Is Scotch Whisky Suffering From The Lindt Syndrome?

by Oliver Klimek on November 17, 2013

Time again to wrap up some thoughts that have been fermenting for quite a while.

I like chocolate. I like it almost as much as I like whisky, but I am not a chocolate geek by any margin. I don’t hunt down “small batch” “hand crafted” chocolate made by local chocolatiers (although I know to appreciate it) and sneer at supermarket offerings. Usually I get my fix of theobromine from readily availbale bigger brands, although I avoid bottom shelf stuff.

The brand that in my view probably has the best ‘quality vs. shelf exposure’ ratio is Lindt. I freely confess that I am a sucker for their Lindor stuff for example. It has struck me that in recent years the number of different varieties of Lindt chocolate has virtually exploded. Recently I took the time to count them in my local supermarket. I counted exactly 60 different varieties of chocolate bars alone. And then there is the gimmicky and seasonal stuff as well… Whenever I have a look at the shelves there seem to have some new varieties arrived and others discontinued.

Every once in a while I try some new variety I have not tasted before. All of them are good, but for decades now I keep finding myself returning to the old classics that have stood the test of time, the sensational tenderness of Lindor, the crunch of Cresta or simply their excellent plain milk chocolate.

I think it is much the same with whisky. I get to taste quite a bit of whisky, both official and independent bottlings. Granted, I am not drowned in samples of new releases like some other bloggers. But I read the reviews of people whose palates I trust. Most of what I taste and what I read about is good to very good. Scotch whisky is a high quality product without a doubt. But what do I buy myself in terms of original bottlings? Things like Ardbeg 10 or Uigeadail, Glendronach 15 of 18, Talisker 10 or 18 or Laphroaig 10 or Quarter Cask.

Wait a minute. Laphroaig Quarter Cask, isn’t that an ‘experimental’ whisky too? Indeed it was their first one and it turned out well. Frankly I think they should have stopped there. Triple Wood: shoulder shrug, PX cask: shoulder shrug, QA cask: shoulder shrug, An Cuan Mor: shoulder shrug. Talisker just has launched Storm, Dark Storm and Port Ruighe within a very short period of time. Reviews were a bit mixed.

I am all for experiments with whisky, but more often than not it seems they are not done to explore new territory but simply to always have something new ready as the Flavour of the Year. They cannot change much in the production apart from using a different malt, so the tweaking will concentrate on maturation and blending. Some companies even have a dedicated position for this. Bill Lumsden’s job at LVMH is called “Head of Whisky Creation”. Poor Dr. Lumsden is forced to come up with something new on a regular basis, otherwise he would be considered useless. The results can be admired in the annual Ardbeg shenanigans and the Glenmorangie Private Edition range.

It has probably been proven by marketing theorists that a constant blast of new products is benefitial for the total sales, even taking into account cannibalization effects. Designing and launching new products costs a lot of money, but if it wasn’t worth the while the industry wouldn’t do it. But as an old fashioned whisky geek I can only wish that they use some of this money to keep up the quality of their standard bottlings which has been dipping ever so slightly over the years.

{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

Steve November 17, 2013 at 8:49 am

Couldn’t agree more with this article. Normally you would expect this sort of experimentation when a distillery first opens – for the first 5ish years anyway for example Bruichladdich (there was a joke on Islay – no one could fart at Bruichladdich without them naming a whisky after it).

Steve.

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two-bit cowboy November 17, 2013 at 4:51 pm

Nicely distilled, Oliver.

I don’t eat so much chocolate any more, and, like you, I’m certainly not snobbish about it. We travel 190 miles (about 300km) to a monthly whisky club meeting. On our route we pass the Meeteetsee Chocolatier [ http://www.meeteetsechocolatier.com/Default.asp ]. Tim’s tiny shop has become a great part of each trip, and when they’re in stock I always buy one of his Laphroaig truffles.

Cheers,

Bob

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Sandy Sneddon November 17, 2013 at 6:55 pm

O agree, very few of the new finishes ae as good as the classics. There are honourable exeptions but maybe the reason the classics work so well is … they are classic! Saying that, I do enjoy the quirky variety of single cask malts from Scotch Malt Whisky Society but there is a difference between new marketing gimmickry and the genuine variety of a single cask.

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Simon November 18, 2013 at 2:27 am

“hey cannot change much in the production apart from using a different malt”

barley varieties, malting specifications, yeast, fermentation time are all very important variables.

I’d like to see more low yield and older barley variety special editions.

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Oliver Klimek November 18, 2013 at 5:50 am

Barley variety and malting specifications are covered by “different malt.” Of course you could tweak a lot of parameters, but the question is if this is really practicable in everyday distillery life. I don’t know of any Scotch distillery that uses different yeast strains, and changing fermentation or distilllation times would have to be very carefully planned because it could mess up internal logistics. If you let one washback ferment longer, what do you do with the other ones? If you do longer distillations, how do you keep fermentation times constant?

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Atanas November 18, 2013 at 9:55 am

Hi Oliver,
I don’t know how it is in Germany, but in Bulgaria Lindt has gone big time Dalmorian – average quality at a huge markup with a massive advertising machine behind it. It is as big as Milka! and in my view Milka only sell because of the marketing – the stuff is awful and tastes artificial.
That is why I sort of boycott Lindt. There are many better chocolates for sale here at even half the price. With time I have really come to despise them and to me they are nothing less than a money making machine together with the likes of Nestle and Kraft. I don’t buy they craft BS talks.
Perhaps the fact that I am not a big chocolate eater makes it easy for me to pick my bars but I do thoroughly enjoy eating it – just in small quantities.

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Oliver Klimek November 18, 2013 at 10:26 am

I agree that the Lindt marketing machinery is awful, but that has nothing to do with the quality of the chocolate. At least in Germany it beats all cheaper stuff by a margin. If in Bulgaria you get better chocolate than Lindt for half the price, you are very fortunate. Are these Bulgarian brands or international ones that just happen to be cheap in Bulgaria?

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Atanas November 18, 2013 at 11:08 am

There are many good Belgian ones; most of the organic/fair trade chocolates are on par with price or cheaper; and a couple of small craft Bulgarian chocolatiers are also beating them in my book.
Perhaps I did not quite well state the problem – Lindt has been positioned and marketed here as very expensive and exclusive chocolate, something that it is not. It is a good higher-mid range chocolate and I guess in Germany it is well positioned in terms of price/quality (I remember it was the case in Denmark too). Here it is simply very expensive. They have placed it in a price range where it simply cannot compete in terms of quality. However, and this is what bitters me and makes me dislike and boycott them, they have backed up this with aggressive advertisement aiming at elevating it to a ‘status’ item.

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Patrick Leclezio November 18, 2013 at 11:29 am

Oliver, I’d think that there need to be experiments by definition for any progress to take place – whether these succeed or fail, and whether they’re justifiably motivated (new territory) or not (new for new’s sake) is down to the individual effort. Overall I think it’s beneficial. I didn’t think for instance that Glenlivet’s Alpha was a particularly good whisky, but I respect the experiment – hopefully it’s triggered interest in further exploration of this type of cask profile, from which better, interesting whiskies may follow. How can the negative be curbed without impacting the positive?

Also, you mention that the quality of standard bottlings is dipping. Do you believe that this is endemic to the industry, or is this your opinion of a selective few products? Over what time-frame are you referring?

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Oliver Klimek November 18, 2013 at 3:59 pm

Of course not each and every standard bottling has become worse. My personal experience with older expressions is fairly limited, but for the past one or two decades there have been many reports about dropping quality. Today’s Talisker 10 is often said not to be on par with the old map label version, for example. It is consensus that Ardbeg 10 is not as brilliant as before the revamp anymore that happened a few years ago, let alone the current Lagavulin 16 compared to the White Horse bottlings. Macallan went NAS very likely for reasons of stock limitations and the new Gold certainly can not compete with the 10 yo sherry cask. These are a few examples. In all fairness one has to acknowledge that Burn Stewart did a good job in beefing up theier standard bottlings so it’s not all bleak and gloomy. But the overall trend seems to go into the opposite direction.

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Jeff November 25, 2013 at 2:57 pm

A very good post on a very important topic.

It remains to be seen whether there truly IS anything left to be tried with many whiskies to improve quality, let alone fully compensate for the quality being lost to the de-emphasis being placed on cask time (as well as other factors). That said, many current “experiments” are far more about marketing and keeping “excitement about whisky” at fever pitch before the bubble bursts. There are more ways to make 80-class (and lower) whisky than ever before, but real progress in process experimentation would give us more 90-class whisky that isn’t just cask strength, craft presented, better “wood managed” or “master blended” (and the limitations of these measures have shown they are no guarantee of a 90-class product either). In fact, I would argue that the biggest experiments that are being performed in whisky today aren’t in the process of production, but in the psychology of marketing: just what are the practical limits to the benefits of bullshit? If, as an industry marketing person, one says that colour is more important to quality than age, how far can you go before consumer logic, practical experience and resentment work against you? If, from the above, one argues that the consumer doesn’t need to know the age of an entry-level expression, but you still keep higher prices on the age-statement expressions which you continue to produce to, presumably, no practical benefit in terms of quality, how long will many consumers continue not to see the contradiction and the damage it inflicts on your credibility?

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Andrey December 15, 2013 at 8:13 pm

Good article, but you failed to place the “blame” where it belongs – with the consumer. The whisky industry simply reacts to what the consumer demands – variety over anything else. Scotch whisky, like many other products, has become what I call a “review product”. Today the majority of scotch drinking is all about reviewing the product, rather than just simply enjoying your favorite dram. Just think about how many bloggers are there, reviewing every single expression they taste :) And ask yourself – how many open bottles of Scotch do you have? Looking at photos on various forums, it seems that everyone has at least 10-15 bottles opened. You are not a scotch drinker – you are scotch taster :)

Now think from the perspective of the whisky industry – how do you make the “review product” consumer keep buying the product? Your only option is to keep on pumping out new products for them to review. The traditional offerings remain reserved for the traditional consumer, who is apparently a dying breed and so is the quality of the traditional dram…

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Jeff December 21, 2013 at 5:45 pm

I’ve run into this “hey, blame it all on the consumer” line of thinking before and simply don’t buy it – the industry is heavily invested, through NAS labeling and the advertising around it, in telling the consumer that age doesn’t matter (a complete reversal of its former position) – but consumers aren’t “demanding” less production information on labels. Most product runs, even the new “limited editions” are far too large to be targeting the “whisky reviewer/blogger)”(?!?) market alone. If you agree that “the quality of the traditional dram” is in decline, perhaps look at the situation from that perspective and consider that the industry is simply substituting variety for quality.

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