David Driscoll (yeah, yeah, I get about 90% of my inspiration for these articles from things he discusses on his blog, so sue me) posted recently about the global drop in the quality (and value) of single-malt scotch that has occurred over the last few years (and is still occurring). His case-in-point, Lagavulin 16 which used to be a “better deal” than young Kilchoman, but is now inferior, thus making the pricey Kilchoman a lot more reasonable.
He also notes “I’d rather pay a little more for better quality, wouldn’t you?” which ordinarily I’d agree with. A large percentage of the opinions I post here on this blog are related to the value of whisky – finding better quality for a reasonable price. I’d far rather pay $45 for Great King Street: Artist’s Blend than anything comparable (and cheaper) from any of the major scotch blenders. On the other hand, I’d rather pay for Lagavulin 16 than the slightly better (and far rarer and more expensive) Lagavulin 12. My sweet spot for whisky falls between $40 and $75. If a malt is good and falls in that price range, I’m sold and willing to recommend it. If it falls in the $80 to $100 range, it better be excellent for me to recommend it, and I probably won’t buy it frequently. If it’s above $100 and isn’t the most sensational liquid to pass my lips, ever, then I’m not on board. That just happens to be where my budget and sensibilities lie on the spectrum. In contrast, there are plenty of people who would consider $40 for scotch a ludicrous waste of money, and plenty of other people who wouldn’t dream of wasting their hard-earned trust fund money on anything under $150. (I kid.)
The problem comes when the whisky market shifts upwards until my “sweet spot” covers relatively few choices. If Lagavulin 16 isn’t worth my money anymore due to a drop in quality (and, truly, who wants to spend more money on an incrementally worse product?) and concurrent increase in price, then I (apparently) have to turn to single-cask Kilchoman for $110. I love David D., I do, but I simply can’t swing that. I’m sure the stuff is excellent (as all Kilchoman that I’ve tried has been), but it can’t be $110 excellent, at least not for my wallet.
So where does that leave you and me, assuming you’re on board with me thus far? We have a few choices:
1. Other Booze. David has been pushing the alternative spirits lately – Mezcal and Tequila, Rum and Rhum Agricole, Cognac, Armagnac, and Calvados, among others. I’ve found a few gems but ultimately find myself either vaguely disappointed with the products I’ve tried, or wishing for the specific flavor profile of single-malt scotch. Perhaps it’s the curse of being a “scotch man”, but I find it a lot harder to find a bottle of those spirits that meets all my criteria for cabinet regular. Still, replacing scotch with a more cost-effective alternative spirit one or two nights a week is one way to reduce one’s dependency on foreign scotch. *cough* You know what I mean.
2. Find the remaining gems. I still have a few winners in my cabinet that both continue to satisfy and continue to be light on my wallet. Unfortunately, digging these out of the market is a lot of work; work that is continually undone as stocks dry up, formulations change, and prices creep ever upwards. Bank Note Blended Scotch is high on my list. Speyburn 10 is light, refreshing, and awesomely cheap, Redbreast 12 is still $45, Glenmorangie’s regular line-up still satisfies, and… er, well, that’s it for the moment.
3. Bourbon. As long as you aren’t chasing Pappy, BTAC, and are staying away from unproven craft distillates, there’s still plenty of value to be found in the American whiskey sector. For example, WL Weller 12 and Rittenhouse Rye 100 Proof when you can find them. Alas, the cat has long escaped the bag on this one, and demand is quickly outpacing supply.
4. Be Creative. Have a bottle of some overpriced pap that turned out to be watery and listless or simply not as good as last time? Try your hand at home blending! You might be surprised at how you can perk up a glass of disappointing slop with a few splashes of something else. You may even learn something! This works especially well with mediocre blends – up the malt quotient with something sherried, peated, or cask-strength and you might end up with a winner.
5. Cocktails. I’ve been playing around with cocktails lately, even though I’m not much of a bar-goer. I’ve mostly been trying to discover recipes that aren’t too sweet (I despise a sugary cocktail) and showcase the flavors of wood-aged spirits. While I haven’t found a “go-to” drink yet, I have managed to turn some $20 bottles of bourbon into Old Fashioneds, Manhattans, and Behind the Timeses (wow, pluralizing cocktail names is harder than I expected… Sexes on the Beach? What?) that I wouldn’t be ashamed to serve to friends.
6. Bunker. As much as I hate that word (and the smug attitude that usually goes with it), there’s a time-honored tradition among whisky aficionados of buying more bottles than you need when you discover a gem. This isn’t great advice now, however, as it would be like buying at the top of the stock market, but it does still apply to the remaining gems. Bank Note might be the first spirit that I purchase by the case, because the quality/value ratio of that blend can’t possibly last much longer.
7. …? Give me your ideas in the comments, below, because I’m out of steam.