I began writing this blog as a kind of personal journey over seven years ago, shortly after first discovering that there was a lot more to whisk(e)y than Glenlivet and Jack Daniels. In that short span there have been some massive changes in the industry, while many things have remained exactly the same.
First, some of the changes. NAS (no-age-statement) expressions went from a novelty to the standard entry bottling in nearly every major producer’s lineup. The same thing happened with special or limited-edition bottlings, which lost their age statements and gained an obscure Gaelic name. Transparency has become a crusade, led by pioneer blender John Glaser. Bottles such as the Weller bourbons that had always been available (and were often overlooked) entered into allocation mode and have not returned, or lost age statements or ABV due to stretched supply. Bottlings that were already allocated (Pappy, Buffalo Trace Antique Collection) have become unicorns. Bottles from independent bottlers have become both more expensive and of lower quality as available stocks dry up – many independents have left the business altogether. Secondary market (auction) prices have risen steadily and inexorably, while retail prices have also crawled steadily (if slowly) upwards. Japanese whisky became a phenomenon, eclipsing single-malt scotch in price and demand, and people learned that desirable whiskies were being made in India, Taiwan, Australia, New Zealand, and elsewhere. Irish pure (now “single”) pot still whiskey staged an unprecedented revival (indeed, a resurrection), as did American rye whiskey. The craft scene in all of the traditional whiskeymaking countries (except Scotland, oddly) got noticed on the international stage and shows no signs of slowing its expansion. All of this demand has stretched not only the supply of mature whisky, but also the supply of quality barrels, especially those that actually aged sherry. Most “sherry barrels” are, these days, simply ex-bourbon barrels that have been soaked in throwaway sherry for a short time. A lot of big names in both whiskymaking and whisky writing have retired, died, or otherwise gotten out of the business, and been replaced with new yet-to-be-proven names. Whisky shows, tasting rooms, and tourist trails are crowded, whisky publications and distilleries alike are becoming ever more conglomerated, new trendy bars are opening solely on the merit of their (often specialized) whisky lists, and cocktail menus are listing the brands of whiskies and other spirits in the description of drinks. The stranglehold of blended scotch on the Scottish whisky export market has loosened, with ever more customers turning down their parents’ blended brands in favor of single malts. The categories of rum, tequila/mezcal, brandy, gin, and even vodka are becoming more craft-oriented and terroir-aware and developing their own burgeoning aficionado communities. Technology-aged or “rapid-aged” products are arriving on shelves, to the chagrin of most (some are good: Lost Spirits, and some are not: anything from TerrePURE). All in all, there are more whisky products on the shelves than ever before, and yet finding reasonably-priced products of consistently high quality has become more difficult.
Many things are unchanged: Ralfy is still doing whisky video reviews, and peat is still the “big thing” in single malt scotch. Big-name distilleries are still putting out 10, 12, 15, and 18 year expressions in addition to their NAS offerings, and craft presentation (46% ABV, no coloring or chill filtration) is still a mark of relative quality. Barrel finishes involving various wines and spirits are still roaringly popular, and people are still putting their names on waiting lists hoping for Pappy Van Winkle bottles. The laws governing the sale and distribution of alcohol are still largely unchanged in most countries, and are still as antiquated and obsolete as ever (especially in Canada and the US). It is still basically impossible to try spirits before buying them in the US unless you’re lucky enough to have a well-stocked bar nearby or are willing to order samples from the UK. Whisky bloggers are still a dime a dozen (this one included), and Jim Murray is still making headlines with his annual off-the-wall choices of awards. Canadian whisky is still in the process of making a better name for itself outside Canadian borders, and American bourbon is still a hallmark of affordable brown booze.
Overall, in my limited experience, I feel that the industry has become more inclusive – reaching more customers in more ways than ever before, while at the same time becoming more challenging to newcomers, with a larger amount of noise and fewer gems among the stones. The marketing of whisky has contradictorily become more insincere in its message of authenticity. Terms like “hand crafted” and “tradition of quality” mean even less now than they did 7 years ago. Smaller distilleries and whisky companies are being swallowed up by large multi-nationals (by no means a new phenomenon in whisky), and being replaced by upstart craft distilleries in such numbers that one remembers the dot-com startup boom and draws parallels with trepidation.
Lastly, I’d like to take a moment to say a fond (and sad) farewell to literally my favorite person in the entire whisky sphere: David Driscoll announced last week that he is moving on from K&L Wines and Spirits (and its blog) after more than 10 years. David has been a direct inspiration to me, as well as a good friend and a voice in the darkness of the industry. His prose was always concise, his perspective insightful, his approach honest, and when he had to take sides it was always on the side of his customers. He opened my eyes to new experiences and generously shared more whisky (and knowledge) with me than I had any right to expect. I wish him the best of luck with his new opportunity (which isn’t related to whisky in any way) and hope that I am lucky enough to continue our acquaintance in the future. Cheers to you, David!