I’ve seen some backlash recently in social media and among bloggers to the proliferation of limited or special bottlings (usually NAS) that have entered the market recently. It seems that just about every distillery is frantically blending and selecting barrels for one-offs, while their interns are leafing through Gaelic almanacs in the local archive, looking for thus-far unused local landmark names.
The motivation for this is pretty clear: today’s whisky lover has grown bored with the standard official bottlings with age statements, and seems compelled to drink (or collect, or both) something new with every purchase. This is especially beneficial for whisky producers who are always looking for ways to charge more money for younger whisky, and the accompanying NAS trend synergizes perfectly with this new market paradigm. I put on my marketing exec hat for that sentence. How’d I do?
By choosing slightly different barrels, or barrels from maturation experiments with disparate levels of success, producers can bottle something just barely different enough from their main offerings to justify a “limited edition” name along with a “limited edition” price tag. The fact that a decade ago these barrels might have been sold off to independent bottlers at a hefty discount for fear of jeopardizing the cherished “consistency” of their flagship bottlings, seems to be lost on the modern consumer. This is probably because the barrier to tasting a wide array of whiskies is very high, so most consumers (even those who sample widely) aren’t intimately familiar with the quality (good and bad) of the independent market. It’s easier to trust that GlenMcKenna Fuadan Àite, with the shiny design-firm label and strong marketing campaign is worth your $70 than Bob & Joe’s GlenMcKenna 13 year-old 2003 – 2016. This, even though they both come from distillery leftovers and the NAS is actually an undisclosed vatting of 6 and 11 year-old whisky.
And how could you know? Unless you regularly throw the dice on Bob & Joe bottlings and have a lot of trust in their barrel selection (and deal-making) abilities, have access to the best-stocked whisky bar in the world, or have insider information about NAS components, you can’t.
Supposedly whisky reviewers such as my humble self can bridge that particular gap, but I can say from experience that even with a whisky budget from advertising revenue, one of the best-stocked whisky shops in the US nearby, and contacts at PR firms who send me samples, I can’t possibly taste a significant fraction of everything that’s available on the market. “Of course,” you might say, “That’s why there are hundreds of blogs out there – someone’s covered it!” This is true, although trying to reach a conclusion about the quality of a release (especially a middling one) by reading multiple online reviews is an exercise in futility. Palates vary widely, and the calibration of ratings scales (one man’s 80-point Laphroaig 10 is another man’s 92-point Laphraoig 10 is another woman’s 4.5-star Laphroaig 10) vary even wider. At that rate, you’d have no time for drinking after all that reading. Even if you find consistent reviews online, tasting is very subjective and everyone’s palates, preferences, prejudices, and pesos are extremely different (yes, I stretched to hit that alliteration). “Worth my money” is an impossible metric to crowdsource.
So to meander back to the point: Are there too many limited editions on the market? I say “no”. The current dizzying array of products is just as dizzying as it was when there were 50 distilleries on the shelf each with a 10, 12, 15, 18, and 21 year-old bottling. This selection is intimidating, but it’s also enticing. What do all of those bottles taste like? What’s different about them all? That drive to discover is what got most of us interested in whisky beyond Johnnie Red and Black in the first place, and I say that anything that keeps interest in whisky high is good for everyone. (We don’t want to see another rash of distillery closures like the 1980s).
I just wish we could do something about transparency of NAS contents, but that’s a topic for another day. Cheers!