How the mighty have fallen or may fall. Certainly there is a large fall from grace in the case of whisky writer Jim Murray, author of the Whisky Bible. This tome has been released on an annual basis since 2003 and many look to it as a guide to what’s good to drink in the wide world of whisky. The 2021 release has become a bit controversial, thanks to fellow whisky writer Becky Paskin calling out some of what can be considered lewd or sexual comments. Apparently comments like this have been made throughout the past 25 years, but according to Becky this edition she managed to count 34 questionable sexual statements. She made a post on social media saying how she felt it was unacceptable and now was the time to call time on it.
Indeed, it seems this is the time to call time on questionable behaviour. This summer has seen protests about Black Lives Matter in response to police brutality in the United States though in the UK this has mutated to also question the reverence paid to people who were involved in the slave trade of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. This was followed by protests and vandalism throughout the UK, with the statue of slave trader Edward Colston being thrown into Bristol Harbour.
Lets look at some of Jim’s quotes in the whisky bible by looking at this thread of Becky’s Twitter Feed. Click on this linkBecky Paskin’s Initial Tweet to see the full thread.
While none of this is particularly dirty, there seems to be a general sexualisation of whisky, which to be honest I have to say is becoming more and more unacceptable as time goes on. It is juvenile humour at best and venturing into creepy old man territory at the other end of the scale. As a male, even I find it a bit distasteful. I don’t want to have images of a man in his mid sixties speaking about sex come into my mind when I am having a dram.
Jim himself, from what I have read on social media feeds almost seems dismissive in his defence of his comments, going as far to accuse the subject being pushed by those jealous of his writing and talent. But in my mind, this dismissal could well be Jim’s downfall.
Becky Paskin is not just another run of the mill whiskyphile or blogger such as myself. She was the editor of a great website scotchwhisky.com, a great resource for those researching whisky and industry news. She’s also a whisky journalist, consultant, presenter and currently is a co-founder of OurWhisky which aims to provide education about the industry while recognising the modern face of the drink. Becky is also a Keeper of the Quaich, so you can safely say that she would seem to have an excellent grasp of the industry. You can almost feel that Jim Murray’s accusation of jealousy may have been founded by the fact the person calling him out is a woman. Would have been any different if the whistle blower was male?
I don’t know either person, but to read what has been said by both of them, it would seem that Jim has become a dinosaur from a previous age. I think the fact that 50% of potential readers of his books would be female should give enough motivation to be careful in what he may be saying; many women wouldn’t be particularly happy in reading the various smutty comments that are in his latest publication. It may also have passed him by that a growing proportion of talent in the industry have XX chromosomes, with many distillers, blenders, brand ambassadors, distillery guides being of the fairer sex. I learnt something from this debacle that Penderyn Welsh Whisky is made by an all female distilling team. Just goes to show that what is between your legs doesn’t and shouldn’t affect how you progress in the industry.
What is more enlightening is the amount of female responses to Becky’s post, applauding her stand and letting their own struggles being known. Jim’s response to saying in the previous 20 odd years that he had not received a single complaint. Dismissal like this does not excuse any ill considered comments. Most people will just read, move on and get on with their day, but when it is consistent and throughout a publication then one has to ask what is the mindset to the author, especially when it adds nothing to the primary content which in this case is whisky. Have we forgot that many people don’t report sexual crime because they don’t want the fuss but once others start, then they feel encouraged and enabled to speak about their experiences. It may be unfortunate that Jim might also be facing the wrath of people affected by the actions of others and not just what has been written in his publications. He isn’t the first person to make questionable comments offensive to women in the industry, but he’s certainly being made the poster boy for the whisky world equivalent of #MeToo.
For a few years now I have been a regular user of on-line whisky auctions to start boosting my collection, as well as selling some of my bottles that I have no further need to keep. Recently I have spent some time selling around 40 miniatures at auction and was very happy at the price that I received. I also was selling my Macallan Folio 5, which I needed to get rid of on account of the amount released – it didn’t have the rarity value that I desire to enable to keep it. Of course, I then had to contend with the flippers and those also offloading their Macallan purchases that didn’t meet their expectations.
Throughout this article, I am not going to mention any auctioneers by name, however I will give the websites of the auctioneers that I use for buying, selling or both.
While on-line auctions offer a relatively easy way of buying and selling there are a few things that you need to be aware of that can catch you out. This is in particularly true when you are trying to sell something at the same time as a lot of other people. Unfortunately this was the problem that I had when selling my Macallan, and it isn’t just the auction you are taking part in – there are often two or three on-line auctions running at the same time. Of course many of those in the market will often see the way prices are going between the auctions and will bid accordingly – if they get outbid on one auction site, it is no problem just to start bidding on another site.
In my case, I wanted to offload my Macallan as soon as possible, so I had to pick an auctioneer that was going to hold an auction soonest and that I was able to get the bottle submitted in time. One thing you have to consider is that some auctioneers have better exposure than others, but the flip side is that those auctioneers are also more likely to have more submissions of the same article when it comes to trying to offload a sought after release. One thing that counted against me was that one of the biggest auctions was taking place when my auction started, and it had 200 Macallan Folio 5 for sale. It goes without saying that the more there is of something available, this then suppresses the price somewhat, but the good thing is that for Macallan Folio Editions, the demand is there, so you shouldn’t suffer. Perhaps I should have put that in italics, as there are no guarantees.
If you are worried about the price that you may receive back for any sales, the important thing is to place a reserve on it. This usually costs an extra £4 – £7 depending on auctioneer. I cannot stress this enough – perhaps it is better not to sell something that doesn’t make it’s reserve, and gives you the chance to either re-submit it to another auction or perhaps keep to sell another day. It gives me no pleasure to report that one of my friends in the whisky community went to sell his Macallan Easter Elchies Black 2019 and the auctioneers recommended no reserve. To my friends dismay, there was 90 other bottles in the same auction and as a result lost around £100. So, if you need a return – set a reserve.
Setting a reserve is something I think is also being used by some to manipulate the market, especially in the case of new releases. Many auctioneers do not let you set a reserve above Recommended Retail Price (RRP) for 6 months after a new release in an attempt to help stop the flippers setting high reserves to guarantee them a return which in my view is greedy, immoral and detrimental to a whisky release where people see pound signs instead of the liquid in the bottle. Admittedly, the best this can do is just kick the can down the road in limiting the prices, and anybody is free to bid above the RRP, but at least limiting reserves helps others. One auctioneer that I deal with has said they use common sense and don’t limit any reserves but it’s on a case-by-case basis. If it’s not unreasonable, you’ll get a higher than RRP reserve.
Not all auctioneers are the same, and when thinking about the reserves I have seen on other auctions for Macallan Folio 5, one around the same time had a bid on it for £600 and still had not reached the reserve price. In my opinion, the auctioneer is assisting the flippers, and it’s a bit unfair to those who value the whisky over the profit. What was not understandable is that there were several others available in the same auction – so why would somebody bid on one bottle way over the price of others that were available in the same auction that were a lot cheaper. If there is a bottle I want in an auction, and there is more than one available, I bid one, then if I get outbid, I then bid on a cheaper one. I personally think there is more behind the bidding of a bottle that seems to have had more bidding action than others, but we will deal with it later.
Some auctioneers publish reserve prices, and I think that is a good idea, as you know straight away what is expected, and you can tell if somebody has overvalued the whisky. If the reserve is hidden, then you should only bid to a level that you are comfortable with and don’t be tempted to incrementally bid to find out what the reserve is as you may be stuck with a bottle you can’t afford or may be overpaying for.
And this is a really important point. Generally speaking in a conventional auction, you can see who you are bidding against, as there will be an assistant on a phone or at a computer terminal. With an on-line auction you don’t have that facility. Sniping a bid (bidding at the last moment) has been eliminated by on-line auction by any bidding automatically extending the auction, but shill bidding I think is also prevalent as well. While auctioneers say that they are on the lookout, sometimes the bidding patterns don’t make sense, when people are bidding on one item, when there is another one equally as good but a lot cheaper. My whisky auction insider says there is very little that can be done to detect this, as it will only really show up if using the same hub. If your friend or family relative is bidding from another location, there is pretty much no way of telling.
One other hazard of on-line auctions is that you are physically unable to check the merchandise. If you have any doubt at all, make sure that you contact the auctioneer – they will supply extra photos on request, and if it is practicable they may allow an in-person visit to inspect the item. Not so handy for those of us who live in the more remote areas. You need to be sure you understand what you are buying.
I cannot recommend this enough, and be aware of what you are buying. RESEARCH! Know the price for a given condition. I’ve seen many auctioneers optimistically list lots as rare, but they aren’t. A quick look through other auction sites will reveal how often these turn up. I was recently given a wee task to source a bottle with a specific distillation date as a birth date. This wasn’t the easiest to find, and certainly getting harder to source, but does this make it more expensive? No – it doesn’t. If one shows up at auction then you can bet your bottom dollar another one will eventually. Set your price as to what you want to pay and wait.
Deciding your price is crucial. By all means do not bid your maximum price straight away, as often people will keep bidding until they outbid you. Best put a lower maximum in, and as soon as you are outbid, bid again. That way you may be able to pay less than the maximum you were prepared to as some people give up when they see somebody consistently upbidding them.
One thing my auction insider let me know is that they are presented with a large amount of fakes. OK, perhaps not masses, but the percentage is higher than you might expect. I have one bottle that I bought at auction for £35 that was part of my bargain basement hoovering towards the end of an auction to buy a whisky from the 50’s or 60’s. I had to query it, as the volume and strength were not printed on the bottle, and the label felt wrong. While the auctioneer assured me that this bottle was not a fake, I have my doubts, therefore will not be drinking it, but use it as a show piece. Do not assume that the auctioneer has spotted a fake, as it isn’t always apparent, and if they are handling hundreds or thousands of bottles for one auction, there is the chance one may slip through. It is also wrong to assume it is high value bottles that are the ones being faked – those are the ones that are checked more closely. It will be the cheaper ones that may suffer from counterfeiting more often than not.
The archive at Macallan distillery when it opened in 2018 was found to contain suspicious bottles. If they can’t tell, what chance have you got?
My last point is that beware of auction hype. One auctioneer had a superlative auction of a private collection that was to be broken up. Yes, there was some spectacular bottles there, but they were in the minority. A lot of bottles were missing boxes or had low fill levels. Just because it was part of an extensive collection does not make that worth any more. In all it was quite disappointing, Due to the Coronavirus, I am not sure if the second part will go ahead as planned in April 2020, but we will wait and see. Given the quality of the first half, I am a bit underwhelmed. If you have done your research, you will know what it’s worth, and bid accordingly – don’t get carried away and overpay, unless it’s a must-have for your collection, though even then exercise a wee bit of caution.
But for all the pros and cons of on-line auctions, I have bought older bottlings a lot cheaper than I would have got them retail. I have been able to complete collections that would otherwise be impossible, and I have been able to drink some unusual and rarer whiskies. You just have to keep your head when everybody around you in the auction seem to be losing theirs.
There is a list of on-line whisky auction sites I use or regularly browse below.
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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.
This week is going to be much better than last week. Because I am writing my Saturday article on Monday, this will mean that I have no confession on Friday that I have nothing prepared. In fact, the way I feel now, that confession would be much better. Indeed I’d rather just not give you all a Saturday article and admit failure than give up the source of my shame.
For this, it grinds my insides even more than telling you that since my wee accident with the garage door, to this point not a drop of alcohol has passed my lips. It’s kind of ironic that a chap who writes a whisky blog and collects bottles has become temporarily tee-total. I have to confide that my whisky sin is worse than that.
It is an old proverb that says that confession is good for the soul, but this time I have my doubts, for the evidence of my shame will be on the internet, not just here but on another site for all to see, only you won’t know which one as there are some details that you just don’t need to know.
I’ve become a hypocrite.
Now that the truth is out, I can continue along the same theme as my article from last week in which my Macallan Folio 5 arrived. With the news so much more had been released than the 2000 per edition previously, it wasn’t going to meet my expectations. As I said last week, my intention had been to swap for a Folio 4, and maybe sell in the long run, but with Macallan reportedly releasing 18,000 more Folio 5 than Folio 4, the price of the former will never achieve the price of the latter.
Of course, I could always sell it on without a profit, but just cover my costs, but I do have a small amount of morality left, and I couldn’t sell my bottle to somebody knowing that even though they were just paying essentially what I paid, the price of the bottle is likely to fall below even that. That’s just taking advantage of people.
Lastly, I could always drink it. But I’m sorry, no Macallan NAS at £250 is worth that. Plus, when we take in consideration the excessive packaging, that alone must take up at least £20 from the RRP, and once drunk, what do I do with it? I’m not a Macallan collector in that way at all.
Even if I sell it to another punter who will drink it, I’m not sure my conscience will let me sleep at night knowing that I’ve met somebody face to face, or even a follower of my blog to sell them a whisky which in a couple of months will be a lot cheaper. That’s not how I roll.
So, with morals securely stored in a dark place, I made contact with an auctioneer to arrange pick up of my box. We had a nice chat about Macallan (Whisky Geek Scotty was in check this time!) which in my opinion could summarise the conversation by saying Macallan have definitely made an impact to the secondary prices of a few of their recent releases.
Indeed, the auctioneer made a very good point about how Macallan really should look into their application of the ballot system and how it really should be for known amount of limited bottles, something buyers of Edition 5 and Easter Elchies 2019 are probably thinking too. I’ve an article about that written, but will give it a break with the Macallan writing after today. Just to give your senses a rest if nothing else.
In all fairness, I should have seen the warning signs and not just blindly entered the ballot. No evidence of the likely age and no numbers of Folio 5 released. Plus there was a commitment to buy if you won the ballot, unlike the Easter Elchies 2018, which gladly at £750 they did give you a little breathing space.
The conclusion? I’m glad it’s going but I do hope that I recover most of my money from it, if not make a small profit. As from the comments from last weeks article, take the money and spend it on something you’d really enjoy drinking. That’s a great point, and already something has already popped up. Not telling you what it is, as you may outbid me.
As an aside to this article, my dealings with the auctioneer revealed that I could not set a reserve higher than the RRP. This is a great move as it helps limit the rip off profiteering that some online auctioneers facilitate. Of course, the price may go higher, but that is because of what people are willing to pay rather than people being taken advantage of through limited availability and the crazy prices some of the greedy, impatient or ill-informed are prepared to pay.
And these people all do exist. A quick look at an online auction reveals just under 120 bottles of Folio 5 available. Some ill-informed person has already bid £560, yet still hasn’t met the reserve, which means the auctioneer is essentially helping the greedy.
On the other side, there is bottles there still for sale under RRP but there is just over a day to go as I publish this and these may well make a profit yet. But seeing this gives me squeaky bum time, though it reinforces my belief that the price will plummet. Indeed, out of 118 bottles, 42 will still fail to make a profit going by current bids and not including the cost of getting them to the auction house.
Perhaps Macallan planned this mass release deliberately to ensure more whisky gets drunk, and I have to grudgingly doff my cap to them, but given the demand for the brand world wide, I am still sure if they were open about the amount produced it would sell out. Either way, do they care about the secondary market? They sell their product anyway, and surely that is all that matters? This is part of the Macallan article I am attempting to write, but my keyboard just defaults to ‘rant lock’ and I don’t fancy libelling anybody.
With that, it’s now time to go and think about what dram for later on. After all it’s Saturday night!
Why Artificial Colouring Is Used In Whisky And Shouldn’t Be
Whisky is a drink of the senses. And while it is predominantly a matter for the sense of smell and taste, there is one highly important sense that cannot be discounted, and many do, and that is our sense of sight.
While the consumer may think that ultimately sight isn’t important, it is my firm opinion that it is, and we may pick a whisky consciously or unconsciously partly based on the colour of the spirit. We shop with our eyes and seeing a nice darker colour in our whisky is like a visual Pavlov’s dog experiment. I’m salivating just thinking of a darker whisky now, and if I was to taste such a coloured whisky, there is a chance that I’d probably taste sherry notes, even if none were there, but that was a different scientific experiment.
So where does the natural colour come from?
The new make spirit that comes out of the stills is clear – it looks like a glass of water, but take a swig of it, and you’ll soon wish it was water! Sitting at potentially just below 70% alcohol, it’s not the most pleasant thing to have in big mouthfuls. The spirit actually gets its colour from the cask.
The new make spirit is gauged and taken down to around 63.5% abv. This is so it doesn’t destroy the barrel or evaporate too quickly. What colour the barrel gives will depend on different factors – namely
– the type of wood (European or American oak normally)
– how the barrel was charred
– what the barrel held previously.
– the size of the barrel
– how long the spirit stays in the barrel
– the age of the barrel
Before I go any further, I’ll just remind you all that I am no expert, and I may have missed a couple of factors but I definitely have the main ones. If you see I’ve missed one, let me know.
Let’s dig a little bit deeper.
1/ The type of oak. All Scotch whisky has to be matured in an oak barrel. No ifs or buts. If it hasn’t, it cannot be called Scotch whisky. American oak is often used due to the availability of bourbon casks. The wood is denser, and therefore interacts with the spirit less. European oak is used, often as the result of using ex-sherry, port or wine casks.
2/ How the barrel is charred. All whisky barrels get toasted. This is done to help shape the barrels, and will also start breaking down the chemical components of the wood. Wine and Sherry casks are only toasted when they are made for the original fill. This will prevent the liquid tasting sappy. By law, bourbon casks have to have a char applied, which means subjecting the inside of the barrel to a flame to char the wood. This further alters the chemical components of the wood but also opens up the wood to have a greater surface area. This has a big impact on flavour, but with more wood interaction will also have an effect on colour. For an interesting article on char please look at this article at Difford’s guide. This will give you more information.
A virgin oak cask means it has not held any other liquid prior to being filled with new make spirit, but will still have been toasted at least.
3/ What the barrel held previously. Bourbon whisky barrels tend to give a lighter colour, where sherry and port casks give a much darker, richer colour. Other spirits like cognac casks also give a nice deep amber.
4/ The size of the barrel. The smaller the barrel, the more wood contact there is. This is a technique for maturing whisky that little bit faster. It will also help develop colour too
5/ How long the whisky stays in the barrel. The longer a spirit is in the barrel, the more interaction with the wood, therefore more opportunity to develop colour.
6/ The age of the barrel. A barrel can’t be used infinitely. Eventually all the goodness in the wood will be gone, and all it will be good for is converting into fire wood (and boy does it burn!) or something artsy-fartsy like furniture, tea light holders or a whisky glass stand. When I was at Glenfarclas distillery, they said they only fill casks a maximum of 4 times, with the final fill having a deep char. Of course, this will depend on the age of the barrel, but I was informed a barrel rarely sees more than 60 years use.
While sticking on the subject of barrels, it is worth pointing out a couple of further conditions that will affect your whisky colour
7/ The finishing. The spirit may be transferred from the barrel used for the bulk of the maturation into another barrel for finishing. For example, a whisky may spend 10 years in a bourbon barrel, but get finished for a final period in a different cask to give colour and a different flavour profile. Finishing can be used to correct casks of whisky that haven’t made the expected quality.
8/ Cask Marriage. Unless it is a single cask whisky (one cask only), all other whisky is blended. Single Malt is the produce of one distillery only, but may contain several different ages of whisky and barrel types to achieve a flavour profile. This is called the marrying of the casks. If you mix cask types, this could also affect colour. Because each cask is unique, to achieve a flavour profile, the recipe between bottling batches may vary, and therefore the colour may also differ between batches.
For Blends (product of more than one distillery and often containing grain whisky) this will be the same issue, as you will be tweaking the recipe to achieve a consistent product across thousands of bottles.
So what is colouring?
Batch variation does mean there could be slight differences in colour. This is corrected by the addition of spirit Caramel colouring, which is known as E150a. Spirit Caramel colouring is made through heating carbohydrates in the presence of acids, alkalis and salts. This is really some type of sugar and other agents being reduced in a pan. The result is a water soluble solution, which will be used to influence the colour of the whisky.
75% of all caramel colouring is used in the soft drink industry for Cola style drinks.
So why is colouring added?
To be honest, in my opinion I really don’t know why. There is no need, as it is simply a cosmetic issue, and like chill filtration, those adding colour see it as no problem, but that’s not strictly the truth.
Colouring is added to ensure a consistent product across multiple batches. Producers want to eliminate the chance of people thinking there is a defective batch due to differing colour, and the impression of inconsistent whisky.
There is also a more sinister reason colour maybe added. Remember that whisky is a drink for the senses? Well, a three year old whisky that has been put into a second fill cask may not develop much colour and will be what Scottish people describe pale items as “peelie-wallie”. With increasing number of Non Age Statements using younger whiskies, caramel can be deployed to make the whisky look older. To me this is a total deception. I’m not that worried about young whisky looking pale, but I’d rather know rather than caramel being added. I would expect young whisky to look paler, but by adding colouring it’s hiding something.
It may also be added to give the impression of a certain type of cask, such as a red wine or sherry cask. This is also misleading and therefore a bit naughty.
One instance where it is quite obvious colouring has been added is black whiskies – the two that spring to mind are Loch Dubh from the Mannochmore distillery or the Beinn Dubh from the Speyside distillery. Both can be termed gimmick whiskies, and Loch Dubh does not have a good reputation. Beinn Dubh isn’t too bad; certainly I enjoy it, but I am under no illusions that there isn’t caramel in there.
How can you tell if colouring has been added?
By eyes alone, you can’t. You can tell by looking at the label – if it says that the spirit is at natural colour, then it is additive free. If the label has the German words ‘mit farbstoff’ or the Danish ‘justeret med karamel’ (with colorant / adjusted with Caramel) then you know colouring is present. There is no way a company will add E150a just for exports to these two countries. If the label says nothing about colouring, it’s probably got E150a in it.
Single cask products shouldn’t be coloured, as there is no need for them to have batch consistency.
Apart from the obvious visual effect, caramel colouring is reported to have a smell of burnt sugar and a bitter aftertaste. I am thinking that the cask influences and the alcohol will go a long way to masking that. However some palates are more sensitive than others and I guess not everybody will taste it. However in the case of the Beinn Dubh, I definitely initially tasted a sour, almost vinegar note for a split second. This is most likely the colouring.
In a limited defence of colouring, it can be said that the concentration of colouring they put in does not alter the taste, but that might not be true for everybody. Plus I’ve had a few coloured and chill filtered whiskies that were still very good, but you wonder what could have been without tampering.
So we have to ask again, why are we adding something that can alter the taste and smell?
Personally, I don’t think we should. In this day and age, where the consumer is starting to question more about provenance of their food and drink, is it right that we add things to a whisky to colour it, and in some cases remove taste by chill filtering, just in the name of visual appearance? Do people really worry that each glass just looks the same?
What really gets on my nerve is a quote from Dr Nick Morgan, Head of Whisky Outreach for Diageo in an article on scotchwhisky.com, published 8 Feb 2016. He says –
‘A tiny and unrepresentative and self-consciously elitist group of vocal critics are apt to signal their “expert” credentials by claiming obsessively that spirit caramel affects the taste of the final whisky in the bottle.‘
I’m not surprised with that comment, but rather more dismayed. For somebody in charge of outreach, he’s obviously not savvy to marketing, as that is one way of alienating people more likely to be loyal to a brand than people who change their brands because thecolourisn’t right or consistent. While I am no expert, I am a consumer, and Diageo are fairly well guilty of adding colour to their whiskies. Yes, maybe the E150a may not always be tasted, but does it really need to be there? Only the whisky enthusiast is going to be analysing the colour in his Glencairn – they will understand why the colour varies. The average Joe is just going to be putting it down his neck as fast as he can or will be putting it in a cocktail. Haven’t they realised you can only assess a dram by your eyes when looking at it on a shelf – coloured whiskies maybe fooling us into thinking we are getting an older whisky. Plus the discerning buyer is going to be looking for evidence of colouring and chill filtration. Lastly, Dr. Morgan’s quote shows in 2016 where Diageo’s focus will be, and it isn’t for geeks. It’s for mass production, the meeting a market demand and by adding colouring, bottlers are ringing that visual Pavlov’s bell.
Can we negate the need for colouring?
There is a simple way of getting around the colour issue – if you are that bothered about colour, just sell the whisky in coloured glass bottles. I’m quite sure Glenfarclas mentioned this during my tour for their older releases, as the vatting before bottling can have many different cask ages in them, meaning an inconsistent colour for their higher end whiskies.
The other simple way is education. Tell people that due to whisky being a natural product, there will be variation in colour. Print it on the rear label, do whatever it takes to reduce the need to colour your spirit.
So you now know what colour is, why it is used and how it can be misused. Personally I think it has no place inthewhiskyindustry, as it is essentially a deception. Consumers should be looking for transparency in their purchases, not some idea of what some guy in a massive corporation thinks your drink should look like. There is no guide as to what whiskies will have colour in them, but I’d suggest the cheaper ones, ones under 46% or those with a massive market are all likely to have some colour in them unless otherwise stated.
If not in a hurry, do a bit of research. While it may be true younger whiskies may not have a lot of colour in them, older whiskies can be the same. It depends on the cask, and how the spirit has interacted with it. I’ve heard of a 40 year old Cameronbridge whisky being quite pale, yet the flavour being outstanding. This can show colour can be an influence on what we expect to taste, therefore colouring could influence buying choices. Sometimes you need to be brave and take a chance.
In summary- Remember although colouring doesn’t have to mean bad whisky, we know taste is where it counts. Ditch the dye and seek out the labels that say natural colour. Move forward into the broad, sunlight uplands of whisky enlightenment and know you are not falling into the abyss of the dark(er whisky) age of colourants, made more sinister by the lights of the perverted science that is artificially presented whisky. For this will be our finest hour.
(Goodness knows how long I’ve waited to paraphrase my favourite Churchill speech!)
Next week – we summarise the points of the past 4 articles and reach our definite conclusions on how not to pick a dud whisky.
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One of the best ways to help you build your whisky collection, knowledge or experience is to visit your local whisky shop. My journey between where I live and my hometown of Aberdeen takes me through the vast bulk of the whisky producing region of Speyside. I pass many distilleries whose produce simply isn’t available in a supermarket, which makes a visit to a decent whisky shop essential.
Although my journey does take me past a few towns with whisky shops, the two I tend to visit are the Whisky Shop in Dufftown and the Speyside Whisky Shop in Aberlour. This is not because of the other shops being lesser quality , but solely because these are on my direct route between home and Aberdeen, and stopping there is easy.
So what does visiting these types of shop give you over shopping elsewhere for your drams? Firstly, it can give you an excellent choice of whisky that you are quite simply not going to get in your local supermarket or off licence. You will find whiskies from all five Scottish whisky regions and world whiskies too. Don’t think it is all about the whiskies, Scottish Gin is represented too, and apparently 70% of Gin distilled in the UK is actually made in Scotland. Don’t quote me on that though.
Secondly, you are going to have the ability to obtain special releases or collectables which your local off- licence may not stock.
Thirdly, you are going to be able to speak to people who have a very good knowledge of the whisky industry, and where better to be based than in Dufftown? With a total of nine distilleries over the years (count them – Mortlach, Glenfiddich, Balvenie, Kininvie, Pittyvaich (demolished), Parkmore, (Silent), Dufftown, Glendullan and the sadly silent Convalmore), where better to start a whisky shop than there? The area is filled with people who have worked or work in the whisky industry. With this we have a visit to the Whisky Shop in Dufftown.
Depending on which route I take home, I am often passing through Dufftown, and WSD is a great place to stop off to browse their well stocked shelves, with many of the items for sale are at decent prices. This is the shop where I tend to buy the majority of my miniature bottles for the taste reviews I provide as part of my blog. There is always a good selection, and just in miniatures alone, you can get a good experience of Scottish whisky, not to mention the great selection of full sized bottles.
Mike, Vicky and Kat are always ready to chat, and I have always received excellent service there. One of my best purchases there was a whisky aroma training kit, which was actually cheaper than the majority of online retailers. Quite a win!
My other go-to whisky shop is a new arrival, and is the Speyside Whisky Shop in nearby Aberlour. I cannot avoid going through Aberlour to get home, unless I take the Lecht route, but this would drag me past the Whisky Castle in Tomintoul (will visit sometime!). The Speyside Whisky Shop is one of the shops that I noticed opening, and was trying hard to resist thinking it was just another faddy whisky shop, but curiosity won me over, and on the first visit, I walked out with a bottle of Old Pulteney 17, also cheaper than many online retailers. Plus, Emily who works there is a former employee of a local well known distillery, and certainly knows her stuff.
I had an interesting experience at the SWS during my first visit. The card machine wasn’t working very well due to BT working on the phone lines, so I ended up telling one or two whisky tales. This has helped form a customer – retailer relationship, which is invaluable when you visit a whisky retailer. Why? Because the shop owners will then know your tastes, what you are looking for and may be able to suggest one or two things that you may not have thought about.
Since then, I’ve been able to pick up Glen Moray Cider Project and also the three recent wood finish bottlings from GlenAllachie. I had to pay for them while offshore which may have been the first time Matteo has had to take a payment over a satellite link phone!
Just like the WSD, Matteo and Emily also provide a first class service that makes it a pleasure to shop there.
Don’t assume that you have to visit in person – both shops will ship internationally, subject to postage rules in your country.
These shops, and perhaps your own local whisky shop can provide so much more than an online retailer. Don’t just go to an online retailer assuming that the cheaper price is worth it – you have to remember to apply shipping charges. An even better reason to visit your friendly local specialist whisky shop.
However, you have to remember one thing when visiting your local specialist retailer. Your manners.
These people are specialists, and to be honest, unless you are directly involved in the whisky industry, or you are Richard Patterson, Jim McEwan, Billy Walker, Jim Murray or Charles Maclean amongst the multitude of genuine experts, then you aren’t really an expert. You are like me, just an amateur with an opinion. Don’t go in these places thinking you know the price of things, that you are getting ripped off, or deserve to get unlimited free samples. You do not. By all means, have a bit of a craic with the staff, but respectfully. Chances these guys know far more than you. Don’t criticise their prices; great shops like this are usually small independent retailers, and don’t get mass discounts, as they don’t purchase hundreds of bottles at a time. Yes, their prices may be a little bit more than a typical online retailer, but you are paying for the personal service, and I’ve also said, factor in delivery charges, and you’ll often find your local whisky shop cheaper.
And, especially in Speyside, don’t ever say that these shops are tourist traps. Nobody is forcing you to go in and spend your money there. If you want the definition of tourist traps, then go to the chain whisky shops, especially in Edinburgh and Inverness, where I have seen 20CL bottles go for as much as £13 more than RRP. Miniatures often cost more, due to their small size, but the expense of the glass packaging. Vicky in the WSD told me last time it is harder to get miniatures, possibly due to lower demand.
Don’t demand free samples, or don’t get huffy when asked if you are likely to make a purchase, certainly not in Speyside. Bear in mind it is a tourist area, and if a small shop like this was to give out free samples to tourists willy-nilly, especially of the good stuff, they will be out of business in seconds. Once that seal is cracked, the bottle is worthless.
To emphasise the point, go to your local pub and ask them to give you a sample of whisky to see if you like it or not. The refusal is likely to offend. It’s a business, not a charity. And don’t come out with the total pish that you were going to spend several hundred pounds. Chances are you weren’t, so don’t bother embarrassing yourself. There aren’t that many people who spend hundreds on a bottle to drink so stop pretending.
Leave being a tightwad to the Aberdonians. We know how to do it properly.
Certainly don’t belittle the staff if you do happen to think that you know something they don’t or when you don’t get the free samples you mistakenly think is your god-given right. The world of whisky is one that should be based on shared interests and friendships. It is certainly one that I have experienced in my whisky journey by speaking to retailers, work colleagues, people whom I have given a whisky tasting or talk to and even people that I meet on the train.
If you think this negative behaviour and total lack of manners exists in the whisky community, then check out the WSD Facebook page. Unfortunately, this has happened recently and is not an isolated incident with self entitled arseholes everywhere. Don’t be an arsehole. Be a bon vivant. Much more fun and socially acceptable.
So, basically, to wrap up, if you want to be a member of a great fraternity of whisky enthusiasts, expand your horizons and visit your local specialist whisky retailer. Now. Spend your money there, knowing that it will be purchases well made. Don’t go there looking for Famous Grouse or Bells. Put your brown paper bag over your head and go to your supermarket for these purchases in complete anonymity. Or claim it’s for medicinal purposes.
Lastly, if you are the sort of person who is the boorish arsehole in the WSD post, please remove yourself from my following, or please be ready for some whisky re-education. We’re all friends here, but in the majority of cases, we’re yet to meet.
This article was written without any input from the shops mentioned, and I am not tied to them in any way, nor do I receive any payments or benefits from them. I prefer to remain entirely independent in my views, and being in the pocket of a retailer or producer compromises that. This article is based solely on the fact I visit these whisky shops the most. But if anybody from the WSD or SWS is reading this, I’ll be happy to accept some takeaway samples to review of the three GlenAllachie wood finishes. Of course, I’ll demand to pay for them! (That’s the Aberdonian in me coming out!).
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I’ve decided to write a controversial article for a change, and this one will definitely divide opinion. It would certainly be interesting to know the opinion of the people who follow this page, but please allow me to get my tin helmet on and get deeper into the trench.
One of the Scotch Malts of the moment I would say is Daftmill. I was given a sample of their third release, the Winter 2006 bottling of which only 1625 were made. To be honest, it smells as though it’s going to be a fantastic dram, and therefore I have bought a bottle for my collection. But to be honest, I don’t think this will be enough and I’m looking for another one for drinking.
Trouble is, this bottle is now pretty much only available on the secondary market, and now the price is rising rapidly. It’s in the territory that it may soon cost too much to drink if I obtain a second bottle. And here we come to the question – are collectors spoiling the market for those who choose to drink?? While I firmly believe this to be more myth than fact, there is evidence that some collectors are damaging the market. I’ll deal with those people later.
So why do I tend to believe that collecting doesn’t harm the drinking market? I’ll speak from the point of view that the majority of my collection was widely available at one point with the exception of say 10% of my bottles. And there is straight away the crux of my argument. The vast majority of them were at some point available at a reasonable cost. Therefore, a drinker has just as much opportunity to purchase these bottles as a collector. If a collector decides to put a couple of bottles away for a rainy day, that is his prerogative.
If a drinker does not have the savvy to purchase these bottles before they are discontinued then more fool them. A good case in point is Old Pulteney 17. These have been discontinued since 2018 and already prices are starting to rise. This is nothing to do with collectors pushing the price up, but more the fact it is a very decent dram, demand is high and thus begins the theory of the price being dictated by supply and demand.
A drinker has just as much opportunity to stow supplies away as a collector to ensure a continued stock of their favourite tipple. Plus, given the resources at everyone’s disposal nowadays, information on whether or not a dram is to be discontinued is usually available in the trade press or the multitude of whisky web pages.
When it comes to buying bottles at auction, not only is price dictated by supply and demand, it is also dictated by how much an individual wants that bottle at that time. Often bottles go above their true value due to people wanting to complete collections or somebody being inexperienced in auction purchasing. It’s also worth remembering that rarer bottles are sometimes bought at auction so they can take their place on the shelf of a whisky bar, where they are available to purchase, therefore drinkers do get a chance at sampling rarer Drams.
One follower of my WordPress blog, Tobi at Barleymania.com always seems to be trying older and exotic drams that have me salivating. I myself still purchase second bottles to drink if they are affordable. And here is the next point; some of the whiskies I collect would be out of reach for a normal drinker. Not many drinkers will pay £500 for a bottle for consumption. So how can I be, as a collector, of putting the cost of bottles out of the reach of the average drinker?
And this magic figure of £500 brings me to the start of my next point; some whiskies are not really meant to be drunk. Some are designed to be collectors items. Macallan would be the case in point. Remember the furore at their distillery when Genesis was released? It cost £495. Within a month, bottles were being auctioned for nine times that price, with the highest being that I saw £4500. The cause? Flippers.
Flippers are the people whom I believe to be causing the greatest damage to the secondary whisky market prices. That same bottle of Genesis can now be picked up easily for sub £2000. While the price may go up over time, due to the amount of people who have solely bought it as an investment, and the amount still trading on the secondary market, I believe it will be a few years before any significant rise is seen. If I was the person who paid £4500 (+12.5% for Commision and VAT which brings the true cost to £5062), I’d be very sick.
And it wasn’t just Genesis. Fast forward to the release of Macallan Easter Elchies Black 2018 (EEB 2018). Same story. Released at a price of £750, and in lower numbers than Genesis (1958 vs 2500 or so bottles I believe), the prices spiked at nearly £3000 within a short space of time. Now, prices can be as low as £800, which by time the seller has made the cost of shipping from Macallan to home and from home to the auction house, then the sellers commision, they’ve actually made a loss.
Yet again a similar story for Macallan Folio 4. Only £250. Yet the frenzy in the secondary market coupled with the crazy prices was like a pool of pirañas which hadn’t eaten for a month and a lamb falls in….
This just isn’t about the whisky. Macallan will price their products according to the cost of the ingredients. EEB 2018 at £750 would in theory have the most expensive whisky in it, yet because of packaging, Folio 4 which was a third of the cost of EEB 2018 yet has seen more consistent higher percentage returns. Genesis, also cheaper than EEB 2018 and had a greater outrun, is holding a better return. It is my belief that these whiskies are for collecting and not drinking. And it is with this I do have some sympathy for the drinkers who complain about collectors putting the prices up. £250 is affordable to drink, although on the upper end of the scale for many I would guess. People are actually just paying for the hype, the brand and the packaging. To be honest, although Macallan isn’t a bad whisky, there are better and more accessible malts. Tamdhu and GlenDronach would get my vote above Macallan, and in a blind taste test pre-Scotty’s Drams, I indeed did pick the GlenDronach Allardice compared to an 18 year old Macallan.
And paying that amount for a NAS whisky that few will ever drink is madness
And here is the last thing that drinkers have to suck up. If the bottles are getting cracked open, the availability goes down, especially in limited run bottlings. As more get drunk, and the supply gets less, the laws of supply and demand kicks in as rarity increases, and therefore the price. That’s an inescapable fact.
Before I close out this article, I’d like to say that as a collector, I do open the odd bottle here and there. My favourite collectable to drink is Bruichladdich Yellow Submarine 14 year old. I’m on my second open bottle, with three more to go. With a total outrun of only 12000 bottles, and only 3000 in the first batch (I have a couple of those), either way I’m contributing to the rise of the price, therefore would be castigated by a drinker who moans about the rising prices. A collector can’t win.
Yes, whisky is meant to be drunk, just as a car is meant to be driven. But you can’t accuse a millionaire that he is stopping you experiencing a Rolls Royce when his sits in a garage for most of the year. If you want to sip on rarer whisky, try visiting your local whisky bar. Yes, a dram will be more expensive, but it saves you from buying the whole bottle, and you can still have the experience. It’s like getting to drive a Lamborghini for a track day without associated overheads. I’ve did so for a 1938 Macallan. And again recently for a 12 year old Rosebank Flora and Fauna.
As for the Daftmill? I’m sure the Cuthbert family will be delighted this whisky has created such a stir, regardless if it is drunk or not, as this will secure future sales. It goes without saying that eventually there will be another Winter 2006 off the market as I succumb and pay the going price, but this one will be opened like many of the 1625 made already have. I plan to try and find a way to share this with some of my page followers as a reward for supporting my creative outlet. Keep your eyes peeled.
Do you agree or disagree with my sentiment? I invite comments from all sides of the argument, but as it is a slightly contentious issue, all I ask is that any comments are respectful.
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