Three Current Trends In Whisky And Why They Are Worrysome

by Oliver Klimek on February 12, 2014

The last years have seen quite a change in the fomerly so conservative whisky business. I see three major trends, and I must admit that none of them makes me happy.

1. Garni du Jour

Recently I wrote about the Lindt Syndrome, the ever increasing number of whisky expressions from single distilleries or brands. While this refers to what’s inside the bottle, there is another syndrome whisky is suffering from, this time affecting the things you cannot drink. It is not only about packaging but the entire way many whisky bottlings are presented in the market these days.

In a 1978 interview with Down Beat Magazine, Frank Zappa used the term garni du jour to describe the American music business of the late 1970s:

“There’s so much peripheral stuff that helps them make their analysis of what the music is. Here’s the simplest example: Take any record, stick it in a white jacket and hand it to somebody and let him listen to it. The next day, hand him the same record with a real album cover–with a picture and some type on the back that gives him some key to what the music is. The results are completely different. The way in which the material is presented is equally important as what’s on the record. It’s the GARNI DU JOUR way of life. You go buy a hamburger. If somebody gives you a hamburger on a dish, it means one thing. If somebody gives you a hamburger on a dish with a piece of green stuff and a wrinkled carrot and a radish–even though you don’t eat that stuff–it’s a Deluxe Hamburger. It’s the same piece of dog meat on the inside, but one’s got the GARNI DU JOUR. American have become accustomed to having a GARNI DU JOUR on everything.”

The analogy is not perfect, but I see many parallels with the whisky busniess of the early 2010s here. The whisky by itself is not sufficient anymore. It needs to have a story, or a myth; and name and packaging need to reflect this. Highland Park certainly is the leader in this discipline. They have decided to go full Nordic, starting off with Earl Magnus et. al., continuing with the Travel Retail (don’t get me started…) Warrior series all the way to the range of Valhalla gods who come in their own mock viking boats. Anything mystic or rough will do just fine. Arran Machrie Moor, Bowmore Devil’s Cask, Bowmore Tempest, Talisker Storm, Ardbeg Corryvreckan et cetera ad nauseam.

Another disicpline is inventing fancy new names, preferrably in Gaelic. Leader of the pack here must be Glenmorangie who have made it a tradition to pick names for their whiskies that are almost but not quite different from Hyundai cars.

I could go on and spend a couple of hundred words on citing more examples, from top to bottom shelf, but I will spare you and myself from this.

2. No Age Statement

NAS whiskies have been a pet peeve of whisky geeks for quite a while. Usually the whisky industry defends them with the “This allows us to select the best casks regardless of the age” argument. Honi soit qui mal y pense. Hardly anyone outside believes this anymore, especially since Macallan has turned their entire basic range into NAS bottlings.

Yes, of course there are notable exceptions like the Aberlour A’bunadh or the Balvenie Tun 1401. But especially in Travel Retail (oh no, not again…) NAS bottlings often smack more of cost optimization and problems with dwindling stocks of properly aged whisky than they please the palate.

It should be noted that this is not a specifically Scottish problem. A lot of bourbon whiskies have dropped their age statements as well.

Much has been written about the NAS trend here and by other bloggers, so I will keep this short. But Lukasz (aka Lucas) Dynowiak from the Edinburgh Whisky blog deserves a special mention here. He is not only a whisky blogger but also involved in the PR work for Inver House (or International Beverage to be more exact) who for example produce anCnoc, Balblair and Old Pulteney. Now this looks like a proper conflict of interests. But even he attacks NAS in a recent blog post, and he does it with vigour.

3. Pricing

Another old ‘favourite’. High end prices have gone up like crazy as exemplified by the 2013 Diageo Special Releases. with visible effects on general whisky prices as well. Again, much has been written about it and perhaps you might even be bored by it by now. The interplay of retail price tags, auction results and whisky investment gurus has created a situation which I find more and more explosive. Now that the Chinese newly rich threaten to step back as buyers, the air on Price Peak has become rather thin.

Conclusion

All of the three trends are not exactly to my liking. But when they are combined, things begin to look really worrying. There is nothing bad per se to tell a fairy talestory about a whisky and to wrap it in fancy clothes. But if it is of dubious age and costs more than comparable age statement whiskies, it is probably not only me wondering if the garni du jour serves only as a disguise for what some call a rip-off.

This is of course written from the percpective of a whisky geek. But to understand why these trends happen, we need to look at their reflections in the glazed facades of the corporate headquarters.

  • Garni du jour equals “creating demand”
  • NAS equals “coping with demand”
  • Pricing equals “Increasing the profit margin”

We see that this is nothing else than the 101 of running a business. It looks as if the whisky industry has finally found the magic formula for success.

Collectability, or ‘investment grade’ in whisky newspeak , has increasingly become a guideline for many new whisky expressions. Cost and stock optimization is the other. When both come together: Bingo!

But how many of these fancy new whiskies are actually better than their equally or even more cheaply priced age statement ancestors in their boring standard bottles? I dare say more arrows point down than up. Age of stock in NAS whiskies defintely is a factor here, but could it also be that the term ‘quality’ has experienced a shift in meaning? The amount of pleasure the liquid in the glass gives to you is something different than the consistency of the production process. But that is what modern quality management is all about. Just a thought.

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