Whisky enthusiasts (and anybody else for that matter) cannot fail to miss the fact that the C-word is now on the lips of nearly everybody. Coronavirus is here, and not the other C word that is used regularly as a quite colourful yet descriptive noun in Scotland. We cannot escape it, so we have to look beyond the times that we currently find ourselves. The new plague has inspired me to actually say a few words on video posted on the Scotty’s Drams Facebook page. This is something that I vowed I would never do on account of having a face that can sour cream instantly, but more to the point I try to keep the blog as ‘lo-fi’ as possible, so I can still write and publish while at work, and so less is spent concentrating on internet geekery and more on the whisky and opinions.
Getting back on track, the whisky industry has not escaped Corona Virus at all. As is sensible, distillery visitor centres have closed, whisky festivals have been cancelled. Even one or two distilleries have completely shut down – Glenfarclas and Teeling being the only ones I definitely know to have ended production. This may not have much of an effect on supply at all, as warehouses are creaking of maturing spirit, and still most distilleries are still producing for now. There is not likely to be a shortage in the longterm, but will there be consequences in the further down the line if the best part of a year’s production is missing? Who knows?
We also have to think of the impact this will have on specialist Whisky Retailers, most of whom rely a good part on footfall into their shops, which has all disappeared. That is why I started my little video infomercials, as I felt this is a very important resource we have to keep. Yes, you can buy your whisky from Master of Malt, The Whisky Exchange or Amazon, but lets look at it this way – that isn’t personal service. It may be that some of the Whisky Shops use Amazon as a market place, but shop direct with them, so they get the maximum benefit.
The bad thing about the Corona virus is that there is likely to be an economic slowdown across the world. Usually the first thing to go in an economic crisis are luxuries, and it could be argued that whisky is not a necessity but is indeed a luxury. Could this lead into a reduction in prices on the shelves? For instance, I remember not too long ago, you could pick up a GlenDronach 18 for under £80. Nowadays most places seem to have the price hitting off £100 in the space of less than a couple of years. I am having a wry smile to myself, as it was a dram that I used to evangelise to people about if asked for a recommendation. I doubt they bought it in enough numbers to increase demand. I’d wet myself laughing if I could be described as an industry ‘influencer’. I’m far more likely simply to be just under the influence……
Carrying on from the thought of a global slowdown, this could mean mixed fortunes for us as consumers, but more to the good. I predict auction prices will be falling. I have seen certain bottles have definitely peaked and are on the way back down. Some of the 1993 Glenmorange cask finishes have seen a drop for instance. Mind you it could be that some people are also putting too high a reserve on it and they are not selling. I am getting more and more suspicious of the motives of some auctioneers to be honest, but that is an article I am writing with great caution, as the potential for libel and destroying of industry relationships is high.
Moving on to the newer distilleries; tough times will definitely test the business model of many of these distilleries. Are they adequately insured against pandemic? If people do not have money to spend, then the demand falls. Those who have yet to produce spirit and are relying on also producing new make, gin or cask sales could especially be in trouble – they have nothing to sell to an international market as whisky has to be bottled in Scotland to be called Scottish, and if the domestic market collapses, there could be a cull of spirit producers in what seems to be a slowly saturating market place. Distilleries who don’t have a large global share or an effective overseas distribution may struggle, unless they are the type that have enough capital behind them to weather the storm.
Bear in mind my friends, I am only an amateur, and all of this is opinion of somebody who does not have a degree in economics, no whisky industry background and is certainly not a rocket scientist. However, the basic facts are there – the size of a market the industry has to sell to is finite. You can only sell so much, which becomes difficult if tastes change (imagine only filling sherry casks to find 8 years later public taste has swung in favour of bourbon cask whisky), or if people have no money.
Whatever happens in the end, we have to remain positive in all circumstances. What may come to pass is anybodies guess and it is completely out of our hands. Let me advise you that the best thing you can do now is keep indoors as much as possible. Take time to enjoy the things you couldn’t before when things like work got in the way. If you are one of the ones that are providing essential services to keep the country going, I salute you – especially those on the front lines in the health services world wide, often working under difficult conditions. At the other side may we all be able to raise a glass to celebrate that we have survived. The whisky industry will too, but in what shape it will be is yet to be seen.
Lastly, while we think of staying inside to dodge the Corona Virus, one thing that went through my head now I’ve shown my face on screen (1400+ views) that if we are to celebrate together getting through these hard times, how would people feel about a Scotty’s Drams meet at some point in the quiet season next year? We need to look forward to something, and this could just be the ticket. Let me think on it. Perhaps I’ll do a poll later on…
The more regular of my readers will appreciate that I do tend to use a lot of miniature bottles for my reviews. This is due to a certain amount of expediency because of my work away from home and being away for more than half the year gives me limited time to drink full bottles. I have to say that I end up giving a lot of it away to my friends (you know who you are!) in order to kill bottles so I can move on to open something different.
The problem with this is that I am an inveterate bottle chaser, and this week was no different. My final sales of miniatures happened this week, and I managed to get some more decorative cask ends for the Strathspey hotel my wife runs. However, for me an online whisky auction is pretty much like doing your shopping at Aldi’s in as much as you can go for milk and bread, yet walk out with a 4″ grinder and a car tool kit as well. I ended up perusing the other miniatures for sale and came across a set of 4 miniatures at a relatively cheap price. The bait was in the trap, and the bottle chaser was sniffing around.
The drams in question were older bottlings from the Gordon & Macphail ‘Connoisseurs Collection’. Gordon & Macphail have had some great bottlings in the past and I already have a few of their miniatures in my collection, though these are unicorn drams that I wish to taste and possibly review the experience for you in the future. The drams I won this time are.
I was after the Coleburn and the Speyburn and in the end with auction fees I paid about £27 for all 4. However there was a big drawback – the fill levels were low. But does this mean I have been foolish or ripped off? I don’t think so, and I’ll spend the next few paragraphs explaining why I feel I haven’t been either of these and why perhaps you should take a chance.
Firstly, a rip off in an auction is not possible. In fact a rip off can only happen if you were sold something and you what you received was something that did not meet defined expectations. An auction house clearly shows the bottles on sale and will provide more on request. If you were prepared to pay the price with as much information as provided, then you have not been ripped off – you’ve just made a mistake.
Have I been foolish? Perhaps, but that is a matter of opinion. These drams could cost hundreds to buy as an individual full size bottles. I am going to be able to taste rarer drams for a fraction of that. If I was to find these drams in a whisky bar, I could imagine to pay £25+ for a dram for each one of these. It is worth saying that each of these drams have at least 25ml in them, some close to full. So potentially I have £100+ worth of drinking whisky.
Of course, with low fill levels, there are some drawbacks to this, and I have to acknowledge this. If the fluid level is low, then this means that whisky has evaporated out. I find that miniatures are particularly susceptible to this, and is one of the reasons I never recommend people collect miniatures unless they are aware of its risks and they are stored properly. Of course some people do collect these, but it’s not my thing. The risk of evaporation for me is too high and I personally feel I’d rather drink the miniatures.
One big problem with evaporation is that our largest concern should be that alcohol evaporates quicker than water, so there is a good chance that these drams which were bottled at 40% will not be at 40% when I try them. But that is a risk that I take, and while I am well aware that I will not get the full flavour that I would have got had it been fresh, I will still get an idea of what it would have been like.
As with any proposition I put to you, this needs some sort of perspective. While I know that my bottles are compromised, what about that £30+ nip you buy in a whisky bar? Once the seal is popped, that bottle is on countdown as oxidisation and evaporation takes place. Certainly the whisky bars I see don’t gas their whiskies once they have been opened. That means in the case of the more premium but less popular whiskies, you’ll never be getting a fresh like new dram. You’ll never know how much of the fill level is due to evaporation. Let’s extrapolate that thought by remembering that the lower the fill level goes, the evaporation rate increases. My gamble with the miniatures doesn’t seem quite so foolish now, does it?
The above thought was one I have had for some time. I remember last year when I visited a bar that sold a 72 year old Macallan at £5000 a nip. Once opened, the evaporation and oxidisation processes have started. I wouldn’t imagine at that price it will be a quick seller, therefore is the person getting the last dram truly getting the value of such a whisky?
As I have said in my title, sometimes you have to speculate to accumulate. By taking a chance in spending some money, you can also taste rarer or older drams. By all means, you know they will not be perfect, but neither is that bottle of Macallan somebody has that’s been hiding at the back of the cabinet and was opened in 1983 to celebrate Aberdeen winning the European Cup Winners Cup. And has now been saved to drink only at special occasions. As an Aberdonian I can say that perhaps you’ll be waiting another decade to see silverware at Pittodrie….. There’s a good chance your whisky will have gone to the angels by that time.
As usual, exercise some restraint when looking at bottles that are less than perfect. There will be a point when it will not be worth what the auction value is. Only pay what you can afford to drink, with an eye onto how much liquid is left in the bottle. Research what other similar bottles are selling for. And as usual, my best tip is to keep an eye on the assorted miniature collections in online auctions. Sometimes a unicorn whisky can be hiding in amongst others, as I found with my G&M Royal Brackla. You can always do what I did and sell the remainder of the miniatures again at auction and make enough money back to effectively make the unicorn you’ve hunted free. Fortune favours the brave!
It has been a nailbiting and momentous week here at Scotty’s Drams HQ. I lost my job as the premier hypocrite of the Strathspey and Badenoch area, when my Macallan Folio 5 did sell at auction and I made the grand total of £37.20 after taking auction fees into account. I don’t even have the title of the worst flipper in the world, as at the same auction, some people were taking losses over £230 on their Macallan Easter Elchies Black 2019 release – one of the many Macallan releases that did not have numbers confirmed and turned out to be a lot more than people anticipated.
In other auction action, I submitted a bundle of whisky miniatures to a couple of auctioneers, and the items at Whisky Auctioneer in Perth did a lot better than anticipated. I had the opportunity to buy around 50 nips from a guy locally who was selling them on behalf of his mother, as they belonged to his late father’s estate. I paid £50 for them, as I didn’t really have time to inspect them properly and I had no idea of what they were worth. Imagine my surprise when the total hammer price was £211! With me being me, (and the local area as well as the whisky world being very small), I had told him that if it made much more than £50, I’d give him the profits, so nobody could think I was taking the mickey or taking advantage of people. Believe it or not, I do want Scotty’s Drams to be known to have a smidge of integrity! It has been a great result for myself, but especially to the recipient of the extra cash and I am glad it is going to a good cause.
The final thing that I want to point out for this week was the news that retailers were slashing the prices of the Game of Thrones editions as released by Diageo in collaboration with the HBO series. The Whisky Exchange and Master of Malt were offering around 30% discount on the 9 bottles, and I had seen on line that another retailer were said to be offering 40%. You can imagine the response on the social media channels about people who feel conned that they paid significantly more to collect the series. I will remind you that I warned about this in my article I wrote about the Game of Thrones whisky set back in November 2019. Click on the link if you want to be reminded of what I said.
I’ll not go over old ground, as this will make the article unnecessarily long. However, I can understand the angst of people who feel conned, but why did they pay so much in the first place? They believed the hype of a limited release that was never really going to become rare – not in the next 40 years or so anyway……. I bet the person who paid £1400+ for his set at auction feels especially aggrieved, especially for one of two things – a lowering of the retail price will crash the auction price. This is definite for the short term and most likely for the medium to long term. Why do I think this? It is only the truly gullible or those who cannot get it any other way will pay more on an auction site than it costs at retail. Secondly, now the retail price has dropped, potentially many are going be offloading it ASAP if they don’t want to drink it, thus probably ensuring a very easy supply to secondary market at auctions. Additionally, because of such a large price drop, the perception of quality has been damaged and any last vestiges of thought about the range being a collectable commodity that will make healthy profits have been blown away.
We have to also remember that people thinking it was a limited edition were conned into thinking this, or what is much more likely that they chose not to look at the facts. This whisky was released in massive numbers, probably tens of thousands of bottles per each edition. Coronavirus is still rarer than GoT whisky. The only way it was limited was that Diageo has probably set a limit in the time for these products to be marketed. I doubt they consciously limited the production over that period, given the amounts in circulation.
Let us put that into some sort of perspective – in December last year Bruichladdich released 3000 bottles of their Octomore X4 series. This is the quadruple distilled single malt, that is part of a series that has been released as spirit and at 3 years old. When it was placed in their online shop, the website crashed as people tried to get hold of a bottle. I was lucky, and after 4 hours trying I managed to get 2 bottles. Still, when you look around, you can still get hold of it at auction, albeit at substantially more than the £150 release price. I bought 2 as I intend to drink one and put the other alongside my other X4’s as a collection. Even at 3000 bottles, which is only around 10 casks worth of whisky, this is not especially rare. How much less rare is the GoT whisky? I do hope that you have got my point here, as we now have to expand on what probably drove the demand.
I came to this thought based on another article I had read online. Another blog / review site I like reading during my online wondering is The Dramble. Indeed I recommend it. It has a collection of writers, although most of the content is written by its co-founder Matt Mckay. He recently wrote an article about the Talisker Distillery Exclusives, and he raised an interesting point about these distillery exclusives, and how some people feel this is unfair as they are missing out if they can’t get to the distillery. I had to laugh as they certainly missed the point of exclusives. Matt touched briefly on the FOMO fanbase. For those of you who aren’t as hip and down with the kids and street language, I can tell you that FOMO stands for ‘Fear Of Missing Out’.
Let us face it, some of us do have moments of fear that we are going to miss out on something. I am no different. Back in those dark, dark days when I was on the Macallan mailing list, I entered the ballots and crossed my fingers. I never wanted to flip any bottles – I wanted to own something that would be worth a bit of money in the long term. Of course I was trying to avoid paying the money the secondary market would eventually command. So it comes to pass that I guess in the case of the Folio 5, I have to be honest with you and I took my eye off the ball. The unforced error of not really noticing there was no commitment to limit the numbers to the same level as usual was a mistake many had made. After all, no numbers were officially confirmed for Folio 4, and it was accepted around 2000 bottles were released. Surely Macallan wouldn’t do the dirty and release 20,000 bottles, ensuring 18,000 could not collect the full set? That’s exactly what they did.
The problem I feel with limited releases (and I speak only as an enthusiast with no part in the whisky industry) is that too many people have seen the profits that some people have made and are now only too keen to buy a whisky and hopefully make the same profit. Those with little experience also misunderstand the meaning of limited release. A limited release can still have hundreds of thousands of bottle released as long as it’s only sold for a fixed time. Releases such as Ardbeg’s annual release, coupled with pretty much anything Macallan releases on a limited basis normally initially makes money and drives the flippers and those determined to obtain a bottle to buy and sell in a frenzy similar to that when a lamb is dropped in a pool of piranhas. This has perhaps provoked people who do not normally buy whisky as an investment to perhaps want a piece of the action. It is a very dangerous game to play with no knowledge and people have, and do get financially burnt by it. I’ve been buying and selling whisky for 6 years now at auction, and I know – even I get caught out sometimes, but I accept the swings and roundabouts of what I collect.
The only way such a release of whisky could ever hope to become rare and expensive is if people drink it. And while with GoT this is still theoretically possible, the whisky released was never the best products the distilleries were capable as of and there was just so many bottles released. I’ve tasted a couple of the GoT editions, and they are pretty so-so. Not bad but not good either.
So why have the prices dropped so far? I would guess that now Game of Thrones is completed and no new episodes are to come, the series has dropped out of immediate public consciousness and now they are not buying it in the same amounts. My limited experience with retail in other areas would suggest this creates excess inventory to get rid of and to do this then the easiest way is to drop the price.
Fear Of Missing Out – not having the whisky from your favourite TV show, or not being able to collect it in order to make a profit at a later date is probably what has driven this release. Possibly a bit of intrigue to see how each edition ties into each family in the story. But to be fair, it isn’t just limited to the gimmicky release that GoT obviously was. It is the same with every release from Macallan, Ardbeg, Bruichladdich amongst others. Our admiration for the brand, our desperate desire to have something no other collector has, or at least have it first, or to even just get a couple to flip so those desperate enough can get their hands on it blinds us to some harsh economic realities if we don’t take into consideration the realistic supply an demand in the future.
And here is the crux – FOMO often takes our attention from the most important thing – the whisky itself. Consider that in the whisky world that fully missing out is a rare thing – what’s on the market will eventually come around again, at least in the secondary market, and when it reappears, it may come back cheaper. FOMO is driving a monster in the whisky market which has the risk of eating itself, something those who have felt cheated over Game of Thrones are now realising, but it can be applied to those who overpay for anything. I’ve seen Macallan Folio 5 auction for a hammer price of £900. If that person failed to win the original Macallan ballot, how silly do they feel now when they could have bought mine at auction for £320 rather than overpaying the first flipper that came along? The signs of the greatly increased out-turn were all there when they were appearing on auction sites before the Macallan Ballot was complete, so why would you pay nearly 4 times the RRP?
Marketing is something that we as whisky geeks that we all have to be aware of, as it so often promises something and very often does not meet our full expectations. Fair play to Diageo – they shifted shed loads of non-premium whisky at non-premium prices and those who know very little about whisky or have duller palates are suddenly exposed to nine distilleries in the Diageo stable. Where they will not get people continuing to buy GoT bottles as it is limited, they will then most likely start buying the more profitible (for Diageo) releases from these distilleries after they made GoT fans more aware of their offerings. Diageo really couldn’t lose from this venture.
The important thing to bear in mind is that if we are true whisky geeks, FOMO should never really guide us – our palate should in the first instance, but I have to admit that I can miss this myself, and often become a bottle chaser, which is an unhealthy habit. FOMO and bottle chasing can and does lead to missing out on other things, though you often miss that point as well.How ironic.
For those amongst you reading this who have more experience than me, I hope that you are nodding your head in agreement, for you know the truth that things will eventually come back around. You may have to wait somewhat. I have that feeling with the Dailuaine I lost out on in the week previous to last. We have to move on….
In summary –
Don’t always believe the hype on new releases.
Never plan on making money, and only spend what you can afford to drink. That is what you might be doing if the price crashes
Make sure you know how many are being released
Don’t be afraid to miss out. There are thousands of fantastic whisky expressions out there, and because you don’t have one, this means you have money for another.
At the time of writing this, I’m in Poland visiting family, and God knows where I’ll be when this eventually gets published, which by my reckoning will be somewhere around March. And being in Poland at this time of year takes me back to this time last year when I was in Krakow and decided to start Scotty’s Drams. The only thing that bums me out is that I don’t have a sample of the dram I was drinking when I decided to go for an amateur career in whisky blogging. Suffice to say I haven’t reviewed it yet, but its time will come!
GlenAllachie has already been reviewed this past 12 months, but it was the 12 year old I tried, and that has a solid thumbs up! It was when on my journey of whisky geekery in early October last year that I obtained a sample of the recently released 15 year old after making a purchase from one of my preferred friendly whisky shops. Since it has been in my possession, it has travelled around a bit within Scotland but I’ve never had the chance to sit down and try it. Now my daughter is in bed, I am now free to imbibe this drample.
I’m not going to write much more about the distillery, as I did that in review #16 which you can see here – GlenAllachie 12. There is a bit more about the distillery there.
What I can say is, that even in the short time that Billy Walker has been at GlenAllachie, he has built up an impressive reputation in what was an anonymous blend fodder distillery for Chivas Brothers. The 15 year old slots into the GlenAllachie core range with the 10 (CS), 12, 18 and 25 year old releases.
Anyway, less reading, more sipping! Let’s get down to the tasting.
Vanilla, raisins, banana, honey, a dairy note of plain yoghurt or sour cream. Nutmeg.
Ohh. A strong tobacco note on first taste. On second taste a noted sourness develops, grapefruit. Leather, spicy wood, caramel, almost gingery. The sourness disappeared with the addition of water, and much more sweetness came out, with more dried fruits and a creamy toffee.
Medium to long. Quite peppery, as though I’ve just chewed a pink peppercorn, with the resultant fruity flavours. The sourness continues and it fades into sweetness. I’m getting cinnamon and ginger, almost like Irn Bru. Very eventful finish indeed.
Well, the purpose of free samples is to try and get you to buy more, and in this case I’ll say it has worked. I did really like this whisky, and I will be buying one once I have finished with the 12 year old GlenAllachie I currently have open. I have to say that compared to the 12, this one was not so instantly enjoyable and it took me 3 or four sips to start recognising flavours. The sourness was a surprise, as this has been finished in a combination of Pedro Ximenez and Oloroso sherry casks. PX is a sweet sherry and Oloroso is a fruity sherry, and I think that I just picked up the Oloroso first. The addition of water really smoothed things out.
Applying the ABCD, this scores 4/4, as it is non chill filtered, no colouring, 46% and has an age statement. A great sherry bomb whisky which I can fully recommend.
RRP on this bottle is £62.99, but you can pick it up cheaper online. Don’t forget though you will have P&P to add though, so do what I did and go to a friendly local specialist whisky shop. You may get a wee sample while there to light your way to a new discovery!
Thanks to Kat at The Whisky Shop Dufftown for my sample. You were right, it was lovely! Pop in see their selection, or browse and shop online at www.whiskyshopdufftown.com.
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At the present moment as I write this, I’m in the middle of auction fever. I currently have 5 lots at auction and by time I publish this it will be 6. Of these, 5 are miniatures and one is my Macallan Folio 5. Unfortunately when browsing the auctions something came up that is part of a collection that I have and is rare. So rare I’ve only seen one at auction in 6 years, and I doubted if it actually existed, but when it came up it was plainly obvious that I had to have it. The bottle in question was a Dailuaine Flora and Fauna bottle with the white cap.
For days it sat at just over £100. Then just before the end of the auction, it went up to £380. That was about the amount I thought it was worth despite the rarity, but even after the end timer for the auction started it continued to rise. And rise. And rise. And yours truly continued to chase it.
It was once it breached the £500 barrier that I questioned myself, how badly do I need this? I had convinced myself I did need this, but doubts crawled up into my mind. There is hardly any of these bottles around – anybody can replace a capsule on a bottle to make something look rarer. Whilst it looked like a genuine capsule, there were crinkles on it which made me doubt. Indeed, a look on the same auctioneers website from the previous auction revealed a Mortlach 16 Flora and Fauna with a completely incorrect capsule which means that bottle was definitely suspect.
Don’t believe fakes make it to auction? Well just last week I was speaking to somebody who worked at a very reputable online auctioneer who assured me they used to see tons of fakes being brought in to attempt to enter the auction. And it’s a sad fact that some of them sneak through – and that isn’t limited to online auctions either.
We come to the bitter truth. I have paid more than a Flora and Fauna bottle but that is because I was chasing it, and I ended up slightly overpaying. The trouble with online auctions is that you never see who you are bidding against. I’d worked out there was probably at least 2 other people interested in that bottle, and the price could have skyrocketed had I continued. I pulled out at £600, with my tail between my legs. The bottle eventually sold at £750, which confirmed my suspicion that there was at least 2 other bidders.
I was disappointed. Gutted. But remember my advice that I have given to you in the past – auction prices do not include fees. So at £750 hammer price, if the person was a UK buyer, the true cost was £840 before shipping costs. Even writing this the morning after, I still don’t feel I dodged a bullet. It has to be looked at in the cold light of day – that would be £840 I would never drink. It would sit in my locker and probably not make any money. And would I get joy out of it? Certainly not 840 quids worth.
So, I placed a cheeky bid on a 24 year old Invergordon and retreated upstairs leaving my phone downstairs so I couldn’t do any consolation buying. I did some ironing instead and watched some programmes about Scotland I had saved on my Sky box. Unfortunately I couldn’t have a dram as drink-ironing could have disastrous consequences, and having some shortbread to complete the Scottish feeling? My clothes need to be crease and crumb free so that was ruled out too.
No matter how much you want a bottle, you have to know its true worth. Even if it’s worth more to you than its actual value as a commodity, sometimes you just have to walk away and remember – if one has shown up then another one will. In both cases when I bought a rarer white cap Flora and Fauna, another one turned up at the next months auction as perhaps people see how much these are selling for and decide to cash in. So fingers crossed.
Being a bottle chaser is a blessing and a curse. You can achieve a fantastic collection, but at what cost? In the cold light of the day, if you are not drinking it but collecting as you hope it to be worth something, you have to keep the emotions in check. Out of the 17 white cap Flora and Fauna collection, I have 15. That’s better than probably 99.9% than others who have the same set.
By all means, if this is what you want to achieve, you have to hold your nerve, but be careful you don’t ridiculously overpay. There is no shame in losing your bottle at all if it prevents you being ripped off.
That leaves me with a closing thought. That do you think my wife would be more shocked at? The fact I was prepared to pay so much for a Dailuaine or that I actually did some ironing?
It is said that a mistake is only a mistake when you at least learn from it. When you continue to make that mistake, that is at the very least bad planning. It’s a Friday forenoon as I am writing this, so I suppose I really should know better. I am still going to call this a success as I finished the article on Friday as well, however only with 80 minutes to spare.
This week has seen a small burst of whisky activity, in which I have visited a distillery and cooperage, and it is the cooperage that is going to form the basis of this weekends article. I was wanting to do a bit of research into cask construction to give me a bit of a background for an article I am writing for something else and my visit to the Speyside Cooperage in Craigellachie did not disappoint.
When we think of whisky, the focus is always on the distillery and the casks are almost a foregone conclusion. Yet these should not be forgotten as they play a massive part in the formation of our dram in creating the colour and developing the taste from the distillate. Even then, all we think of is rows of casks sitting in a warehouse, but we don’t really think of what goes into making them. I can tell you now that it is more than you think and you would be surprised at actually how much. What’s even more surprising is how quickly it all happens.
The Speyside Cooperage sits just outside the village of Craigellachie, on the A941 between Dufftown and Craigellachie. It is a business that I pass regularly, but most often from the rear of the site, on the short cut between the A941 and the A95 to Aberlour and home. When passing the pyramids of casks (known as a Stow and is pronounced to rhyme with Now) I’ve always wondered how they process so many casks. On a snowy Monday afternoon I decided to pay a visit to the Cooperage.
I chose the VIP tour, which allows access to the shop floor and the yard. This allows you to get as close as safely possible. The good thing about the VIP tours, especially out of season is the chances of getting a one on one tour is extremely high. While only mad dogs and Englishmen are said to go out in the midday sun, it is only perhaps the true whisky geek attired in appropriate amounts of Gore-Tex that will venture into Speyside to research barrels during a winter storm. Thus so it was the case that I got a solo tour with Rowan.
The tour starts with a very informative and well made video that is refreshingly full of easy to understand information and devoid of any corporate promotion, something that I note is more and more creeping into any whisky based tour. The video describes the type of wood used, how it is cut, and shows a basic overview into how a cask is made. After the video which lasts for approximately 15 minutes, you are then taken up the stairs to the viewing gallery where you can see most of the shop floor. Here you see the coopers in process repairing casks and what is instantly apparent is the speed that they work at. Because the coopers are paid at a piece-rate, it is in their best interests to have a high turnover of casks.
What is not appreciated is that the coopers are assisted by a a team known as the Labour Squad. These are the workers that assist the coopers by ensuring that there are casks ready to be worked on, by keeping the area around the benches clean, by making sure that they have supplies to repair casks. There are also apprentices at the far benches who serve their time over 4 years. There is quite a bit of interest when an apprenticeship comes up; apparently there were about 100 people applying for just one position.
The middle section in the photo above is where casks that are not repairable are put, and parts used from them to fix other casks. On the day that I visited, the workshop were repairing former wine casks, therefore they would all be similar in shape and height, but not every stave will fit every cask. You can see two casks in the middle section have their bands off and have some staves missing – these will be taken to repair other casks.
The cooperage can source or make a cask to order. The predominant wood in use is American Oak. This is for a couple of reasons. Firstly it is quite a dense oak, and the wood does not interact quite so strongly with the distillate as much. It also grows tall and straight with few knots, which means it is a lot easier to get a consistent wood quality that is less likely to split or leak. European oak tends to be a bit more porous. A typical American Oak will yield enough oak to manufacture 3 barrels. At the time I visited, no new whisky casks were being made and it was old wine casks that were being used. I never did find out what oak these were made of, but if it was European, it is most likely to be French Oak.
To ensure that the liquid stays in the cask, the staves are cut in what is called quarters. This means the stave is cut across the grain, and will stop the liquid in the cask leaking out.
So what happens when a cask comes in for repair?
The cooper will take the cask to his station, and give it a thorough examination. They are looking for cracks and splits in the wood or signs of other damage, such as a damaged metal band or hoop. There are usually 6 hoops in a cask – the top one is the chime, the 2nd one down one is the quarter and the one closest to the middle is known as the Bulge. This is repeated for the other end. The cooper will use a wire brush to knock off any debris and weathering on the outside to get a good look at the wood. If it requires repair, then the three hoops at one end are removed and the barrel inverted. Then he will slacken the top hoop and remove the other two, so he can open up the cask to remove the damaged staves.
Once the staves are repaired, the cask is closed up, the bulge hoops are put back into position to start closing up the cask. The remaining hoops are placed on, but not into the final position. The cask ends are then put into position, and sealed around the edge with dried water reeds.
Depending on client requirements, if the barrel requires re-charring, the old char is removed and the charring process takes place once more. There are differing levels of char, which effectively blisters the wood to charcoal. This has a few uses – firstly it increases the surface area of the wood, to allow the spirit to interact more with the cask. The charcoal will also be a crude filter, and will help neutralise some of the less pleasant parts of the the distillate. It will also have an effect on the colour, taste and aroma of the final whisky.
At the time of my visit, the coopers were working on old wine barrels, and this could be clearly seen by the staining on the insides of the casks. The casks were being charred at around 400C for about 100 seconds. The cooperage customer will ask for a particular charr level, and Rowan my guide informed me it is getting more usual to see higher temperatures for shorter times. Once the charr is complete, the cask is then subjected to jets of steam – this is to put some moisture back in the wood. The cask ends are charred separately in a facility outside, and are then returned to the cooper to make up a cask once more.
It is thinking about the cask ends that I actually discovered something that I did not already know. Of course, the casks have no nails or glue holding them together, but I often wondered about how the cask ends are jointed together and this is where today continued to be a school day. Whisky casks generally have dowels holding them together. Several pieces of wood are dowelled each other then pressed together. Once pressed, the cask is then put on a lathe style machine to turn the cask end into a circular shape with the profile to enable it to seal correctly.
Wine casks are generally different, and what I saw was that the pieces of wood that form the end are pressed together using a tongue and groove effect. This makes the insertion of the cask end a little bit more tricky, but the coopers I watched assemble casks did it with ease.
The assembled cask is then passed onto one of the labour team who use a machine to press on the two hoops at either end. This ensures a tight seal and that the ring is in precisely the correct position. Once this is done, all that remains is for the cask to be seal checked, which is done by putting some water into the cask and pressurised with air. Should a leak be detected, the cooper responsible has to repair the cask.
Should the cask pass, it is either put into a stow for storage, or it is transported immediately to the client. And here is where I learnt something new. For years, I have heard in distilleries that the casks are shipped broken down, however Rowan tells me that this is not necessarily true. It was calculated that it was more expensive to pay for a cooper to break down the cask in the US or Spain (Most casks used in Scotch whisky comes from the bourbon or sherry industries) then have them rebuild the cask in Scotland. So in effect, the cooperage is actually shipping air, as usually nothing is in the cask when it is shipped.
There is a large collection of different casks on site. Everything from firkins (this was what the apprentices were working on) Quarter Casks, Barrels, Hogsheads, Port Pipes, Sherry Butts and Puncheons were present. In total there is around 200,000 casks on site at any one time. Wondering around the yard, the stows of barrels towered above us like a cathedral of casks. I had to wonder how much effort would be needed to knock the securing chocks out from the bottom and then to run from the tumbling casks. Thankfully that is not my job but images of Wylie Coyote getting buried in a in barrels after chasing Road Runner came to mind.
One question I had was how do they tell what each cask has held before or how many times it was used? The reason I asked was that each client has their own stows, yet the cask types (not sizes) were mixed. I thought it was something to do with the colour of the paint on the cask end, but the secret was a lot more mundane than that – it was usual to have the information on the paperwork when the cask arrived, and most casks now have a bar code or an alternative identifying mark.
I’ve got quite a lot of experience with cask ends, as I have been collecting these to use as decorative pieces for a local hotel bar, but nowadays these decorative cask ends are coming to an end in the larger distilleries at least. Many of them simply have a bar code on them. The distilleries are reluctant to allow these to be sold now, and many insist on the ends being painted over. Personally I think that this is a shame, as these marks tell a lot about the history of the cask. Remember that the wood it is made of is around 100 years old, then the cask itself can be as old as 40 – 60 years. I think it is nice to see all the dates that tell of whisky now probably long drunk.
At the end of the tour, we returned to the gallery where I am told that one of the coopers present is actually a world record holder. Davey Mckenzie had put a 190 litre barrel together in 3 minutes three seconds. Indeed, watching the guys repairing the wine casks, these were often repaired in around 10-15 minutes a piece, depending on how much work is needing done. It was now my turn to assemble a small cask, but I’m not going to embarrass myself only to reveal I didn’t manage – it really is a skill!
Finally it was time to finish the tour. It really was a great experience, and I think I spent 2 hours there, but it seemed a lot more. This was because you can get a lot of information and plenty of opportunity to ask questions in a short space of time. At the end of the tour, you get a tea or coffee, some shortbread, plus a bar towel and engraved Glencairn glass with the Cooperage logo. Oh, and a small nip of their own mystery single malt whisky bottled from a local distillery. I did tell my guide that I thought I knew what it was judging by the smell, but it is a secret. However, when I compared it to a sample of the whisky I thought it was, it was a very good match.
Don’t worry – I won’t tell.
I’d like to thank Rowan for her great tour. Whisky Geek Scotty was definitely on his best behaviour and didn’t get carried away. I’d also like to thank Andrew Russell, the General Manager of the Cooperage who took his time to answer a couple of questions I had to e-mail him in the writing of this blog post.
I can thoroughly recommend a visit to this cooperage, as it is one of the very few cooperages where you can see the cask being assembled from beginning to end. You can find out more by phoning the visitor centre on 01340 871108 or visiting http://www.speysidecooperage.co.uk
We come to Friday once more, and I am looking for a thought to provide you all with this week. It has been quite a week for me with a lot of stress. A couple of weeks ago, my car was involved in a minor collision and this was the week it was going in for repair. I’m lucky enough to have an insurance company that are quite generous when it comes to providing a hire car when mine is off the road, so I was lucky enough to be given a Toyota Aygo.
Lucky? No. These small cars are really only good for the city. I have driven an Aygo over one hundred miles from Aberdeen to home over twisty country roads and let me tell you that it wasn’t fun. Given we have had really bad weather and have a good blanket of snow, I opted to pay a little bit extra and get something bigger. I was given a Vauxhall Insignia which was a lovely car to drive but a bit longer than I realised. When backing the car in front of my garage, the sensors must have been covered in dirt from the slush on the roads, and the net result was that I backed the car into the garage door. Conclusions – car not a mark; the garage door seemingly a write off.
Of course, the weather was bad with snow and heavy winds, and the garage roller door was out of the guides on one side so I got plenty of fun with some hammers, spanners and pry-bars to get the door back into the guides. I didn’t care at that point if the door would ever open again, as long as I could get it wind and watertight once more. But I knew eventually that I had to make a hard decision – do I leave the door as is, for I don’t use it that often, or do I pay for a replacement? After paying a 4 figure sum just before Christmas for a new oil tank, I wasn’t really wanting to take the hit of a new electric door. I knew that the choice of doing nothing could become very inconvenient. Sadly, it was realistic to say that a new door was the only option and I had a £1500 bill staring me in the face. It was unexpected that when my local friendly garage door supplier turned up a couple of days later that he didn’t give me a quote. Thankfully he was able to repair the door in such a way it will survive another couple of years given the amount of use it gets. All ends well. I still haven’t had the dram to celebrate the avoidance of financial disaster!
So what has this got to do with whisky? Well, last Friday my package from Macallan turned up, the recently balloted Folio 5 which is part of the Archival Series. Costing £260 including postage, I entered the ballot without knowing too much about the whisky I was hoping to win. However, this is not that uncommon with Macallan releases nowadays. But, given the fact that previous Folio releases have been about 2000 units and usually keep at a price well above the purchase, then I thought it would be a safe bet.
Well, after the ballot was concluded, with my whisky contacts and on various forums, I noticed that quite a lot of people had actually won a bottle in the ballot. Far too many for my liking. Research suggested that Macallan had done the dirty and possibly released 20,000 units. This is a bit of a kick in the teeth, as it would mean 18,000 people will never be able to collect the full collection, and the value of the other four editions is now going to smash through the roof as those who do wish to collect the full series will be forced to pay for a much rarer whisky. This can only get worse as future editions are released (there are still 19 releases to go).
Of course, caveat emptor should be the phrase first and foremost in mind, but I feel in whisky terms I have metaphorically smashed the car into the garage door and have a tough decision to make in terms of what to do with this whisky. It may serve me well to give you another metaphor that would sum up my feelings adequately, I felt like the pigeon who didn’t notice there was glass in the french windows, and is now lying stunned on the patio waiting for the neighbours cat to get me.
To be honest, I bought it with the intention of not collecting the full set, but keeping it back to sell at a later date when the price settled. I had no intention of flipping it, as you should know by now my views on flipping. In the back of my mind, my thoughts were that if there was only 2000 made, I might be able to swap it for a Folio 4, which has the music of James Scott Skinner on it (I used to play the fiddle, so it was relevant). But now I am stuck with a bottle that I feel doesn’t fit my collection policies, won’t necessarily increase in value and I’ve no interest in drinking. And £260 isn’t a small amount of cash to splurge for no return.
And now I have to face the difficult decision – do I flip it, do I keep it and hope for the best, do I sell it to somebody that didn’t get one at a price that covers my costs, or do I drink it? I’ve opened more expensive bottles but I’m just not interested in Macallan. I’ve drunk too many insipid drams in recent times to be opening an NAS that cost so much. It should be nice to be in the position that I am to own such an item, but the responsibility of what to do with it hangs like the Sword of Damocles above my head, pretty much like it did with the garage door.
I’ll be honest with you, I am really tempted to flip it. I feel really let down by Macallan’s marketing practices, and I have since removed myself from their marketing data base. This has been the final straw that has broken this donkey’s back. I have had deep misgivings about the brand for some time, and this is one of the articles I have been trying to write for some time, but haven’t managed to articulate my thoughts in such a way that is readable. It seems I am not the only one, and have seen quite a few articles saying similar things. I also have written a diatribe against flippers, but again, the article is just too rough to be released without offending people. The possibility of being a hypocrite also fills me with dread.
So what’s it to be? To flip or not to flip. #sipdontflip – as in last week’s review? Or sit tight and take the loss in the meantime and hope it gets better? Let me know your opinions, either by commenting on Facebook, or below this article.