May 062017
 

A few mates have passed on some wee samples over the past couple of months.  I’ve been delinquent in addressing this, so let’s get down to it.

You guys (and gals) know me.  I don’t take free stuff.  Not my style.  And by ‘free stuff’ I mean the kind of commercially ‘gifted’ packages that would come from the brands hoping for reviews or whatever.  In the earliest days I debated it, certain I could maintain my independence and lack of bias, but even then I questioned whether or not others would believe me as I spouted opinions from this tiny bastion of non-conformity.  Ultimately integrity was much more important than scoring freebies, so I just said ‘no thanks’.  I try to be kind when contacted, usually just informing the solicitor that they wouldn’t be able to get it into Canada anyway, but the reality is…I just don’t want to tarnish the relationship we’ve built here.

I do, however, benefit from friends passing tiny vials my way from time to time.  They have nothing to gain, just want to share and are curious about my opinion on some of these drinks.  I’ve written up some of them here on the site.  Usually these posts are accompanied by a pic of the sample bottle labeled in their own handwriting.  Sometimes I’ll ask them for a bottle shot to use, in the event they still have the full packaging.  I am currently sitting on a handful of these samples that I really should pay attention to.  They’re expensive whiskies (I imagine), and will be fun to taste.  More than that, though, it seems only right to the good folks who have shared.

The only exception that may seem compromised is that I do occasionally get samples (about an ounce, maybe less) from a couple local retailers.  These are friends trying to get the word out on exclusives and such.  I’ve always said I would help my friends and our local scene.  Here’s the deal:  If the product is shit, I probably just won’t review it.  If it’s good, I’ll review it and you can trust that I actually liked it.  Either way…the quantity is usually single cask kind of small.  Its really only the locals that benefit from these reviews.

Anyway…just wanted us to be clear.  After all…transparency is key, no matter what the big guys would prefer.

So…heads up.  I’ll be posting a bunch of these ‘vial reviews’ in the coming days.  I’ll credit those that allow me to (though some prefer relative anonymity).

Cheers.

 

– Curt

 Posted by at 10:27 am
Apr 062017
 

Alright, Drammers and Dreamers.  something to talk about.

Let’s beat this dead horse like Negan on a noggin'(*).  It’s a subject that seems to be getting a lot of play in almost every whisky conversation I’m a part of lately.  Let’s talk about the price of whisky.  yes.  That again.  I kinda think everyone needs a public forum to air it out.  The comments section below, I imagine, is about to become just that.

There seem to be two schools of thought (of course there are more nuanced approaches, but for the sake of simplicity, bear with me).  The first suggests that whisky is a luxury item and that any price is fair on a luxury item.  Especially in light of the fact that many of the same individuals who are now complaining about the stratospheric (and still soaring) price of the precious fluid are the ones that have helped push it there via the laws of supply and demand (and disposable income).  The second suggests that no matter what your personal druthers are, there is no fucking way that the current climb is justifiable in light of the very small change in conditions that supported prices which probably came in about 40% lower (more in some cases) just a year or two back.

Are these two arguments balanced?  Do they offset?  Well…I think you know where I’m about to weigh in, aye?

Here’s the thing.  Shit gets more expensive over time.  We know this.  Just ask your parents who trudged uphill both ways in the snow to see a ‘picture’ at the cinema with no more n’ a few bits in their pocket.  Of course, that covered popcorn and a wee dip into the sweet shoppe on the way home too.  The reality is…the times they are a changin’.  BUT…typically this happens incrementally.  Small hops and skips that mostly go unnoticed by a population that progressively earns more and more and a dollar that continues to morph into an entirely different beast than back in the day when a home could be bought for tens of thousands.

As regards whisky though (before we start to ramble too much)…in the last couple of years where we’ve seen spikes that look like towering t-rex teeth or stalagmites in some Journey To The Center Of The Earth spinoff can we reasonably explain away such drastic increases?  Uh…nope.

Barley is about on par with 2010 prices (source); barrel shortages we heard so much about have been claimed to have been BS by many industry sources (forgive my refusal to name names of the good people who share insider secrets, but even so, let’s face it…much of the industry’s move to ‘sherry-seasoned’ barrels must be a cheaper option than the old ‘ex-sherry’ butts); fuel costs are on the decline (source) so transport should be cheaper; it would seem median salaries in the UK (home of all this glorious malted gold) have held pretty steady in recent years, right around £26k (source); and…let’s name the pet elephant in the room: “hello, Brexit!”

So…why the hell has the price of whisky shot through the roof?  It’s simple really.  Because it can.

Let’s return to the other argument for a moment.  The one that says whisky will cost what whisky costs because it is whisky, not bread.  The point: it’s non-essential.  It’s a luxury item that we don’t need, so if we’re gonna be that indignant about it, we can always just walk away.  At the end of the day, this argument really is sound as a pound when you think about it (a pre-Brexit pound, that is ).  Vote with your wallet.  Simple message.  We don’t need this stuff, so shouldn’t we be saving our breath to fight the good fight elsewhere?  Yeah, probably.  But life is rife with shit in so many ways.  That’s a simple reality.  In our few short rotations ’round the sun we hunt out the things we love (and that make our lives better) then we cling to them like life preservers.  The more we learn to love them, the more we become covetous and protective.  It’s only right that we should fight to hold onto what we hold dear, don’tcha think?

Anytime there is an illogical leap in expense, should we not as consumers question it?  Caveat emptor, aye?  If not are not implicitly responsible for the act of gouging?  Look what happens when fuel costs spike.  Or automobiles.  Or when Cauliflower doubled in price last year.  Or bacon.  The internet went batshit.  People wanted answers.  And for the most part, they got ’em (excepting fuel, that is…we’ll never get answers there).  Why, therefore, can we as consumers not question the rising tide of malt prices without being villainized?  It’s a bullshit old world mentality that is telling us to suck it up and not question the status quo.  And I, for one, will never buy into that (pun intended).

And here’s the real rub for someone like your faithful author:  I love this stuff.  I mean…I fucking love it.  I have dedicated vast tracts of my life over the last decade or so to pushing it to the fore.  To publicizing the greatness in it.  To sharing the word and helping elevate brands (even in my own small way).  I have started massive whisky clubs, written hundreds of reviews, shared countless experiences and bottles, led more tastings than I like to admit and supported businesses near and far.  And yet, I’m one of the ones struggling to stay in the game.  That is…well…lemme be honest here…it sucks.  A lot.  It’s caused me a bit of an existential crisis of late.  (I know, I know…sounds melodramatic, but do realize how much of my life I’ve dedicated to this.)

So where do we go from here?  Hard to say.  If you’re like me – and you maybe squirrelled away a bit of a store for rainy days – you hunker down and wait.  And you plug your ears when the bubble bursts.  You also scour for deals, share the word when you find them, and sew enough good karma that others share their hoards throughout these lean times.  Oh yeah…and you learn to fall in love again with the younger, cheaper malts you started with.  If you’re not like me…well…you pay grossly inflated prices and live large now, but recognize your dollar is working harder for you than it ever has before, and that you…are…being…fleeced.  If you’re okay with that (and to a degree, we all must be right now, or else we wouldn’t be drinking some of the drinks we do), let’s simply smile and move on.

In short…consider me on record as saying that the current state of whisky valuation is bullshit and it simply comes down to what the market will bear.  Supply and demand, and all that.  The question now becomes, are you ready to walk away or are you going to continue playing, knowing that the metrics have changed in favor of the other team and you’re playing on their turf?  Who knows…maybe it’s gonna be a true David versus Goliath story.

Either way…the next few years are gonna be hella interesting, I’d say.

(*shameless Walking Dead reference)

 

– C

 Posted by at 5:38 pm
Apr 022017
 

I’d like to clarify something that sort of defies clarifying.  In other words…this will likely be a useless post that accomplishes none of what it sets out to do.  We refer to ‘the industry’ a lot.  Here on ATW, in discussion in and in other forums and venues.  It’s an easy catch-all term that speaks to the us and them mentality that so many of us feel, if not actually outwardly project.  It’s easy to think of the industry as one big evil empire, a machine deriving its fuel from the soul of whisky-man (much like the Matrix), but the reality is different, of course.  We like the ease of language the term affords, but it’s painting with a broad brush, and something I’d like to draw a bit of attention to.

Let’s talk first of local shopkeepers and sales folks.  Those individuals who are the purveyors of the malts we love.  They drive the local flavors by boosting or stalling certain sales, choosing the products that hit our shelves, arranging events and festivals, educating us when we visit and sharing their knowledge, secrets and tips.  Of course in some monopoly-driven markets these roles may be somewhat curtailed, but much remains the same.  These folks are the last stop.  Do they fall under the blanket appellation of ‘industry’.  Well, yes, but it’s a gray area.  I don’t want to get too deep into the nuance, lest I cast shade, but typically there is a set margin to be applied to what rolls in from the local agents and voila! Robert’s your father’s brother.  They hit the sales floor…you hit the sales floor.  Ultimately hard to fault these good people (more often than not friends of ours after a few visits), unless of course, they are the ones responsible for setting margins and are playing loose with the numbers and being dodgy.  Rarely the case, I would suggest.

Next up we have the local ambassadors and agents.  Ultimately responsible for bringing in the goods from the big distributors behind the brands or distilleries.  Here’s where things get a little harder to get a feel for.  But let’s look at this in two pieces.

First off, we have the ambassadors.  Charming (and usually good-looking) people on the frontlines, learning their stuff inside and out (we would hope), smiling and pouring you drinks at fests and shows (no matter how tedious…and trust me, it is, I’ve done it) and making the products known and approachable to as wide an audience as possible.  Do they have an agenda?  Of course.  They work for a company that has a portfolio.  It’s their job to sell that portfolio.  But here’s the rub, guys and gals…these people are human shields.  Really.  Whisky geeks, by and large, are good people.  But we’re all fiercely protective of the drink we love.  When things go wrong we question the closest representative we can target.  Do they set prices, determine allocations and such?  Of course not.  But guess who takes both barrels.  Our only real gripe here is how much stock you can put in the words of the guy or gal selling you something.  Caveat emptor.  But, hey…I’ve done it.  I’ve worked for brands that weren’t my heart and soul.  There are a lot of creative words to verbally sex something up even when you don’t believe it the new Ardbeg ’77.  Ultimately though…they are good and great people working in sales.  The enemy?  Hardly.

The other half of the this piece is the agencies.  Hmmm…very little visibility or accountability here.  I’m as in the dark as anybody.  What sort of slice of the pie they are taking is anyone’s guess.  And good luck finding out.  Lemme give you an example.  I recently found out that Aberlour a’bunadh is still retailing for just over £40 in many places.  That’s $66.80 Canadian at the time of writing.  So riddle me this:  Why is it $136.99 on shelves locally?  No matter how you spin it, it doesn’t make sense.  The dollar is low.  But so is the pound.  Production costs haven’t changed drastically.  Barrel prices are not much different than they were a few years ago.  Shipping…not a big change.  Anyway…time to start getting a little concerned we may be edging into that ‘enemy’ industry territory?  Maybe.  Tough to say.  A lot of people I know are in these positions and making a living from it.  They are good people.  Truly good people.  But I can’t speak to the finances.

Next up…the big companies.  The brands behind the local importers and agencies.  Entities like Diageo, Pernod, Edrington, etc.  Now THIS, THIS, I believe is where most of the vitriol is pointed.  Answerable to no one but owners, shareholders and the SWA and SWR (where applicable).  Is this where our prices are set?  Largely, I would imagine?  And where decisions are made to launch more and more products that shrug the ‘shackles’ of age statements in favor of names and stories.  Probably.  This level also has a lot of hired guns doing face time.  Love ’em or hate ’em, I won’t mention names here.  I would argue that this is where your animosity should largely be directed.  Not that I’m suggesting animosity is the recourse.  Just saying, let’s send our barb to the people that can ultimately answer back to them.

And finally, we have the makers themselves.  I don’t generally mean the Patersons and Dalgarnos and such.  (I think those folks sit in the tier above).  I mean the folks working at the homes of production.  The ones running stills and mashes, visitor centers and tours.  The ones working the maltings and warehouses and bottling floors and cafes.  The ones pouring samples on site, building and repairing casks, doing grounds maintenance and polishing stills.  The ones fixing boilers and spelling out washbacks and all the other heavy lifting that comes with it all.  These folks are darlings of us all.  Rightfully so, I’d say.  They’re not setting prices or creating marketing blurbs.  They’re making whisky and creating experiences.

Ultimately, no matter the level we look at, we’re talking about people.  I’d bet anything that I’d get along with any one of them if we met along the wood at some small tavern and shared pints.  Our agendas diverge, for obvious reasons, but none of us would be here if not for love of the game.  Logic tells us to separate business and pleasure, but this is one case where that is entirely impossible.  Having said that, we can still respect the man, if not the method, aye?

Yes, yes, this is a gross simplification, but the point wasn’t to draft pages of essay-like rigidity and dryness.  It was an attempt at humanizing something that gets distorted to the point of dystopianism sometimes.  I struggle with it myself from time to time.  As you’ve seen.

Cheers, friends.

(Note:  This little musing was triggered by a recent conversation with a friend of mine who works in the ‘industry’ and by a recent post the Sponge put up).

 

– C

 Posted by at 9:32 am
Mar 292017
 

So…how many ways can we tackle the issue of feeling like the industry is taking the piss out of us?

It is, I must admit, getting tiresome being the squeaky wheel.  I’m sure it’s equally irksome to hear it all the time.  Some, like Saint Serge over at Whiskyfun.com, seem to have struck a nice balance between saying what needs to be said and still having fun at the same time.  Serge is an anomaly, though, and his access to whisky is unprecedented.  That certainly changes the game.  Ergo, his issues are not necessarily ours.  Having said that…even Serge buries a lot of his criticisms under humour and plenty o’ words.  It’s easy to gloss over the underlying message if one sees fit.

But I digress.

I’ve shared these thoughts a few times over the past year or two, but the situation seems to have become even worse of late.  We keep looking for the bubble to burst, and it continues to defy both logic and past trends.  I say this from a point of being days away from closing up shop.  Disillusion is rampant lately.  And running a site like this only perpetuates the machinations of an industry mad with power.  I’ve reached a point where I no longer want to publicly promote products that only continue to increase in price and, in turn, price me out of the game.  At some point we have to recognize lunacy.  Twice this week alone I nearly put up a post saying ‘I’m out.’  It remains to be determined if that will happen.

I took a bit of a smackdown last week in which it was suggested that if I was one of the ones who had helped the industry reach this point, I needed to either swallow it all (marketing/packaging/etc) or walk away completely.  Fuck that. I love this drink.  I’ve given a lot to it.  Financially and otherwise.  In other words…I’ve paid for the right to have a voice.

Anyway…before I get heated and nasty…let’s move on.

I’m wondering if anyone else if eyeing grain whiskies lately with as much cynicism as I am.  I keep seeing more and more of them on the shelves.  Independents, mostly, but all sorts, really.  Let’s be clear about what we’re discussing in grain whiskies: spirit made in continuous stills, in vast stringently controlled conditions (i.e. no room for personality-development), generally poorer cask policies (multi-uses, dead barrel syndrome, etc), cheaper component grains (i.e. corn), etc etc.  It is as much a blank check as non-age-stated whiskies, when you think about it.  If these drinks don’t sell for grossly less than malts, there is something seriously wrong.  Just you wait, friends…this is the new NAS.

Appreciate the ongoing dialogues here, as always.  Forgive my lack of enthusiasm of late.  Perhaps we’ll find it again.

 

C

 Posted by at 2:26 pm
Feb 172017
 

Morning, friends.

Just wanted to offer up a sincere thanks to those who still check in regularly waiting for updates.  I’m still here.  All is well.  For an unemployed guy, I’m anything but sedentary.  Time is not really on my side lately, though.  It’s not so much the time to write (I’ll get to that in a moment), as it is the time to sit down and do a proper tasting session.

As many of you are likely aware, I published a short story last month.  There was a bigger project in the works even then.  I’ve finally given myself over to it completely, and within the next week or two should finish the first draft of my first novel.  A much darker bit of writing than the last.

In the short term, I’ll have a review going up here within the hour.  Hang tight.

For those that have asked, the first is available here (US) and here (Canada).  And to those that have read, commented, offered their thoughts…thank you.

Cheers.

 Posted by at 8:54 am
Feb 072017
 

Macallan has just released a new 12 year old, flying in the face of the unrelenting negativity that has plagued the 1825 color-led series.  Bowmore has just released a new age-stated range for Travel Retail.  Neato.  Usually Travel Retail is the launch pad for all sorts of NASty stuff.  Ardbeg hit us with a 21 y.o. last year.  Several ambassadors and distillers who have visited our local whisky club and our parade of festivals have said they will stick with age-statements, barring an oddball here and there.  Refreshing.

Is this maybe a response to the chorus of voices that have rung out from Serge, Ralfy, Tab, myself, Dom and untold others?  I’m honestly not sure.  And far from confident enough to make an assertion like that, but I can say that many of the industry folks with whom I’ve spoken are well aware of consumer opinion and do, in fact, read the blogs and such.

As I’ve said, I think the industry is setting itself up for another crash.  Global markets are not what they were forecast to be (China never delivered on ‘promise’, France seems to be on the wane, North America is moving to rye and bourbon, etc), and the economy – as heavily-reliant on fossil fuels as it is – has been in the tanks for a long time now.  Factor in the uncertainty of NAFTA, Brexit and the over-sized Oompa Loompa with the combover down south and, well…things are shaky.  Whisky makers jumped on the last decade’s rampant demand and resorted with logical (if maybe shortsighted) actions: ramp up!  We’ve already seen some (Diageo) pull back on some planned initiatives.  It looks to be an interesting decade.  If we can keep our skin in the game, that is.

Keep fighting, Jedis.  There will come a time in the not too distant future when things will be better.  I feel it.

 

– C

 Posted by at 10:38 am
Feb 072017
 

You don’t honestly expect the empire – errr, industry – to sit quietly by while we take shots at the subterfuge they build around the product, do?  All through life we are told that we should question the status quo.  Accept nothing at face value.  Ask the hard questions.  Never has this been more relevant than in this age of billionaire orange men running superpowers.

The flipside is, though, that the more you question, the more you dissent.  And the more you dissent, the more it becomes an us versus them game.  They collect paycheques for doing (and saying) what they do (and say).  We’re just ‘intemperate and ill-informed’ and driven by ‘hotheaded ignorance’.  Sometimes even ‘‘expert’ bloggers or social media superheroes’.  Notice ‘expert’ was already cheekily given quotation marks by the condescending tool who said it.

Anyway…unless they result to the name-calling crap (as above and below), let’s keep it above the board.  While disingenuous, to say the least, at the end of the day they are real people with real families and real feelings.  (Though there’s one character I’m not so sure about)  Don’t give up the fight, but do it at a level that continues to highlight the deception and let time validate the right.

This goes for the big guys at the top, but also applies all the way down to the small, small, small so-called ‘Intelligent’ ones who can’t even handle a dissenting opinion without reaching for the ‘block’ button on their Twitter accounts.

Because lord knows we’d hate to be fall in with the ‘many self-promoting, opinionated and vocal experts; (with) sadly, so little expertise.’

 

– C

 Posted by at 10:23 am
Feb 072017
 

This may sound like the musings of a miser, but…

Rumours persist that this enormous round thing that has been scaring the hell out of us all (a Death Star?) – and by that I mean this whisky bubble – is heading inevitably towards the big explosion.

Distilleries in Scotland are producing at an unprecedented clip.  Casks are being rolled into warehouses with the uniformity of stormtroopers.  In some cases, barrels are being filled at higher abv than what has become the standard 63.5% casking strength simply to accommodate more alcohol in the warehouses.  And behind it all, more warehouses are being constructed to house the vastness of production.  That doesn’t even touch the new distilleries in varying stages of planning, permitting and construction that are set to perpetuate the flood.

And that is just Scotland.

Ireland, Canada and the US are teeming with both micro and macro-scale projects.  Bourbon and rye are on the rise, so logically production increases follow.  Taiwan’s Kavalan is doubling from 4.5 mlpa to 9 mlpa (million liters per annum).  Japan is producing at a sprint to try to close the mature stock gaps they’re facing.  And ‘world whiskies’ (oh, how I hate that term) are on the rise in ways we’ve never seen.

Not to mention…every time I attend a fest or chat with my whisky geek mates someone inevitably mentions the dream of starting up a distillery.

I hate to see anyone fail, especially at something that involves a lot of passion, time and money, but I can’t help but think we’re heading straight for the next whisky loch.  Remember what happened in the eighties?  I hate to say it, but that is exactly what is needed to fix the state of whisky pricing and bullish marketing standards.

The rebels have fought hard, but now it’s time for someone to blow the reactor.

 

 Posted by at 9:52 am
Feb 072017
 

Ugh.  Just bounced from one cold right into another.  Sinuses are throbbing.  Feel like I’ve been hit by a Mack truck.  No tastings for a bit.  I do have a couple of fun ones in the wings though.  I think we’ll start with a 50 year old Lagavulin.

Incidentally, is this a blog or is this a blog?  Time to start treating it as one.

 Posted by at 7:14 am
Dec 242016
 

Hi, friends.

First off, I want to wish all of you, and all of your friends and family, a happy holiday season.  Here’s hoping the next few days are full of magic and memories.  And here’s to a better 2017 than 2016 was for many of us.  Sincerely…thank you for hanging ’round with me (and us) here on the site, via email and in person when situations allow.  Good company is not only appreciated, it is the lifeblood that sustains.

Just so you know that it’s not all idling and procrastination around here, I am finally working on some jottings from the Islay experience a couple months back.  I won’t be doing it in a day by day fashion this time, but in a more event-inspired manner.  Many more reviews are near complete and some more random bits of writing and opinions coming your way.  Perhaps I’ll even get back to sharing the word on some past Dram Initiative club events that I’ve been remiss in writing up.  We’ll get there.  Aiming for much better consistency going forward.

So…on the eve of one of the most celebrated and jolly of days, I wish you all the best, and hope to see you soon.

 

– Curt

 Posted by at 9:49 am