 10 years old. Neither am I that enthusiastic about the only regular official bottle from Inchgower distillery, the 14 year old Flora and Fauna. While not bad, it’s hardly brilliant. Only one thing for it and that’s putting it in a glass and having a go.

Inchgower 5 y.o – Spirit Of Speyside 2022 (Murray McDavid)

Region – Speyside Age – 5 y.o Strength – 53.6% abv Colour – Auburn (1.5) Cask Type – Sherry Oloroso Hogshead Colouring – No Chill Filtered -No. Nose – Sweet and rich. Dark chocolate with raspberry – a Ruffle bar for those who know, orange peel, caramel, slight leather note. Palate – Sweet to start with but takes you on a wild ride which I wasn’t prepared for. This really needed water to open it up. Stewed plums, prunes, light peppery spice. Then mid palate the flavours start a riot similar to those in 1980’s Brixton or Toxteth. Sweet, bitter flavours. Tannins from the cask give a slightly bitter taste and a slight drying effect, but then there’s a hint of salty liquorice. Then burnt sugar, then buttery caramel and back to an oily sweetness, but the spice remains. Finish – coffee, chocolate taste, treacle toffees, molasses, ginger and spice which decreases slowly. Long finish.

Hello beautiful. Where have you been hiding?

Conclusions

I haven’t sworn on this blog yet and am not away to start now, but I’m sure my wife heard me say “Duck Me” when I tasted this. Yup, this was an absolute banger. Another great whisky that’s going to be hard to get, if ever but even if I manage to lay my hands on one, it won’t be remaining closed. It certainly speaks volumes why often independent bottlings really ramp up the value aspect compared to the official releases. This was far better than the Flora and Fauna by a country mile.

I’ve often doubted my palate due to regular long stints of alcoholic abstinence and sinus problems, but not this time. There were bags of things to taste here and they weren’t hiding away. They were bursting to get out and when they escaped, the result was a flavour riot on my tongue. All too soon the dram was finished and once again I’m left with slight regrets of a whisky I’ll never taste again. At least I’ll know to hang on in there; there will be something similar waiting for me to discover it in the future.

Thank you to my whisky brother for the generous samples – I look forward to trying the others. Hope you enjoy your bottles. Finally, thanks for remembering that you hadn’t paid me. That would have made the afternoon completely dreich.

Yours In Spirits

Scotty

Index of tastings here

Index of articles here


Photo Credits

All Photos – Authors Own

It’s the most wonderful time of the year

Have special releases lost their meaning?

No, it’s not that wonderful time. Hopefully you don’t have Andy Williams singing that seasonal song burying itself into your brain as a particularly vicious ear worm. By time I’m likely to publish this article, we’ll be well into the Christmas shopping frenzy. But even in September when this article had its genesis, the Christmas cards are already in the shops and adverts for booking the works festive night out are all over local and social media. It’s just inescapable and it really boils my carrots when we have still to mark Hallowe’en and Bonfire Night. We’ll soon meet that point on a virtual retail Venn Diagram calendar when items for all three celebrations are on the shop floor. For me, what should be a special time of year for those who celebrate the birth of sweet baby Jesus, the failed Government assassin or even Freddie Krueger, the commercialism has just taken the shine off of things.

The whisky world isn’t immune from annual events. Whether it’s waiting for the latest whisky book from Ingvar Ronde or Jim Murray, your favourite whisky festivals or a whisky holiday, there is always something to perk our heads up like the whisky loving meerkats we are. There was one whisky event that I used to look forward to, but now I’ve become a bit jaded about them and it seems to have lost that specialness. You may have guessed that I’m talking about the Diageo Special Releases. For the past 10 years I’ve always kept an eye out for the announcement of what is getting released, to see if there is a particularly enticing bottle, especially from one of their closed distilleries. Of course I was never going to be in the market for the Port Ellen or Brora, but I’ve always kept my eyes open for a Convalmore, Pittyvaich or even a sneaky wee Benrinnes should one arise; alas for me pickings over the past 5 years have been pretty disappointing.

It hasn’t just been the selection of whiskies that have been included within the special release portfolio that has disappointed. I’m going to express a personal opinion but it’s the artwork and labelling that have started to drive me away. In recent years special releases have started to have a theme associated with them, most notably in the artwork, with the 2018 having apparently the last individual labelling style on the bottle, with 2019 and 2020 having a wildlife theme for most of them, almost like a parody of the Flora and Fauna bottlings, but still tasteful. Then came 2021, and for me things started to unravel. The theme of Legends Untold and the artwork from what may be a Dungeons and Dragons illustration makes me think that they aren’t trying to sell that whisky to the likes of me – they are aiming for a completely different kind of market.

The 2022 Special Releases have been termed ‘Elusive Expressions’ and this time they’ve decided to go full Tonto with the artwork. My attention was first brought to this in a Nickolls & Perks promotional e-mail, and it was this that really put me off looking any further. I hadn’t even noticed the prices until they were pointed out and at this point I had to just stop and ask – is this really worth it? What makes these special? Was I just being grumpy for the sake of it, or did other people feel the same?

You have to remember that besides being grumpy, I’m a bit of a traditionalist. A whisky Calvinist of sorts, where any distraction from the liquid is seen as unnecessary, distasteful thing to be avoided, in similar way to how the original Calvinists thought music, dancing and fun was unholy in church. I like plain, understated labels or those labels that hark back to a previous era, as we all know that some things were actually better in the past. This may explain part of my love for Flora and Fauna bottles or the Gordon and Macphail distillery label whiskies. Of all the special releases, the 2005, 2013 and 2017 Convalmore offerings were for me a pinnacle of subtlety, evoking an era long past and memories of a silent and unlike Brora and Port Ellen, never likely to return to production.

In his recently released book, whisky author Dave Broom writes in the introduction about how whisky can be seen as a cultural product, and a way of “looking at a country: it’s history, people, stories and thinking.” This is something already mentioned by David Hayman when he presented the BBC Scotland three part documentary entitled Scotch! The Story of Whisky. He tells the story of how Scotch is so ingrained with the culture and identity of the country. So when we look to the special releases, for me the design evokes nothing of Scotland, except some lurid artwork and a fantasy story on the back. Of course, Scotland is a modern country and we shouldn’t be adverse from being colourful and fanciful, but when you know these twee stories are the whims of a marketing team, then the lustre dims somewhat. Some of us have progressed beyond the crayon eating stage.

Was I on my own? I decided to run a small poll on social media to find out if I was on my own with my thoughts.



Don’t let the small sample size fool you. The direction of flow was pretty much one way, with 90% of people expressing what might be seen as a negative outlook, or at the very least find that the special releases not special anymore. 150 people described them as a con. Whether this meant that they were a rip off for the money or just pulling the wool over our eyes as to how special they are, I’ll never know. I’m also surprised that 6 people class the Special Releases as good value. Perhaps they are, but I’m not so sure. While I can understand why people think they are a con, that’s not what I think. You can’t tell without drinking them and I’m not prepared to buy the set, though I will admit that I think they just aren’t special any more.

Let me tell you why I feel this way.

The Spirit

Firstly, let’s look at what is truly important, and that is the liquid itself. I have no doubt that these whiskies are all good, solid whiskies. Of course you may not enjoy every single one, but all of these whiskies are cask strength, non chill filtered and as far as I can see there’s nothing stated about natural colour, so we’ll have to assume there has been some added. Mind you, even Meatloaf thought 2 out of 3 ain’t bad, and there was nothing wrong with Meatloaf. Each one of these should be a great whisky, and I’ve heard that some of them are quite tasty, enough to get me thinking that I may spring for a bottle. But there’s more elephants in the room than at PT Barnum’s circus when we turn the attention to the prices, which for a drinker is possibly the second most important thing, if not the most.

The Price

Perhaps I have got this wrong. Maybe the price should be looked at first to then decide if you can afford to spring for a bottle, but for me I decide whether I may like it first, then look at the price. And to me, while some prices seem to have kept pace with inflation, plus bearing in mind that there has been a massive increase in costs recently, I don’t find the prices outrageous, but lets get this straight now – they are adventurous at best. While they don’t have the four figure price tags of Port Ellen, Brora and latterly Convalmore, these are certainly within the reach of more people, but there are still a few that have prices that raise a few eyebrows.

If you choose to pay £275 of your hard earned pounds for grain whisky that is only 26 years old (Cameronbridge) then I would suggest that the special thing about that whisky is when you drink it, you’ll know it to be an expensive drink (read: over priced). Similarly for the Mortlach NAS. £250 for what could be a spirit with an average age of 12 years is maybe justifiable in the eyes of the producer, as they know the make up of the vatting, but for the consumer, this price point is a lot to take a punt on. Let the fact that Diageo released a 30 y.o Mortlach for £3700 in August 2022 sink in before you consider purchasing an NAS.

The Uniqueness

Have we come to the point where special now ceases to mean what it was truly meant to? I think we have come to misuse this word in a similar way to the whisky industry also uses the word ‘rare’ and ‘limited’. While the Cameronbridge makes its first appearance in the Special Release line up, the other selections have appeared more than once. Yes, they may be a rarely seen expression, but does this alone make them special when so many of their contemporaries are doing the same thing? Will it remain unique if a similar release is made in a few years time? That I can’t say, but the cynic in me feels these aren’t unique at all.

Availability

Let’s think back to the days of the mid 90’s, for that was when a forerunner to Diageo, United Distillers, released the Rare Malts series. This was a step up from the Flora & Fauna, and was a truly limited release, as the bottles were usually numbered, but not always.

Looking on the internet. It doesn’t take long to find some special releases from 5 years ago still on the primary market. There is a cask strength Dalwhinnie 30 y.o from the 2020 releases on the Master of Malt site for £574.86 – the initial RRP was £550. However I have a 25 year old cask strength Dalwhinnie that I bought from the distillery for £180 a few years earlier at nearly a third of the price. While it seems that I am comparing apples and carrots, it gets easy to see why unless you know why they are priced the way they are, the selling prices seem to be that bit more arbitrary.

While the average prices of the special release sets have come down, they are still expensive for what they are, and if you see 2017 releases still on primary retail (Collectivum XXVIII £150) perhaps you’ve misjudged things a bit. Something summed up by another whisky social media user. Link here to see thread for context.

Get the price wrong and it will sit on the shelf. However, its worth remembering that Diageo or any other large whisky producer don’t really worry. They can wait.

Where have the big priced bottles gone?

As I outlined earlier, I anticipated the Special Releases for the ability to obtain older whisky from distilleries that have fallen silent, Convalmore and Pittyvaich in particular. But now with Brora back into production and Port Ellen soon to follow, plus rumours are that there isn’t a lot of Convalmore left, this leaves the collection lacking in the rarer big guns. Some of these are now are sold in a range called Prima and Ultima. It’s an 8 bottle set which costs £36500, but this has put older whisky well outwith the range of many common enthusiasts. You can go to the web page Diageo uses for the premium whiskies and buy separately, but no price is given for single bottlings. I have seen a bottle of Convalmore 36 from 1984 in the Prima and Ultima range being sold for just over £2000, on the Justerini and Brooks website, it is something that is perhaps beyond many of us, unless we have deep pockets and few responsibilities and even less common sense.

While starting to come to a conclusion, a DM conversation that I had with a well known face in the whisky world about casks suggested that there are three types of people in the cask investment world. This caused me to smile as I can see parallels in the bottled whisky market. Whether you are a seasoned pro with the right connections, knowledge and a bit of cash behind you, or the dabbler who has an idea, but perhaps not the cash, full knowledge or the connections, or lastly the idiot – money to spend and has bought into hype. Perhaps this is how brands like Diageo see their consumers – those with the cash to buy the premium and truly rare, those who can make do with the special releases, or those who choose to buy a full set of Game Of Thrones whisky who expect to make their fortunes because of the hype. I see the Diageo special releases becoming more hyped and no obvious uniqueness about them. Regardless if I have misjudged this, for me the shine has fully rubbed off and I don’t really see that these bottlings can be seen as anything special in the face of so much other good and cheaper whisky. It is a marketing exercise and nothing more; there will be more Lagavulin or Cardhu etc, what you are doing is solely buying a brand, pretty much like buying a new car from the same dealer every 5 yrs or so, and if you want something much rarer like a Bentley, then you need to dig deep into the wallet.

With a twist in the tail, I have to admit, my interest was piqued at the 10 year old Oban. I visited the distillery in 2019 and enjoyed the cask strength 9 year old they gave us as a part of the tour, much more than the mundane 14 yr. old. In an effort to see if there really was a specialness in the release, I decided to take a chance to see if I could rekindle memories of that glorious sample.


Taste Review 142 – Oban 10 Special Release 2022.

Elusive Expression Oban. Cosmic Bunny not included.

Region – Highland Age – 10 y.o Strength – 57.1% abv Colour – Amber (0.7) Cask Type – Bourbon / Sherry / Amontillado Colouring – Not stated Chill Filtered – No Nose – Sweet. Blackberry, cherries, dark chocolate, salt air, seaweed, hint of black pepper and smoke. Palate – Instantly salty, if you can’t taste the maritime notes I’ll be surprised. Heavy cream sort of mouthfeel, yet no big spirit kick which is surprising given the strength. I found the salt became sweet with a hint of plums, oranges, and turned again with a peppery note going into the finish. Finish – medium length finish where the heat and spicy notes build. The oak starts to express itself with a slightly dry, tannic note but there is continued sweetness along with a hint of smoke coming out. The heat changes from a peppery heat to one with a hint of chilli as it slips down the throat, but it still doesn’t really have a need for water to calm it. Adding water gave me a burst of mint in the finish.


The Dram.

Conclusions

When all said and done, this is a nice dram. There’s plenty there to engage a whisky drinker with. I would say that if you like coastal drams, then this one should be considered. Was it as good as the 9 y.o I had at the distillery in 2019? I can’t say, as it is too long ago to make accurate comparisons as my memory isn’t that good. However I enjoyed it a lot. But was this dram special?

No It wasn’t.

I’m beginning to see why so many people think the Special Releases are a con. What I have tasted is no different to what an independent bottler would turn out, probably at a much lower price. This would appear only to be special as Diageo haven’t used these barrels for blending fodder, nor have they diluted them for core bottles or Distiller Editions. Should we all sit up like meerkats just because something is ‘special’ due to the way a distillery holds onto its casks? I could quite easily buy two independently bottled whiskies that are just as good for the same money. And two cask strength bottlings wouldn’t cost not much more.

The only people who would see these as being really special are Diageo themselves, as it is they who control the release of casks to the brokers and independent bottlers. Oban isn’t a common independently bottled whisky. But when there is only a description of being ‘limited release’ then there could be multiples of thousands released or more, and for me knowledge that my be the case takes the sheen off of the specialness. Bit like the knowledge Macallan Folio 5 was released not with 2000 bottles, but around 20,000

The last point is the price. Over £100 for a 10 year old whisky is pricey. Are we seeing the insidious creep of premiumisation here too? An unusual release shouldn’t be the excuse for jacking the prices up, as you may find the market you are aiming for will reject it, and those who do buy in will eventually move onto something else when the next fad comes along.

Despite being described by one whisky journalist on their Instagram as “good value”, I’d contend that these special releases are no longer that special. They are only special as we are being told they are but fancy artwork, hiked prices and slick marketing do not necessarily make a special whisky. While the whisky itself may be perfectly acceptable, the only thing making this special in my opinion is the fact we are being told that it is.

I think Diageo need to perhaps rethink the Special Release as for many they have lost their sparkle. I for one will not be buying another Special Release when so much other good value whisky is available. Special means different things to each of us, but for me this falls short of the mark.

Yours In Spirits

Scotty

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