Taste Review #125 Arbikie 1794 Rye
The price of whisky. If you were to compare the amount of times people complain about the prices of bottles compared to those who praise the low prices of some well regarded value drams, you are going to find the quantity skewed to one side. Whisky it seems is getting more and more expensive and you’ll not find many aficionados praising that current trend. At the time I started to draft this blog (mid Feb), we are maybe only days away from Diageo raising some of its prices, most notably the cost of Talisker 18 year old. Available for around £75 to my mind this not a bad price for an 18 year old whisky. By end of Feb 2022 it will suddenly cost way north of £100. But is that still too expensive for a mass market whisky? And it isn’t the only Diageo brand getting this treatment, it’s also Lagavuilin 16, Oban 14 and Mortlach I’m led to believe and possibly more.
Looking elsewhere, as an appreciator of Glendronach 18 Allardice, I’ve noticed a subtle yet quite visible rise of this bottle from £75 to what is around the £100 mark and over at some retailers, so Diageo aren’t alone. So what gives? Why are prices rising? Are we seeing quality maintained as the prices rise or is that also slipping? Where is the transparency in the price change? Let me just tell you now, if you think it is going to get better, then think again.
Recently it’s noticed that retailers (or resellers) have been guilty of jacking up prices. Just cast your mind back to Springbank Local Barley where one retailer was charging £150 a bottle yet if I am right in remembering only cost £100. Even now, Hard To Find Whiskies are charging £700 for a pop of the 2021 bottle. Some of the resellers are taking the mickey, yet it is the mugs that buy it that are to blame. If there wasn’t the demand, the price would fall. 8500 of these bottles released, so not exactly rare. The whisky itself cannot stand up to that several hundred pounds price tag , but if people will pay that, can you blame a manufacturer from getting more of a share of the perceived worth? Of course all that could be set in motion would be an increase on reseller or secondary market costs and a upwards spiral would be created which will eventually inflate prices far beyond what the actual liquid is worth.
Just to add onto the perfect storm of a prices increasing, there has been the small matter of a pandemic, increasing not only production costs but also staffing costs as there is a shortage of staff in many workforces that has interrupted production and made raw materials hard to get or expensive. People being at home and ordering lots of stuff has helped create a shortage of shipping containers, raising the cost of getting casks shipped into the UK, if not just the availability of new stock. The cherry on top comes with the short sighted decision of the UK to break away from its largest trading partner, further increasing the cost of doing business by additional red tape and the exodus of EU lorry drivers back to Europe. If you want to get your Christmas presents for 2022, you may be better off shopping on the M20 motorway in the queues of lorries.
Let’s also point to a large elephant in the room that Europe may be on the brink of war in light of recent violence conducted by Russia against the Ukraine. Much of Europe’s energy supplies come from Russia and the Ukraine. If you think your petrol prices are expensive now, just wait. And if the cost of energy goes up, so does everything else. Soon the tree huggers will be begging us to drill West of Shetland oil fields as the costs for their smashed avacado on toast and mochachocolatte hits sky high prices.
While having spoken of shooting ourselves in the foot, some whisky buyers not only vote unwisely in referendums but also don’t know what on earth they are doing in whisky auctions. I’m not going to debate the absurd money that gets thrown at flippers to obtain the new releases, but just take a look at many limited or premium bottles in some auctions reach prices well in excess of RRP. While the auctioneers are rubbing their hands with glee, so must another bunch of observers be smiling – the producers. It surely cannot be unnoticed what prices are potentially able to be sustained with a quick glance at the secondary market. If people are prepared to pay it, then it can’t be a rip off, right?
I suppose that it is value that drives the majority of the average whisky geek. We want to know we are getting a proper bang for our buck and while age of whisky is not really an accurate guide for quality, I feel it is still a benchmark for what to expect. With many young whiskies now also being released at prices that rival or exceed the cost of a Glendronach 18 or even the 21 y.o, which has jumped from the £120 mark to close to £160 in some cases during a similar timeframe, are these new whisky prices just pie in the sky due to producers knowing there is a market there that will sustain it? I think it’s a dangerous strategy if it is.
Let me turn my attention to the dram in question for today – Arbikie 1794 Highland Rye. Arbikie is a farm distillery close to the North East coast of Scotland. It is located to the north of Inverkeilor in the county of Angus. It owned by brothers David, Iain and John Stirling. While I have been following Iain on Twitter for some time now, I haven’t been paying close attention to Arbikie distillery. There’s a few reasons for that, the biggest one being that I’ve not been engaged with a brand that so far only has released rye whisky as it’s brown spirit offering, but that’s possibly an error on my part.
What turned my head towards Arbikie was a minor stooshie on social media with regards another release from the distillery, the Highland Rye 2 which was a 4 year old Scottish Rye that had spent time in Armagnac casks. At £250, it certainly made me take a sharp intake of breath. Even the 1794 Highland Rye I bring to you now was £130 a bottle, with the 2021 release being a still expensive but more accessible release at £95, given that some distilleries market their inaugural releases of the same age have been half the price. Yet that isn’t the whole story in this almost unique case, as Arbikie are the first Scottish distillery to make a Rye whisky in a very, very long time. Speaking of long times, I’ve been writing quite a bit now, so let me wet my whistle.
Arbikie 1794 Highland Rye 2020 Release
Region – Highland Age – 3 y.o Strength – 48% abv Colour – Yellow Gold (0.5) Cask Type – New Charred American Oak Colouring – No Chill Filtered – No Nose – Dusty Barn, Toffee Fudge, Nutmeg, Egg Custard Tart, Fresh Oak. Palate – Earthy. Medium mouthfeel, slightly oily, nicely controlled spicy burn, pink peppercorns, cinnamon, touch of honey and more fresh wood. Cherry notes. Finish – medium length. Sweet cherry note continues but turns sour with a taste that tastes like the dregs of a pint of hoppy beer. For me this then turned soapy and citrus like, almost like I’d expect a urinal block to taste like.
Having said that, water brought the finish into more positive territory. The palate became more floral and the finish developed into something a lot less sour, sweetening to something more like cherry cola.
Straight away I’d like to point out a couple of very important points.
- I do not know what urinal block tastes like. It’s a memory of primary school toilets with blocks so strong the smell went up your nose and coated your tongue. Especially more so if you are a mouth breather.
- I am not a mouth breather
- I am in no way suggesting this whisky is bad and is equal to drinking out of a public toilet.
With those important disclaimers in place, I can move forward. Keeping it short and sweet, while I have experienced rye whiskey before (obviously not Scotch rye as Arbikie are the first to have done this in years and years) I have to say it wasn’t for me. For me the finish was not to my taste and that’s as much as I can say. It did have some good points, like not burning my throat but ultimately not for me just yet. That shouldn’t detract from the good work done at Arbikie. Perhaps a different cask or age may make a difference and it is very important to keep an open mind. Just as I haven’t liked Jura Journey, I do like one or two other Jura. I only paid about £10 for the sample from Master Of Malt so I avoided the hit of £130 for a bottle I would not have enjoyed in its entirety.
In Arbikie’s example however, I think they may be justified in having high prices. They run a small operation where they grow their own grains, they distill, mature and bottle on site. In the future they also hope to malt their own grains as to close the circle and be a complete single location operation. Arbikie can trace all the provenance of their ingredients and having farmed the land at Ardbikie since the 1920’s they will have a better idea of the terroir their grains are planted in than most. As customers start to demand to know provenance, traceability and all sorts of other geek stats, it’s worth knowing that these things come at a cost above that which a mass produced whisky will have.
I had a short but very informative chat on Twitter with Iain Stirling from Arbikie who points out that to produce such a whisky is expensive. Growing rye in Scotland isn’t easy as it really depends on the weather, and while the weather on the east coast of Scotland can be less wet than that of the west, it can still hamper crops. Arbikie became pioneers as they had nobody to follow in growing and distilling Scottish rye, although Iain did say that 200 years ago this would have been more common.
The expenses also build when you factor in that Arbikie are growing their own heritage barley crops, and have invested in good quality casks. I got the impression that they did want to do things to the best of their ability. In my opinion they are quietly going about their business and doing something similar to a certain Irish Distiller without having to concentrate on the smoke and mirrors of pushing the terroir aspect. While it is still very much something that is important to Arbikie, there is at the moment less fuss about it. Let the whisky do the talking when it arrives.
Like some other young distilleries they also make vodka and gin on site also to generate income, this being a climate positive operation which led to the world’s first climate positive spirits. Nàdar (Scots Gaelic for nature) gin and vodka have base spirit made of peas, which does not require soil fertiliser in the same way as other crops as peas get nitrogen from the air, not the ground. So eco friendly as part of their operations. Are they tree huggers there? Well, Iain informed me they are also growing their own oak trees which take 50 years to maturity. But imagine a Scotch whisky where even the wood for the barrels is grown on site? That’s amazing to me, definitely a cut ahead of others! Iain added (and I’ll paraphrase a little bit) “we are trying to do things right in the context of being a self funded entity while also building a legacy family business.”
Chew that over. Legacy. More importantly sustainability. Trust me, my friends, sustainability will be more and more important in the coming years. We do need to address this.
Prices like Arbikie’s Highland Rye might not be Pie In The Sky for what you are getting once you dig deeper. They are providing what some of us whisky geeks have been crying out for – traceability, provenance, heritage grains, experimental distillates, quality casks – some of which will be built from wood grown on their land. Of course some of these things we will not see the benefit of until they release their malt whisky, which as they plan to give it a decent length of maturation before release may not be marketed until 2029. And some things we won’t see, for example as by time the wood is ready for the casks I’ll be about 100 years old. Regardless, if geeks want all these things, be prepared to pay.
If you want the low down on what Arbikie are about why not visit their site? http://www.ardbikie.com or why not subscribe to their mailing list to find out when you can visit them, as their visitor centre opens in the spring.
So what about higher whisky prices in general? This has been a brief look at them, and while opinion is that prices are higher – in some cases as business costs increase, then the prices will too. But some people think that some whiskies have been underpriced for years. Taking a look at a recent Malt article, the author puts this opinion forward but to me it is a nonsense. A business will sell at a price it can make a sensible profit on. Too high and it won’t sell. To suggest a whisky is too cheap is madness, unless the producer is not making enough of a fair margin, given the rises in expenses recently. Are the Diageo rises fair? In my opinion, not entirely. Would that MALT writer prefer to be ripped off with underpriced whisky undergoing caviller price hikes? For me it’s the seemingly arbitrary nature of these massive increases. I suppose we all have a different take on things but pricing things to manoeuvre your product into a market bracket rather than based on cost to produce seems another way of saying to consumers it’s no longer the best value.
Looking forward, my prediction is that eye watering prices across the industry are just beginning and it isn’t going to get better. Perhaps with buyers spending more carefully (if at all) could herald the start of a deflation of the whisky market rather than an actual bubble bursting. Boom times never last forever and will eventually reach saturation. I’ve already noted softening auction prices in some areas of the secondary market, which perhaps point to the current whisky craze faltering as a glass loch in cupboards builds or people can no longer afford the prices expected. Or people are moving to something else? A sharp rise in the cost of living will certainly focus minds on both sides of the consumer – producer relationship, especially for luxury goods. Or perhaps it is time to spend time trawling the auctions for the bargain bucket bids, a sure fire way of getting cheap whisky.
So, in starting to come to a conclusion, perhaps in some cases higher prices are justified. Independent distilleries are more likely to be doing what the consumer wants in the case of higher ABV, better wood, experimental distillates, environmentally friendly production, heritage barleys. It all it takes is someone to take that financial risk, as it can be expensive and risk of failure may be high. But on a personal level, I’d now rather give my cash for whisky to a bespoke or craft producer than a big corporate entity who seems to think a hefty price rise to satisfy shareholders is necessary. I accept prices have to go up, but don’t take the mickey. And when sustainable processes become more and more mainstream, both producers and consumers will be affected when it comes to prices.
For my last comment, if you feel it’s too expensive, don’t buy it. The price will soon drop or the item will be discontinued. There is always more whisky. Exciting whisky, innovative whisky experimental whisky, sustainable spirits. If we want a new wave of that, then we have to look at independent producers who will give customers what they want. Just be prepared to pay for it while remembering it’s often small businesses taking big risks that we are talking about, not charities.
I think I’ve given many things to unpackage and think about. What happens is anybody’s guess and I’m certainly no expert but just another whisky consumer with an opinion and an internet connection. Certainly don’t expect whisky prices at retail to drop much any time soon, yet be braced for higher prices across the board.
Yours In Spirits
All Photos – Authors Own