Insane In The Membrane?

How Black Friday Causes Specialist Suffering.

I have to apologise from the very start of this article. Of course that is not like me at all, no Sir-ee! Mainly because the title of this article is from the a song on the Cypress Hill Album ‘Black Sunday’. Ok, wrong day I suppose for what I had in mind for this article. And while it is NOT like me, I actually own this album and listen to it on a rare occasion and enjoy it. You can’t listen to shoegaze all the time (apparently). What is at least accurate to some degree in my opinion is the topic today does have a slight whiff of insanity about it, although probably of a type we may not be aware of and suffer from in varying degrees. It’s about how we allow ourselves to become blind to the obvious.


The pin is out of the grenade. Time to get heads down. Incoming!

Once again my conscience has been pricked to write an article in defence of a body of people that have been undera silent attack for quite some time and since March 2020 this has been intensified. Unfortunately it is whisky drinkers that seem to be the people who allow it to happen, albeit not doing the attacking themselves. Given how friendly the whisky community is, I’m surprised that there seems to be little promotion and concern to people that are vital to our hobby, passion, or more to the point – obsession.

Independent whisky shops have had a tough time of it for some time now. This is something I raised on my blog Facebook page back in March of this year, going as far to break my anonymity and release a couple of videos. Use the Facebook links below to navigate to the page if you want to see the videos. In most cases these smaller retailers cannot compete with online retailers such as Amazon and don’t have the collective buying power of chains like The Whisky Shop, Oddbins or Majestic to name one or two. And you can forget any hope of being able to complete with any of the supermarkets.

What triggered this was the amount of people who seemed to be upset that there seemed to be not very many Black Friday deals on Amazon this year. I’m not having a go – in full disclosure I’ve bought booze from Amazon when I’ve seen a bargain, but usually it is when I cannot get a bottle anywhere else at that time. An Old Pultney 17 was my first bottle that I did this with just after it was discontinued and latterly when Glengoyne 18 was slashed to £70, though that was just before the change of packaging and it was bought for stash. Maybe for later of course…


Some independent retailers like a laugh on Amazon. Only £80 – £120 including fees at auction.

In a quick moment of research, certainly here in the UK are a myriad of places that do online only retailing. Drink Supermarket, Master Of Malt, Drinks Direct, 31 Dover, and Spirit Store are just a handful and I’d be sure that this would be replicated overseas where specialist whisky retailers may be thin on the ground. Even Whisky Exchange which does have a couple of shops probably makes the vast majority of its profits from online trading.

Look. I’m not trying to make anybody feel bad about seeking a bargain. It’s been a tough year for everybody with many people locked down for long periods of time; people losing their freedom, contact with family and friends, their jobs; people possibly losing a lot more. And I can hardly hold the moral high ground as I have made the occasional purchases from some of these retailers, especially Master Of Malt as the Drinks By The Dram give me a chance to taste older or more expensive whiskies without having to cough up for a full bottle. However let’s look at this from a slightly different perspective.

While online shopping may be very convenient and cheap (as an Aberdonian I can assure you this is very close to my heart!), let’s look at some very plain to see facts that often get ignored and I see no evidence to the contrary that we seem to be suffering selective blindness to these issues. Amazon does not need your money. Tesco, Asda, Waitrose and Sainsbury’s do not need your booze money. Let’s face it, despite the fun of #WhiskySanta, a company giving away £250,000 of drink does not need your booze money. However the hypocrite in me is very happy to promote the company by making my #WhiskySanta wishes. If they are generous enough to ‘pay’ quarter of a million quid for over a month of free social media advertising I’m taking my chance. You can bet your bottom dollar that an independent retailer of Whisk(e)y would probably wet themselves if they thought they could make £250,000 of profit, let alone be able to afford to give it away. And they certainly do need your custom.


A Facebook post by a local retailer. If you live close to Inverurie, Aberdeenshire I’m told it’s a great place for the ‘over the shoulder Boulder holders’. It’s not just whisky retailers that struggle against Amazon.

Speaking of local experience here in the Highlands, I can think of at least 4 local-ish (50 miles away still counts as local!) independent whisky retailers that have suffered the double whammy COVID has delivered. Not only were they forced to close their businesses when COVID first took hold, the businesses concerned were also in tourist areas, so once they’ve been allowed to open, there’s a lack of the normal crowds to sell to. I’m thinking of shops in Aberlour, Dufftown, Tomintoul, Pitlochry, Tyndrum, Inverary and Skye to name a few. The cancellation of the Spirit Of Speyside festival this year hit our region hard and without the same footfall, the whisky retailers in the area have had to rely on online sales to generate income. It doesn’t mean independent whisky retailers in large towns and cities aren’t suffering too – at least they have more chance of local footfall than one in the middle of the Cairngorms.


A brilliant Discovery from an independent shop and bottler in the tourist area of Highland Perthshire.

The majority of independent retailers have not got the same profit margins to reduce stock prices and remain viable. Some are forced to deal with wholesalers as they cannot buy directly with the distilleries or bottlers, further reducing competitiveness with online only businesses. To be fair to Amazon, there is plenty of independent traders use Amazon market place, but this is still not perfect as this still involves selling fees that further reduce margins. And therein could be the reason that there wasn’t so many Black Friday deals – perhaps the majority of them in the past have been supplied not from Amazon but small traders. They certainly cannot afford to be giving massive discounts at the moment.


Independents have greater overheads that the online only businesses don’t. And unlike Amazon they don’t have methods of avoiding a fair tax bill

The greatest benefit to dealing directly with an independent trader is that you’ll receive something that you’ll never get online – by buying over the phone or in person you’ll receive a personal service. Think about this when you next shop with an independent whisky retailer. They can tell you what is new. They usually have a great knowledge of the whiskies they sell. If you can visit one, you may get to try before you buy; something that has often seen me buy more than expecting to. You can build a relationship where the retailer may be privy to information that maybe of interest to you and they may tell you first, or at least keep a hard to find bottle back for you. At least one Whisky Twitterer has said he enjoys this type of situation and I have also found myself in this pleasant position too.


Never has a Twitter sponsored advert been so appropriate on the day of publishing.

This whole subject brings me back to a similar situation in a different retail environment; music. As I alluded to at the start of this article, I’m heavily into music, especially indie / shoegaze / post rock. There used to be a shop in Aberdeen called One-Up, of which I was a very regular customer. I always used them as the chances of finding something new, exciting and possibly undiscovered was high. But the ultimate draw was the service. The staff were excellent and one in particular, the well known shoegazer in local circles, Yogi Duncan used to recommend bands and albums to me so I could listen to it before making a decision. This was music I’d never have heard otherwise and would not be likely to see the suggestion on iTunes. You just don’t get that specialist service online and are at the mercy of an algorithm to suggest what you might like in the futureW. Just because some tracking cookie sees I’ve bought one album, doesn’t mean I’ll like the whole genre though it’s certainly cheaper to take a risk on a £10 CD than a £70 bottle of whisky.

It came to pass that CD buying fell out of fashion. People turned to downloads and with large overheads compared to online sales and a desire of one of the business partners to retire meant on the 18th of January 2013, One-Up closed for good. Since that store has gone, I’ve gradually fallen out of buying music. Perhaps it’s my age having an influence as well, but in the past 2 years I’ve found myself downloading more and more; my once proud music CD collection all but stagnated. For me nearly 8 years on, I and many others from the North East of Scotland still mourn the loss of One-Up


Gone yet not forgotten. And sorely missed by many. Thanks for the memories Yogi.

Regardless of my feeling, while digital retailing doesn’t mean we’ll fall out of love with whisky (goodness no!) it does mean we risk slowly falling out of touch with a more intimate way of connecting with the industry. If we only see what is advertised on line or by who we follow on social media, to me it just becomes a cacophony of marketing noise and other people’s opinion. The lack of personal contact within the whisky retail industry really means to me we are all perhaps following around on each other’s coat tails and are at the mercy of anonymous algorithms and advertising budgets which pigeon-hole us and see us getting targeted into purchasing blandness.

Let’s be clear however, as there is more we can do. It isn’t just spending our hard earned cash at independent whisky retailers that helps. Many of us on social media have our own blogs. Why not give one of the independent retailers a shout out on your blog? Review a bottle bought from them. Better still, if they bottle their own or have exclusive bottles to their shop, review one. I recently did, and the email that I received from the owner was one of pure gratitude. Not just because I genuinely enjoyed the whisky he had bottled, but because as an independent retailer in an area highly dependent on tourism it had been a tough year and he was over the moon to see his products promoted in such a way. 


It’s understandable we all have a budget but try to spend wisely whilst maximising your whisky purchasing power and remember the small guys

My blog is tiny and insignificant. However due to my review of his whisky, I know of 7 confirmed bottle sales as a direct result of what I said. Maybe only 1.13% of the bottling run, but that is sales that put money into a local business and a local economy; not into the bottomless pockets of CEO’s who don’t care a jot about whisky but just want your cash. If you don’t spend your whisky money at Amazon or get a Black Friday deal from an online only retailer, they aren’t that likely to go bust. Of course not everybody has the funds to avoid being frugal when it comes to whisky purchases, this year especially. The Mr Grumpy in me understands the situation and there is nothing wrong with that. Note: I’ve seen some whisky cheaper in an independent shop than on Amazon. Some retailers do promotions on free shipping if spending over a threshold amount. Shop wisely.


For Goodness Sakes! He’s gone off on one again. Don’t worry. Almost finished.

2020 has a lot of negative things to look back on. Don’t let it be the beginning of the end for a friendly independent whisky shop. Perhaps make an effort to reduce or let go of our building dependence on cheap online only sales. Once lockdown is finished, be sure to pop into one of the independent spirit retailers close to you. They’ll thank you for it. 

Feedback is welcome on this subject. My aim isn’t to offend but highlight the smaller businesses that struggling on an already uneven playing field. What’s your opinion?

Postscript

After One Up closed, Yogi Duncan was working in an Oddbins in Aberdeen. He could have become my shoegaze, wine and whisky guru, but sadly I left Aberdeen the same year as the lights went out at One Up forever. Then the nearest independent music shop was Imperial Records in Inverness, but sadly this closed the following year in 2014. Another store with a stunning customer service lost to the digital shopping paradigm, a service made more special due to the owner Mark and I having some great conversations based on initially realising a shared love of the music of Galaxie 500.

Yours in Spirits

Scotty

Index of tastings here

Index of articles here


Scotty’s Drams encourages responsible drinking. To find out the facts about drink, and where to find help if you need it visit Drinkaware.co.uk by clicking on the link.

Photo Credits

One Up, Allt Dour; – Authors Own

Old Pulteney 17 – Amazon

Katsize Lingerie – Facebook.

All others – Shutterstock

Taste Review #5 – Allt A Bhainne

Boring no more; Allt-a-Bhainne

Allt-a-Bhainne (pronounced ‘Alta-vane‘ – Scots Gaelic for burn of milk) is one of those whisky distilleries you never really hear of. Situated in Glenrinnes, which is 4 miles south west of Dufftown. This distillery was built in 1975 by Seagrams. It was designed for the whole operation to be ran by one person. The current owners are Pernod Ricard, and they use this whisky for blends. Almost 100% of this whisky is used for blending, with only a few independent bottlings, but only recently has its own single malt been released. There are no warehouses on site, but all the product is tankered by road to Keith for maturation. The water source comes from springs around the foot of Benrinnes, and the cooling water comes from Main Burn.

Allt-a-Bhainne

Age

Allt-a-Bhainne is a non-age statement whisky.

Strength

40% a.b.v

Colour

Honey Gold

Nose

Smokey, Malt, Toffee Apple, Pepper

Palate

Butterscotch, honey. Quite a bit of sweetness. Spicy too, perhaps cinnamon? Very light smoke / peat.

Finish

Quite spicy on the finish, with the smoke note continuing. Medium to long finish.

A nip in the Pot Still

This sample was taken during a visit to the Pot Still in Glasgow. A bar that specialises in whiskies, there are over 700 on offer, yet I chose this one. Why? I do have a bottle myself, but as the first official release, I’m keeping it sealed and could not justify opening it. You see, Allt-a-Bhainne has a reputation as not a great whisky. You could call it blending fodder; the single malt equivalent of Bells. Not nasty at all, but it has a reputation of blandness, based on the few independent bottles available.

Pernod Ricard must have realised this, and in their marketing blurb, as stated on the bottle “Just enough smoke to start a fire”, have mixed it up a bit by including peated malt to a Speyside whisky. Speyside usually uses low or unpeated malt and Sherry casks for sweetness, so Allt-a-Bhainne is going against the grain of its regional traditions, but it has produced an interesting whisky. I’m not going to say that the smoke produced a roaring fire, but the sweet and smoke went well together in my opinion, with a fizzy spice note in the finish, which would intrigue me to try again.

Not enough to open my bottle though, but certainly enough that if I saw it again in a bar, I’d try another, and would definitely recommend others try it. Without a doubt, its no longer a boring whisky. It may have added colour, it may have been chill filtered, it may only be 40%. abv, but at around £35 a bottle, you won’t go wrong.

Having said that, during a wee bit of price research, at the moment Tesco have it on offer for £22 so perhaps I will maybe get a drinking bottle. If I decide it’s maybe not for me, it will make a good whisky cocktail or to quote Game Of Thrones – Winter Is Coming. It’ll make a change from Famous Grouse in my hot toddy. Mind you, it’s nearly always winter in the Highlands of Scotland!

Slainte Mhath!

Bagging A Bargain Bottle

Collecting Advice #2 – Convalmore 32 y.o / 1984

“When things seem to be going horribly wrong for others, that may be the time to strike for yourself. It’s not as though you are literally kicking somebody when they are down. At least metaphors don’t hurt physically….”

One of the hardest things to predict when collecting whisky is to discern what bottles will see you make a profit if investment is one of your collecting goals. There is just so much variety, but it takes a little bit of research to find out what may be worth taking a chance on. It is worth repeating that “taking a chance” part of the last statement as nothing in investments is guaranteed, and certainly not in the case of Scotch Malt Whisky. You may recall my previous blog post about the St Magdalene 1979 Rare Malts; the chances are that is a good bet, but you constantly are having to wonder if it has reached its top price at auction. Seeing the movement that is currently happening, I would like to think it will continue to rise.

There are bottles that will appreciate, but at different paces. The closest you can get to a sure thing is anything by Macallan, and some of the rarer releases from the silent distilleries of Brora and Port Ellen. In the case of Macallan, some recent releases are seeing the purchasers placing them straight onto the auction market, and the flooding of this market I believe has affected the price. Now that the initial demand for some of their recent ballots has dropped, the prices have dropped significantly too, although still higher than the original purchase price (and only just in some cases).

In the examples of Port Ellen and Brora, both distilleries will be re-opening, and it remains to be seen what will happen to the prices of whisky currently on the market. It is my opinion that prices may stay stable, as it will be whisky from a different era; the original incarnation of that distillery, and therefore demand shouldn’t change. As for the new releases, I think the initial bottling will be a highly sought item, and you will do well to look out for any early limited editions of the new bottles. 

My personal collection policy has been to concentrate on limited releases (not necessarily expensive ones), rarer bottles and bottles from silent distilleries. After all, they won’t be making any more. The holy grail is a limited bottle from a closed distillery, but some of these command large price tags. 

Diageo for some years now have been releasing a range of Special Releases, which had its origins in the Rare Malts series which ended in 2005. The special releases generally are a range of around 10 different bottlings from their distillery profile. Some start at the affordable end of the range up to the eye-watering £2000 mark. You would think with this in mind, and all the special releases being a limited edition in their own right that prices should keep growing. 

This is not always the case. 

One of the special release brands that I had taken a shine to was from the silent distillery of Convalmore. It was the period style text and presentation of the box and labels that attracted me to it, and the fact prices generally seemed to be rising slowly and consistently. Furthermore, as it had closed in 1985, no more was being made. Therefore it meets my criteria for collection. 

The first special release was a 28 year old from 1977, and was released in 2005. Expect to pay between £400 and £600 at auction for one now. The second special release was the 36 year old also from 1977. This was released at £600, and in 2017 I managed to get one of the last bottles on sale in Blair Athol distillery. Prices have now started to rise rapidly at auction. Is this now the result of supply not meeting demand? Excitement seems to be building for this bottle, and prices seem to be above £700 in general, with a high last year of £1100 for one sale.

The 36 year old Convalmore. Getting rarer than Hens Teeth in a pile of Rocking Horse Poo

Fast forward to the 2017 Diageo special releases. There was a surprise release of a blend being included for the first time which consisted of all 27 Diageo Scotch Malts, and their single grain whisky. Also there was another Convalmore release of the 32 year old 1984 release. It certainly raised my eye, but was rapidly shut again with a retail price of £1200, double the price of the previous release. Needless to say, I wasn’t going to be paying that price, and would be waiting to see what the auction market threw up, but given the success for the 27 and 36 year olds, I wasn’t holding my breath. 

The 32 Year Old Convalmore. Isn’t she a beauty?


What happened next was totally surprising. I wasn’t expecting such a drop in price. Over the past year, prices have been hovering around the £600 mark, but have sometimes been struggling to reach even that. This could be your opportunity to grab a bargain! I purchased a bottle at around the £600, which makes me glad I didn’t pay retail price, but even then, I’ve seen the same bottle at Aberdeen Airport in Scotland sell for £999, a whole £200 cheaper than the original price. 

Did Diageo get their price wrong, and why is this now a bargain to be had now?

Firstly, I would like to think Diageo got it right. While I haven’t tasted this dram yet, I’m on the lookout for a bargain bottle to do so. Perhaps a cheaper one with a damaged box or label, which may crop up. I think we have to use our knowledge of how Single Malt is made up of multiple casks to realise there may be a mix of rarer casks from 1984 there. Plus it was made in the year before Convalmore shut down for the last time. Perhaps it’s the last casks available, and this could be the last original release from Diageo. It would be fairly silly of Diageo to price it excessively just out of greed, when other bottles in that years special releases where much cheaper. 

Take a look at The Whisky Exchange Website by clicking here to see what Convalmore is retailing at now. While this is not indicitive of how prices may go, I think we will see prices head that way.

It is definitely an auction bargain to be sought out now, as I believe the price will not sink any significantly lower. People may have bought this speculatively to make a fast buck based on the last release and have been burnt at auction. What will make the difference is that we need more and more people to taste and review this whisky, as once it builds a reputation, prices will rise again in the longer term. As long as it beats inflation, you have a winner of an investment. 

And I’m not alone in thinking this. This particular bottling won the 2019 whisky bible malt of the year for whiskies 28 – 34 year old. 

I’ve tasted a couple of different independently bottled Convalmore expressions before, and while it is too long ago to give a review. I do remember it as a cracking, little known Speysider. If your investment doesn’t go to plan on this bottle, you will have a whisky which for the large part will not disappoint. At the current price point it is auctioning at, I would guess it will hold its value at least in the mid to long term. So, if you want one, get in there and bid low. Only spend what you can afford, and if you choose not to drink the whisky but wait, you should then at least maintain your investment. However I feel in years to come, this will go up in value, prehaps to the original purchase price. Don’t be afraid to take advantage of a low auction price. When things seem to be going horribly wrong for others, that may be the time to strike for yourself. It’s not as though you are literally kicking somebody when they are down. At least metaphors don’t hurt physically…..but perhaps it might sting them knowing what they may have paid for it!

The Convalmore distillery still exists. Diageo sold it to its neighbour who own the Balvenie / Kininvie / Glenfiddich complex next door in Dufftown. It is used for storage, but I have seen another whisky writer (albeit a professional one, unlike my amateur self!) mention Convalmore should be one of the distilleries to reopen in their opinion. 

I sincerely hope it does. 

Slainte Mhath!