I’ve been thinking about this statement recently, which shows up all the time in blogs, whisky books, magazines, and forums:
“Big whisky (and other spirits) brands strive foremost for consistency in their product.”
This statement is often used when discussing large-scale vatting procedures, wood management, blending and sourcing whiskies for blends, pricing and distribution, and so on. It seems to be a pretty much established statement of fact that big producers care very much about maintaining consistency, for the health of their brand and the loyalty of their customers. It’s certainly all over their marketing materials. It is also used for the explanation of a lot of less-than-ideal practices in the industry, such as avoiding experimentation, vatting together good casks with bad, covering up mistakes via vatting, using a large number of sources for a blend to discourage individual or unique flavors, and blending to target a (bland) middle-ground that is considered best for all palates. It also seems to be particular to the larger brands, which makes sense when you consider that consistency is most important to mainstream bartenders and restaurants, who want to be able to rely on a very specific flavor profile to make, in turn, consistent drinks. It also makes sense when you consider that the larger the company is, the more cost-saving efficiencies can be implemented in the name of efficiency (as opposed to doing things for the sake of quality).
Consider, for example, the fact that all whisky producers make “good” barrels and “bad” barrels, due to a wide (and usually uncontrollable) number of variables in whisky maturation. A quality-first company might sell off the “bad” barrels wholesale and only use the “good” barrels for vatting, while a “consistency” (read: profit) -first company might vat together the good and bad (and, of course, sell off the “best” as single-barrel expressions) and sell the whole thing for a price based on the historical average quality. If, in the course of many batches, more “bad” barrels start to appear, quality goes down and price remains the same. This is exacerbated by larger companies, who have an efficiency interest in not closely examining every single barrel. Such companies are also more likely (in fact are incentivized by the mitigating effects of large-scale vatting) to cut corners in the face of rising costs.
After a long time of accepting the consistency message myself, I’ve lately begun to think of it as an illusion. While it’s obvious that single-cask expressions have little or no consistency batch-to-batch due to the nature of single barrel production, and some brands like Glenrothes actually celebrate the individuality and variation of each batch release, I’ve seen many many examples of large “consistent” brands slowly losing quality over time, to the extent that consumers have begun to notice.
I’ve heard firsthand (from readers) about quality degradations in all of the mainstream blends, some bourbons, Lagavulin, Macallan, Bruichladdich, and elsewhere. I’ve had a large number of whisky consumers emailing me to ask if I’d noticed quality degradations in their favorite brands – often blends. I’ve had more than a few people complaining that the product had declined so much that they’d ceased buying it.
It seems to me that if an entire industry has put consistency (not price, quality, flavor, or volume) as priority number one and yet is seeing widespread complaints about lowering quality – something’s fishy. It should be considered, however, that as human beings are victim to several sensory biases, these accounts are not necessarily evidence of actual descending quality. As someone becomes accustomed to a bottle, a second or third bottle may appear bland due to familiarity. Also, if someone’s palate is disturbed (from food, previous drink, illness, weather) or if the bottle is mishandled (left open too long, left in direct light, poured and let sit too long, from a bad batch, shipped with a bad seal, etc.), it is natural human bias to attribute a drop in quality to the product, not to the context.
Consistency in whisky has never been particularly important to me – it certainly isn’t as big a deal in wine, where variation is so much the norm that yearly quality calendars and charts are published, and hence the expression “2003 was a good year in Bordeaux” – but is this just another whisky marketing ploy that turns out to be so much hogwash in the face of profits? Is the disappearance of available stock due to demand surge causing this severe a quality downslope, despite corresponding price increases? Is the quality degradation intentional, and being managed slowly over time in an attempt to keep consumers from noticing the “watering down” of their “consistent” products?
I have my suspicions about the answers to those questions.
So what can we do, as whisky consumers in the face of an unprovable industry-wide trend? Simple. Rely on your own tastes. If your new bottle of your favorite brand disappoints, give it a few more tries (spread over several days to eliminate context), and then try something new! Vote with your wallet and with your taste buds. Also, realize that constricting stocks and rising materials and fuel prices are going to squeeze down the quality (and squeeze up the price) of even the most conscientious brand, but that doesn’t mean you have to settle for bad whisky passed off as a “consistent”.