Don’t Feed The Beast That Chokes You

by Oliver Klimek on May 28, 2016

“Whisky isn’t for an elite, it is for everyone.” – Dave Broom, “Whisky: The Manual”

The above quote has become a favourite of whisky bloggers and drinks writers, but as time moves on it more and more appears like wishful thinking.

I have been dreading the day when I would have to write an article titled “Whisky – The Drink For The One Percent”. In a way, this is that article, but I am going to wrap it up differently.

Let’s go back to the good old days for a moment. I am not talking about the days of White Horse Lagavulin, Laphroaig Green Stripe and the Cadenhead Dumpy Ardbegs. No, I mean the very recent good old days around 2010, when I began to blog about whisky and started to dig more seriously into the whisky universe.

My spending limit for a bottle has alwas been a “soft 100 euros” which would mean I’d buy the occasional bottle for around €120 or maybe even €150. Back in the days, this money would buy me a 27 yo St. Magdalene (note my “quite expensive” remark, oh dear…), a 28 year old Port Ellen, a 30 year old Strathisla or a little later still a 29 year old Caol Ila. You could also buy two bottles of the fabulous Highland Park 18 and still get some change in return. In short, it still was possible to buy “the good stuff” for acceptable prices.

Of course the prices for whisky from closed distilleries are bound to go up over time. But if you take Caol Ila for instance, today you can find a 15 year old single cask for £100 (~€130) and just recently The Whisky Agency released an 8 year old that sets you back €120+ [Side note: Yeah, I know “age is just a number”. But especially in the case of Caol Ila, it helps].

I have a friends and family background where spending over €30 on a bottle of booze is out of question. But I could always counter this with the argument that the liquid in a €100+ bottle is worth it because it (usually) is so much better than a €17.99 Kirschwasser from Schladerer.

But with today’s whisky prices I have a hard time justifying to myself to pay this much for a bottle of whisky because once you leave the safe territory of trusty standard bottlings such as Lagavulin 16 or Ardbeg 10, you get less and less for your money every year.

We all know what has led to this development. Even though the total whisky market has been more or less flat for a couple of years after a massive growth especially in Asia, the demand for aged single malt continues to outstrip the supply. The whisky industry tends to be caught in the pork cycle, there is an oversupply when nobody wants it and a shortage when demand is high.

I am sure you can see my frustration that has only increased over the years. For “the good stuff” I have to rely on samples or on the generosity of friends now. But to just take a bottle from the shelf and pour myself a stiff oldie has become next to impossible.

Of course whisky is not dead. It just smells funny, to paraphrase a Frank Zappa quote. It is still possible to find good or even very good whisky for decent prices, and this includes dusty hunting at auctions. And by no means this means I will turn away from whisky.

But with the current situation on the whisky market I am feeling choked by a beast with multiple tentacles: Investors, collectors and whisky geeks with deep pockets that are willing to pay any price for a bottle they fancy have been helping to drive up whisky prices to ever more ridiculous levels.

Just the other day I stumbled upon a new release from Glenlivet for America with 14 yo single cask whiskies for $350 a bottle. And this situation is not restricted to Scotch whisky. A $300 new release of Booker’s Rye has blogging heavyweight Steve Ury seriously asking himself pretty much the same existential question as myself.

Indeed I have been pondering for quite a while now about how to proceed with this blog in the light of such developments. You might have noticed a significant slowdown over the last months, and eventually I decided to put up the “Hibernation Mode” banner. And here is why:

Along with the recent whisky boom went the whisky blogging boom. Today there is a small army of a few hundred whisky bloggers spreading the gospel. They are joined by a number of professional writers who publish books and write for magazines; sometimes you can even watch them on television. Also some bloggers have turned professional or do paid writing gigs along their day jobs. Many also host whisky tastings, and overall this army is doing a great job to spread the love for whisky.

This is not necessarily a bad thing of course, and I don’t want to personally blame any writer or blogger of  pouring oil ino the fire. But with a whisky market like it is today it is only logical that the more people catch the whisky virus, the more the strain on the supply of aged single malt whisky increases. This in turn will ultimately lead to even higher prices as long as stocks in the warehouses continue to be low.

As long as your disposable income is high enough, all this doesn’t really matter. But for a whisky blogger on a budget the situation is becoming rather surreal. Now I have never been one of the most enthusiastically writing bloggers around, but I have been called influential by people whose opinions I value.

How big this influence actually is is another question, but I have decided to restrict my blogging in a way that I can have the feeling not pour oil into the fire myself. Some of you might say that I have been largely publishing just rants anyway, but if things won’t change dramatically I would just be repeating myself.

I will not shut down the blog completely. There is still a small queue of review samples to work through (let’s see how this will develop…) and I will post the occasional tasting note for other whiskies I have tasted. One immediate change is that there won’t be any affiliate links in new tasting notes. If I find the time and energy, I might also delete the older ones. There will also be more blog articles should any interesting topics come around. But you can expect the blog to remain low-key until the grip of the beast has eased at least a bit.

{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

Josh Feldman May 28, 2016 at 1:47 pm

Say it ain’t so, Ollie! But I am not arguing. As usual you define the whisky world’s Zeitgeist. Personally I am 100% with you. I haven’t posted in months – but I tell myself that I’ve just been busy. I can’t afford to keep up with the exciting new releases (and often can’t find them even if I could). I am happy to see whisky’s success but I can’t help feel it might be a victim of its own success. Meanwhile, I’m not going to stop drinking it or writing about it. But thanks to you I am going to give the topic real thought.

Reply

SK May 28, 2016 at 2:46 pm

Have stopped spending unless it is from sources where there is value and quality, see Cadenhead / Whiskybroker/ Signatory..

Also look for alternatives:
-Armagnac
-Rum (check foursquare, Jamaica )
-Last but best is dry sherry. You can find VORS (over 30yrs) amontillado or cortado or oloroso for
20-30 GBP

Reply

sku May 28, 2016 at 3:09 pm

Well, I’m very sad to hear this but obviously, can’t blame you since I would second nearly everything you say here. One consequence of the whiskey craze and price boom is not only that it becomes a drink for the one percent, but that we lose valuable independent voices like yours because us regular-folk bloggers who aren’t on the sample train can’t afford to participate anymore. In any case, I’ll always look forward to hearing what you have to say, however infrequently you say it.

Reply

Emmett Hossack May 28, 2016 at 8:07 pm

Well said Oliver. While we cannot do anything about the forces of supply and demand, I encourage you to be there for the whisky community when different issues arise.

Reply

Steffen Brauner May 28, 2016 at 11:58 pm

Welcome to the world of whiskybloggers who hates the world of whisky

Like you, I have been into a hiatus. There just seem to be nothing worth writing about anymore. I don’t have as well known a blog as you but I share your pains. The last couple of years I had to search my mind for anything worth whiskyblogging about. Except whining. Whining and whining. But who wants to write that again and again. And nobody wants to read that again and again

These wise words was once told to me. Or repeated. “If you have only negative things to say about something it’s better to shut up”.

I coould have written a blog post a week about how pathetic the whiskyworld has turned. The latest expensive Pernod Ricard Glenlivet is just the last step of something that has been happening for many years

There is a reason I havent bought a whisky from at least 10 of the leading brands in 5-10 years

They sit on million of casks and they have 2 ways to bottle them

40% overprised NAS or some packaging driven bottlings that is priced at 200£+ or sometimes 1000£+ but is on the level of what independet bottlers sells or used to sell for 40-50£.

The whisky world is just one big metaphor of HC Andersens Emperors new clothes

Luckily the world of beers have come to my salvation

Steffen

Reply

Mark May 29, 2016 at 1:28 pm

Please do not delete the older notes when you write notes for a newer bottling. Your old notes are still valuable for some people like me , who are looking for sane and honest comments on the core whiskies of distilleries. Besides, it is always more curious and fun to compare an experienced malthead’s take on an older and newer version of a core range whisky, as it gives an idea about the trace the quality of some malts have followed over the years.
And, thans for the great work you have been putting up, hope to see you in full-throttle mode when(if) the whisky world attains a more sane state.

Reply

Oliver Klimek May 29, 2016 at 3:54 pm

No, I was just talking about removing the affiliate links from the old tasting notes. I will not delete any posts.

Reply

Bernard Gutman May 29, 2016 at 3:04 pm

Oliver – please keep writing. Don’t let the bastards get you down. It could be worse.

Here at the foot of Africa our currency, the Rand, is around 17.30 to the Euro. In 2011 it hovered around 9.50. In 2011 one dollar bought you 7 rand. Now, one dollar buys 15 rand. Our currency has been annihilated.

Thankfully we’ve been spared from the onslaught of some of the new / exciting / much improved / much older / much younger, but you wouldn’t know it / much prettier / look, it sparkles… type of releases. A few reasons for this are that generally whisky sold here has to be a minimum of 43% ABV and in 750 ml bottles. The other reason is that the market here is big – for normal whisky. Special releases priced in Euro seem destined for Europe and the Far East, not South Africa. We pay in the ever-weakening rand.

Your blog is a great source of independent, intelligent whisky thoughts. I think you say what some of us would like to, but don’t. I took the view many years ago that I was not going to knock any of the distilleries and their corporate owners in a public forum, as much as I often would like to.

When a particular brand stopped selling its range of whiskies with age statements and replaced them with NAS expressions of various colours at three times the price, I felt for the brand ambassador, trying to defend the indefensible. I feel for the people on the ground, the marketing managers, brand ambassadors and so on, and would not want them to suffer the corporate wrath from their association with me. I keep some of my views for private conversations.

Also – I work for most of the big companies presenting their whiskies. The pocket money I make from talking about whisky goes a little way to alleviating the burden of university and school fees. It also keeps me in whisky and gives me the opportunity to taste whiskies I normally would not.

I saw the same thing happen with cigars, back in the day. Prices skyrocketed. New releases, limited editions, celebrations of obscure events – all because most people wanted to try something new. I knew a bit of what went on behind the scenes – artificial pricing to the extent that before the Trinidad range was released to the public, Habanos had a choice of marketing the Tridinad range 30% above or below the price points for Cohiba, which was then the flagship brand. They went high – and people paid, happily it seems.

But conglomerates own most whisky companies . They have shareholders to answer to. Even the smaller, independent distilleries have to deal with shareholders and banks. High scores at blind tastings mean nothing to accountants, bankers and shareholders. Are they are interested in what a couple of hundred bloggers round the world think about their whisky? As long as it sells, and sells well, the “suits” will be happy. You – and some of the other bloggers who are taken very seriously by “thinking” whisky lovers – are going to influence the 1%., maybe the 10%. The average whisky drinker will believe the marketing hype, pretty pictures and will only read the first few lines of a review.

It makes economic sense to raise prices when demand increases. If the main market for a new release of 1000 bottles of Glenwhatever is in Taiwan, then the marketing and sales team will price for that market. If you are a shareholder of a company do you want them to make more profit, or less?

Many people I speak with say exactly what you do. They feel taken advantage of. But will they stop buying their favourite daily dram? Probably not. In South Africa, the market that accounts for most of the sales of premium brands is driven by image. One’s status is determined by what bottle is on the table. The older, the better, the more you have arrived. A lot of the whiskies (premium and standard) are consumed with mixers – sprite, lemonade etc. A release from a closed distillery isn’t going to be popular. A big name is. A big name with a big age statement and fancy packaging is going to be very popular.

Apart from a professional curiosity about the new releases I have neither desire nor budget to buy any of them. I’d like to taste them, of course, but I’m happy with what I have and the knowledge that I’ve enough whisky in my cabinet to last a while.

While there is whisky, there is hope.

So – please keep writing and sharing the wisdom of a true whisky lover.

Reply

Jeff May 30, 2016 at 3:44 pm

I disagree with Oliver quite frequently, but that is because I am able to find something of substance to disagree with – because he expresses a definite point of view, unlike most bloggers who don’t know, or won’t admit, why they’re really blogging. To rise to enough prominence to qualify for free industry samples? To provide another largely unquestioning ad for just whatever the industry decides to put out this month? To write enough of the latter to achieve the former? To “not know” whether age matters to whisky, or to only go so far as to suggest that, despite overwhelming evidence that age does matter, that any question they or the industry doesn’t want to answer somehow becomes “debatable”? The “gospel” that these people are spreading bears close examination in whose interests it serves; “love of whisky” doesn’t necessarily translate into “truth about whisky”.

And if the truth is out there, people should speak it instead of keeping it for private conversations. For some reason, most whisky commentary needs to be pre-sanitized in order to be accepted – acceptance being dependent upon making sure that said commentary doesn’t hurt anyone’s bottom line. It’s this kind of silence, on the utter ridiculousness of NAS, on the endorsement of quality at the expense of value (it might be good, but the asking price is fucking stupid), which has got us where we are. It’s true that, in the end, pricing is market driven, but one of the contributing factors to that galloping market is a lack of honest questioning by bloggers over whether many of these whiskies represent any kind of good value for money – people willing to line up to be gouged seems to pass for “evidence” that there’s really no such thing as gouging. One can forget about the professional writers for this kind of examination; their commentary was sown up by the industry a long time ago – always just “exciting times ahead for whisky” from them.

Oliver’s point about pricing is well made, as is his recognition that if one is priced out of the market, one is also priced out of things to talk about in terms of products. He has a right to, and his reasons for, his decision, of course – but I do hope he’ll keep plugging away; this has been one of the few places to discuss whisky that didn’t feel like it was about to break away to provide a word from its sponsor.

Reply

James June 1, 2016 at 12:35 pm

Hi Oliver,

I’ll join the call from everybody else that you should keep up Dramming.com. Nowadays we are conditioned to thinking that if we are not posting on social media/blogs daily we are somehow not contributing or no longer relevant. This is definitely the mentality of some Scotch whisky marketing departments, too. However, it’s the quality of the contribution every time and I’d far rather read a weekly or even monthly post from this blog than a daily update from certain others.

Steffen is right that it can feel like there is nothing to really write about regarding the current whisky industry without getting miserable. My view is that distancing oneself from the joyless conveyor belt of new releases and the latest pricing strategy allows you to focus on whisky more generally: what it can offer when shared and appreciated in contexts beyond the nosing glass. I feel this is what Johanne McInnis, for example, does really well.

Bernard makes the excellent point that in most cases we are carrying sufficient stocks of whisky to last us some time! Save up those doses of 30 or 40 euros and get something tasty every 3-4 months. You have your sample network which is something I don’t, living in the Middle East: it’s still possible to get your fix of new and interesting tastes.

I’m slowly learning not to get too bothered by trying everything new, being content with what I have and realising which whisky drinking situations give me the most pleasure. I’m now into June and I haven’t bought a single bottle of whisky in 2016; samples yes, and drams in bars, but no new bottles. You know what, it feels pretty good.

Keep up the great work – but only if it continues to make you happy.

Reply

bifter June 3, 2016 at 9:50 am

Hi Oliver. My journey in whisky mirrors the one that you describe above and, judging by the comments, is true of many others here. Bright eyed optimism and joyous celebration followed by disillusionment and a sense of betrayal. We lived through the good times though! The whisky market today is clearly dysfunctional and not just from the point of view of the average consumer. For example, there are some independent distilleries around but, inevitably, they are snapped up and turned into marketing vehicles for large conglomerates sniffing a profit in this market upturn. Or, living in Scotland, it galls me that (for example) Johnnie Walker is a product that we should be proud of but whose brand is domiciled in the Netherlands for tax avoidance purposes and the proud 192 year history of the Kilmarnock bottling plant workers was trampled over for another few pounds of profit. And don’t even get me started on NAS or the Premiumisation of malts like Mortlach! So much more I could say.

I’ve always enjoyed this blog, you usually had the knack of summing up just exactly what I felt about the market at different points in time. But I can understand your reasons for parking it. I’ll look out for any future updates but all the best for now!

Reply

kallaskander June 17, 2016 at 9:00 am

Hi there,

hi Oliver,

I was away a fortnight in merry olde England and only yesterday read your latest blog entry.

And I was shocked, Oliver shocked I tell you.

I had read Sku’s self questioning and self doubts and via my annoying opinions https://myannoyingopinions.com/2016/06/01/coming-soon-35/ learnt of other bloggers that asked the Sinn-Frage the question does it all still make sense what I/we do here in blogging about whisky.

The first comment from Josh Feldman confirmed something I had realised from the middle of last year on to very recently. Common stagnation in the whisky blogosphere.

There are some blogs where the frequency of posting about whisky has become scarcer and scarcer and in some cases I wonder if the blog was still alive. The reason most probably common frustration.

I post and read at whiskywhiskywhisky forum and have been tempted more than once in the last year from summer 2015 on till today to ask the question what was going on there and if the forum was not too tired and in general decline.
I did not because I did not follow all the threads there and did not want to start doing so for reasons of time. But the threads I do follow have not been very active in the last half year. Compared to former times that is….

What I want to say Oliver is that I can understand your frustration. And if it can console you – you are neither alone nor the only one that asks about the sense in blogging about whisky anymore.

But…

I am sure you know that according to Jeff the whisky bloggers divide into two sorts. Independent ones like you and marketing machines like many others. Not only according to Jeff by the way but in reality as well 😎

I can well understand that the first category is very frustrated about the state of whisky. I feel the same as a consumer enthusiast and blog reader – but I do not run a blog I only comment and that I will not stop.

One other argument apart from the fact that when independents like you stop only the commercial blogs will be left over is that your voice and voices like sku Curt Josh and many others that annoy the whisky industry are very badly needed.

The whisky industry has paid agents like Nick Morgan or Ken Grier to spin their yarn and to justify what ever they think needs to be justified at any given time.

Against the likes of Mr Morgan – head of whisky outrage at Diageo as I call him – there is not one or two opponents of us whisky consumers or enthusiasts in the flesh. There is not one counterpart person I could name.

So the resistance against the decline of whisky and whiskey rests on shoulders like yours and all the other bloggers that stand up against the tide.

That is tideous – pun intended – and not very rewarding. To be blunt it is frustrating. But it is neccessary. So please „Don’t give up“. Listen to Peter and Kate and know you are not alone and please do not forsake us.

Greetings
kallaskander

Reply

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: