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Tuesday, 30 December 2014

Whisky Price vs. Whisky Value - How much is too much?

The Search for 'bang-for-your-buck'!

While travelling abroad recently, I could not help but notice the overwhelming majority of whiskies available in duty free / travel retail, whether single malts or blends, and whether Scotch or world whiskies, were Non-Age Statement (NAS) bottlings. And, perhaps not surprisingly, the overwhelming majority of these whiskies were very expensive, and simply overpriced.

This is not a 'Travel Retail Exclusive' (see what I did there) issue either, with many domestic shops demanding truly insane prices for some whisky. And with NAS whiskies in particular, it is quite difficult to determine what you're actually paying for, whether it's good whisky, or good marketing, or both.

Obviously how much we're willing to spend depends on our personal circumstances, but most of us would like to know we're getting reasonable value for our hard-earned dollars. So how do we find the balance between the cost, and value for money, or 'bang-for-your-buck', in the whisky world?

The key factors which dictate if a whisky is reasonable value, in my own order of importance, are:

  • The ABV % the whisky has been bottled at. If it has been bottled at (or watered down to) 40%, which the majority is, I would expect it to be relatively cheap, as you're getting less whisky/spirit, and more water, in the bottle. If not, I don't see that as being good 'bang-for-your-buck'. 
  • If the whisky has an age statement. This is very important in determining what you're getting in the bottle. If the whisky does not have a clear age statement, and this includes a single vintage statement such as 'distilled in 1985' or '1985 release', there is no way of knowing how long the spirit has been matured for prior to bottling, or what you're paying for.
  • If the whisky is 'craft presented', i.e. if it has not been chill filtered, and if it has not had colouring added. This is a good indicator of the natural quality of the whisky.
  • If there have been any unreasonable price increases in recent history, without obvious justification (e.g. increase in bottling strength), and:
  • How the whisky is priced compared to similar bottles from the same, or similar, distilleries. 
On that last point, for example, is an Ardbeg Supernova 2014, at 55% and NAS, worth $50-80 (AUD) more than a Bruichladdich Octomore, at 5+yo and higher ABV%? Likewise, is that same Supernova worth the price of two bottles of Ardbeg Uigeadail? Maybe, depending on your brand or flavour preferences and personal circumstances, but not necessarily!

It is important to note that I am referring to the retail consumer (in the literal sense) market here. The secondary / auction / collectors / investors market is different, as many collectors and investors will not drink their collection, and have plenty of money to spend on it. Leaving them looking a little more like this:

We cannot blame the producers, distributors and bottle shops for wanting to sell their product for as much as possible, but there is a line between normal business practices and pure greed. 

Some older whisky is also insanely expensive, for example Balvenie 50yo may be old whisky, but is it worth the $40,000-45,000 (AUD) asking price? Why is a Glenfiddich 50yo $15,000 cheaper at $30,000? And then why is a 40yo Glenfiddich then a relative bargain at only $3,300? Is that extra decade really worth another $27,000? No, it is not. 

These old whiskies can sometimes also include 'bespoke' packaging, and things like free distillery tours (or a free trip to Scotland in some cases), in an attempt to justify the price. But is a bottle of whisky, even a 50 year old one, worth the same as a brand new sports car? Or a size-able house deposit? Surely not, regardless of your personal net worth. I would love to know how many of these mega-expensive whiskies are actually sold, although I'm sure the answer will shock me. What this means is whisky drinkers are priced out of the 'ultra-premium' market, as the collectors and investors move in. 

So, enough ranting for now. To sum up, here are my bang-for-your-buck whisky buying guidelines. Look for at least 46% alcohol (looking at you Lagavulin 16!), look for an age statement, look for no chill filtration, and look at the prices of similar bottles. And, definitely shop around!

The actual prices you pay obviously depend on many factors, especially local taxes. Suffice to say, whisky drinkers in the EU and US are far better off than other parts of the world. But personally, my picks for the best value heavily-peated, single malt, Scotch whiskies are: Ardbeg 10, Lagavulin 16, and Laphroaig Quarter Cask. 

Happy hunting!

Sunday, 28 December 2014

Bunnahabhain 18 Whisky Review!

Having previously covered the basics of Bunnahabhain distillery here , I won't delve into the details, but as a refresher, the distillery mainly produces un-peated or very-lightly peated whisky, with the exception of a few limited releases (such as the 'toiteach' , which I like. Very much).

The 18 year old is one of their un-peated standard expressions, and was re-introduced in a 'craft presentation' a few year's back, meaning they upped the ABV to 46.3%, and dropped the chill filtration and added colouring. They have applied a similar treatment to all their whisky, which is an excellent move! I just wish other distilleries would follow suit.

Bunnahabhain 18, 18yo, 46.3%, Islay, Scotland.
Matured in a mix of ex-bourbon and ex-Oloroso casks, proportions unknown. No added colouring, non-chill filtered. 

(tasted neat)
Colour: Nice deep, dark bronze. This should definitely be bottled in clear glass, to show off that natural colour. Lose the brown bottle please! 

Nose: Honey sweetness, dried fruits and light salt. Toasted nuts and sherry, a little dusty.

Texture: Thick & Oily, very nice.

Taste: Tiny hint of smoke, and a little salt, fades quickly into juicy apples & pears, light oak and boozy raisins (sherry). Surprisingly spirited and assertive for it's age, and very different from the 12yo, much less salt and malt, and more sherry and fruit.

Finish: Sweet & lightly salted nuts, sherry comes through to the end. 

Score: 3 out of 5.

Notes: The mouth feel on this one is great, thick and viscous, thanks to the higher ABV% and lack of chill filtration. Big, bold flavours too, although I can't help but wish there was more substantial peat & smoke in there. Initially reminds me of Bruichladdich's black art 3 to some degree, but with much less complexity, balance and finesse, albeit at a much lower price. 

I may be a little biased, given the name of this blog, but I can't help but wish for more peat and smoke in the standard Bunnahabhain's I've tasted so far. They needn't follow their neighbours and go the heavily-peated route, but a little smoke and peat adds an extra element of complexity to any whisky, which I can't help but feel may be needed here. 

This is still a great malt though, and well worth trying if you care to visit the 'lighter side of Islay'. Check it out here at a very reasonable price. Cheers!

Monday, 15 December 2014

Kilchoman Small Batch Whisky Review!

Kilchoman is the youngest distillery on Islay (by around 120 years!), having started production in 2005, and it already has a huge cult following. They're currently producing young whiskies, for obvious reasons, but the whisky is of excellent quality regardless.

They grow and malt their own barley, used to produce around a third of their annual spirit production, with the remainder coming from Port Ellen Malting's on Islay. Their own malted barley is peated to around 20-25ppm, while the sourced barley is thought to be around 40-50ppm. Kilchoman also mature and bottle their whisky on site, at Rockside farm, on the western coast of Islay. They also do not chill filter or add colouring. Outstanding!

The 'small batch' releases are generally bottled at cask strength, and are matured in a combination of ex-bourbon and ex-Oloroso sherry casks. They also state clearly when they were distilled, and when they were bottled. The 2008 release we're looking at here is no exception, having been bottled in 2013 at 5 years of age. 
Kilchoman Small Batch 2008, 5yo, 58.2% cask strength, Islay, Scotland. 
Distilled 2008, bottled 2013, matured in first fill bourbon casks, finished in first-fill Oloroso sherry casks. Non-chill filtered, no added colouring.

(tasted neat)
Colour: Yellow gold

Nose: Salty, peaty, medicinal and coastal. Initially big, bold notes of medicinal peat, drying seaweed and sea spray, then some salted caramel, charcoal BBQ'd meats, lightly charred banana's add sweetness. Comparable to a big Ardbeg with a bit of a steroid problem! But distinctly different and complex.  

Texture: Oily, mouth-coating, viscous. 

Taste: Sweet, warming peat, some light smoke then builds to a crescendo. So drinkable for 58.2% and only 5 years old! Shows the quality of the spirit, and the quality of the casks. Hints of smoked raisins, salt and oak. Lovely.

Finish: Big smoke playing around with toasted nuts and sweetness. Drying and mouth-watering, herbaceous peat. 

Score: 4 out of 5.

Notes: Kilchoman might be the 'new kid on the block' on Islay, but they really know how to handle themselves! I would line this up against Octomore's and Supernova's without hesitation. I missed out on a bottle of this while passing through Dubai thanks to the transiting / carry-on rules, now I'm kicking myself for not trying harder! It really is excellent. 

I've also tried Kilchoman's standard expression, 'Machir Bay', and it is also of excellent quality at such a young age. I'm looking forward to trying their 'Loch Gorm' bottling as well, which is fully matured in ex-Sherry casks at a higher peating level. With plans to release older expressions as stock becomes available, this distillery is certainly one to watch. If you haven't tried their whisky yet, get your hands on some, and do it quickly! Click here to see a few of their bottling's.


Saturday, 6 December 2014

Lagavulin Distillery Profile

Ah, Lagavulin. It's marketing activities are surprisingly quiet, despite being owned by Diageo, and even their packaging and presentation is quite subdued and understated. They don't have dozens of different expressions, they don't experiment with unusual cask maturation, and they don't have a particularly strong presence on-line. Ron Swanson is doing his best to change this though!

Despite all this, Lagavulin produces some extraordinary whisky. Their standard expression, the 16yo, is, in my opinion, one of the greatest value-for-money / bang-for-buck single malts available, and is increasing in popularity and reputation. Shop around though if you're looking to buy, some larger stores have jacked up prices over the last year or so, it can still be found for around $90 AUD. Despite being bottled at 43%, and likely using some chill-filtration and added colouring, it's balance, complexity and smoothness are fantastic. It is, in fact, the single malt that got this writer into whisky. I had dabbled with Glenfiddich's, Glenlivet's and Talisker's prior to this, but Lagavulin 16yo was the siren which lured me in to the depths.

They also regularly release a 12yo cask strength bottling (the 'youngest' whisky they produce), and a distiller's edition bottling with an extra maturation/finishing in PX sherry casks. There is significant variation in these releases though, so try before you buy if possible. 

There are also a few older (25+ years) bottlings, which of course are hugely expensive, and like most Islay distilleries they release a 'Feis Ile' (Islay festival) special bottling each year. I have tasted their 2013 Feis Ile bottling, and it was absolutely mind blowing. Near impossible to find now, without paying collector's prices, but it was definitely one of my all-time favourites. 

Distillery Location: Lagavulin bay, near Port Ellen, Islay, Scotland.

Owner: Diageo

Producing since: 1816

General Whisky Style: Smoky, peaty and fruity, balanced and complex.

My only wish with Lagavulin, like many other distilleries, is that they would release a bottling which is not chill filtered, and without added colouring, and then clearly state that on the label. I don't believe they excessively chill filter their whisky at the moment, but it would be nice to know for certain. Come on Diageo, let's do it!

Thursday, 4 December 2014

Glen Moray 25 yo Whisky Review!

Following a short hiatus, due to a holiday in Egypt and a nasty head cold, I thought I would 'get back in the saddle' by reviewing something new and unfamiliar, at least to me.

This whisky was part of a sample pack purchased from Nippy Sweetie Whiskies. Samples are a fantastic way to try multiple whiskies, without the cost of buying whole bottles. Nippy Sweetie have a huge range of samples available, so if there's something you've been wanting to try, but either can't find or can't afford, have a look at their website or send them an email.

Glen Moray is a Speyside distillery, located near the town of Elgin. Generally producing milder, sweeter, lighter whiskies, but their 25yo bottling is a little different in that it is finished in Port casks, following the traditional maturation in ex-bourbon casks. It is also bottled at 43% rather than the normal 40% of the range.

This practice is becoming more commonplace in the Scotch Whisky world, and aside from the added flavours, it can give the whisky a enticing red or pink hue. Still nowhere near as common as the ex-bourbon and sherry cask maturation, though.

This is not the case with the Glen Moray 25 though, which leads me to assume that either it was a short finish in the Port casks, or the casks employed may have been well-used (i.e. they had already held other whisky or other spirits), known as being fourth or fifth fill, for example, as opposed to first or second fill. Obviously, each time the cask is used, a lower level of the original contents remains, and therefore the cask has less influence on the whisky. This is not necessarily a bad thing, mind you, but is simply a decision made by the distillery in order to achieve the intended outcome. 

Glen Moray 25 yo, 43%, Speyside, Scotland.
Distilled 1986, ex-Bourbon cask matured, Port cask finished. No mention of chill filtration or added colourant on the label, so we must assume both practices have been used.

(tasted neat)
Colour: Bronze, slightly orange. 

Nose: Sweet toffee, some Christmas cake & boozy raisins from the port finishing, then stone fruit and slightly spicy oak.

Texture: Clean and light.

Taste: Fruity, mild golden syrup/brown sugar sweetness which fades quickly, then oak and spices, and some red wine / grape tannins. 

Finish: Quite short and thin, some mouth-watering dryness, but then a very odd sulphur/mineral note which out lasts all other flavours, like nasty tap water. Off-putting for me, but some may enjoy, certainly unexpected.

Score: 2.5 out of 5.

Notes: Started off well, nicely balanced, but that mineral and sulphur on the finish spoiled the show, for me at least. Being from a small sample bottle, it is possible that the whisky oxidised faster than it would have if left in the bottle, but these sample bottles are all filled to the neck, and properly sealed, so I don't think this is the case. Might have to re-taste later on to see if that nasty note is still there at the end.  

Having said that, I still much prefer this 25yo bottling to the other expressions of Glen Moray I've tasted, the balance, depth of flavour and mouth-feel are much improved. But, this comes at a price- around AUD$250 a bottle, which I simply could not justify for this whisky. There is some major competition at that price point, even at a younger age, which has this whisky beat. By a long way. 

I'm having peat withdrawals now, so next up will be a rather special heavily peated whisky. See you then.