Whisky Prices Trend Upwards

Whisky, historically, experiences boom-and-bust cycles much like the larger economy. When times are good and people are drinking a lot of whisky, distilleries are opened or refurbished, production is ramped up, and lots of whisky is put into barrels. Usually, the 20-ish-year cycle follows this period of fat with a similar period of lean during which whisky drinking goes out of fashion, distilleries close or decrease production, and surplus barrels are sold at bargain prices to keep the lights on. (Traditionally, it is the function of independent bottlers to ease the impact of these cycles by buying excess barrels in the bust years and bottling and selling them in the boom years, a sound investment strategy).

Another side-effect of the boom periods is that whisky prices soar, often accompanied by frenzied inflation in the value of ‘rare’ and collectible bottles. Right now, like it or not, we are experiencing a boom. Distilleries are opening or ramping up production, prices are ratcheting higher, and limited-edition bottles are making headlines with record prices at auction. Many distilleries are riding the boom by releasing special bottlings and limited-editions at inflated prices because they know there’s consumer demand for them.

Just in the last 12 months, I have noticed prices at Costco, Trader Joe’s, and my local K&L Wines & Spirits sliding upwards. Glenlivet 12 used to be $21. It’s now $24. Glenfiddich 18 was $44 at Costco a few months ago. Now it’s $49. Balvenie DoubleWood was $33 at Trader Joe’s for awhile. Now it’s $37. Even Finlaggan Old Reserve snuck up from $17 to $19 when I wasn’t looking.

It’s not just the bottom-end, either. Ardbeg Alligator is absurdly overpriced despite its 11-year age because – why? Because it’s limited. Oh, and they used some new oak barrels. Pssh. So does Jack Daniel’s. Glenfiddich Cask of Dreams is 14 years old and is asking $99. Oh, and it uses new wood too. See David Driscoll’s thoughts on the matter here and here.

Don’t get me wrong – nobody is forcing anybody to buy these higher-priced drams, and many of them are quite good. David says Cask of Dreams is very tasty, and Alligator was nothing to be sniffed at, either. Maybe they’re even worth the price-tag considering their quality. I’m just pointing out that prices are on an upward slope, as are money-grabs like Alligator, the new single pot still Irish whiskies from Midleton, and Buffalo Trace getting consumers to pay for its research & development.

So what’s to be done? I enjoy drinking $50 whisky. I feel guilty drinking $99 whisky. To help make sane decisions when picking out bottles, here are some criteria that I use when judging a whisky’s value (to me):

I’ll pay $30 for a value malt or a decent blend or high-quality bourbon that doesn’t taste like paint thinner. If I can drink it straight without cringing, I’m sold.

I’ll pay $50 for a distillery standard expression between the ages of 10 and 16, especially if I know I like the distillery’s house character. I’ll even consider paying this for a truly excellent blend or well-respected bourbon.

I’ll pay $85 for a special bottling or limited-edition expression if it has something intriguing about it, like a Sauternes finish, fino sherry aging, a really good story, or which is a really spectacular single-barrel or vintage. Same goes for an independent-bottling of one of my favorite distilleries which shows a different side to the product (like an unusual cask finish or age statement).

I’ll pay $99 – $120 (sometimes) for something at or older than 18 years of age, but only if I know in advance that I like it.

I think the key to saving money is knowing what you like, and what’s worth the splurge. Knowing that Springbank really pushes your buttons makes dropping $99 on a fino-finished Springbank a more palatable proposition. Knowing that you’ll never see another Calvados cask finish makes dropping $85 on an Alchemist bottling of Highland Park worthwhile. Knowing which of the many blends provides a relaxing, satisfying sip can help you space out the expensive drams with cheaper ones. If nothing else, remember that this, too, shall pass and we’ll all be in a whisky bust as soon as something else becomes popular with young people in Japan. When açaí eau-de-vie becomes all the rage in the Argentina nightclub scene, it will be time to start thinking about buying up some of those excess casks of Glendronach!

Posted in Articles, Featured Articles | Tagged , , , , , ,
10 Comments

10 Responses to Whisky Prices Trend Upwards

  1. Allen says:

    I agree with the sentiments here and at the K&L blog, but maybe we’ve all become a little bit spoiled? There is more interest in whiskey than ever before so prices were bound to go up, but we also have an unbelievable selection of products. New distilleries, independent bottlers, cask finished expressions, older expressions, and that’s just bourbon! I still think that most bourbon prices are quite a deal for the quality you are getting. I won’t complain too much when I can grab High West Double Rye for $35, Weller 12 year for $25, and Buffalo Trace for $22. Should price trends continue then perhaps my tune will change, but for now I still think it’s an amazing time to be a whiskey aficianado.

  2. cato says:

    Funny you mention the price inflation. I was just noticing the same thing lately. I was at one of my favorite scotch shops just this last Friday and thy were repricing all of their bottles. I snapped up the last bottle of Balvenie Single Barrel before they marked it up $5. I also snapped up a Port Ellen 7th release for a very friendly price.

    Good thing I have been stock piling for a while because it seems that my buying days are going to be few and far between until this bubble pops. It may take a few years but one of the newest distilleries, Roseisle, has an annual capacity of an astounding 12.5 million liters. Tat is going to make a difference.

    There are still good deals to be found, but it seems as though they are going to be very hard to find for a while.

  3. Martini says:

    EVERYTHING is a bargain in the U.S. compared to Canada. You don’t know how good you’ve got it. For example, Balvenie Doublewood is $70 in Ontario (at current exchange rates that’s $70.11 USD, no kidding). And even if we wanted Ardbeg Alligator, we can’t get it. I’m giddy as heck if I can buy something I love for under $100.

    • Dan says:

      Amen to that! When Lagavulin 16 is $109 CAD (75cl), and even something like Glenfiddich 12 is $47 CAD (75cl; for another price comparison Aberlour 10 is $45 CAD for a 75cl bottle). Prices seem to make no sense…in September last year, my wife, who travels for work, was able to pick me up a 100cl bottle of Balvenie Doubewood in Ethiopia for approximately $60 CAD (while here in Ontario, a 75cl bottle is $69)…and then it was nearly confiscated by UK Customs & Excise when she transited through Heathrow because she was importing product from a non-EU country, but that is another story entirely.

  4. Absolutely. If I’ve learned anything by running this blog, it’s that California has some amazing prices on whisky. Part of that is some excellent retailers who are focusing on getting quality whisky in customers’ hands, rather than gouging on ‘luxury’ products. Part of it must be the inscrutable price-setting at all of the various levels of middlemen between Scotland and the customer. Until some kind of global economy tears down these walls, we all have to navigate the ridiculousness in our own way, frustrating as it might be. I feel for you guys in Canada, although maybe the $700 a month check I write for Health Insurance makes up for it a little? ;)

    • Dan says:

      Did a bit more digging on this subject. As part of the LCBO’s mandate for social responsibility, there is a legislated requirement here in Ontario that the LCBO review and raise liquor prices on an annual basis. The LCBO just posted record sales for the 17th straight year, and paid the Ontario government a $1.63 billion (CAD) dividend based on its net profit (this doesn’t include provincial taxes also collected at the point-of-sale). So yes, while we pay higher prices, our whisky purchases help pay for our health system and other provincial programs…

  5. Martini says:

    Yes, point well taken. We pay for our “free” healthcare with those taxes. I just wish they’d go easier on the alcohol and heavier on, well, other stuff. Like, for example, stuff I don’t buy!

  6. Michael says:

    Sadly, prices have been skyrocketing for about five years now. Since I started drinking five-to-six years ago I’ve seen some brands literally double in price (I’m looking at you Dalmore. The 12yr was great at $20, at $40, not so much.)

    Knob Creek used to be $20 too, usually $35-40 now. Glad I have Costco for that one, though) and many others have gone up by $20-30. For the most part, though, Bourbons have stayed relatively stable over that period.

    Despite the price increase, overall I’m glad whisky/whiskey drinking has gained in popularity, it means distilleries and distributors have more money to ship the product further. Five years ago I couldn’t get Lagavulin 16 in my area (Well, easily). Now it’s at Costco.

    • Freddy says:

      That 12 yr Dalmore is now $50 in most stores; another skyrocketing single malt is the 12 yr Balvenie DBL Wood (was $35 a few years ago, but now it’s at least $50).

      If ya ever find a good deal on a whisky that you like – stock up!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>