Whisky Brahnding Galore….

Discovering MacAllan malt whisky all those years ago, when I was just about old enough to enjoy its’ sweet charms and full bodiedness around age 30. Coming into the Kames bar after delivering the Swedish Krysser classic Lady Sonja for her winter layup, ordering a double Mac’ and getting a wink from the one eyed barman for a laddie who knew his four finger glass drinking whisky from his sipping special!  Yes that was a fine time, to savour and be proud to be a Scot. 

Then it went orff. Somewhere around 2002_6 MacAllan fell apart into being a thin, peppery malt as a 12 yo, and the price of 18 and 25 rocketted. 

Now a lot of chattering, blogging whisky aficionados at the time had their eye off the ball of what was the best ‘ four finger’ or dare I say on-the-rocks malt you could get your hands on at the time for thirty five quid. They were all onto their snob appeal big ages, single casks, manager’s private hand written label and  cask-origin combinations, where 60 quid a bottle or 12 quid a dram was the bare minimum entry price to enjoying a malt apparently. The dearer the better. 

Well sorry, but fresh Lorne or mountain air is free of charge. Uisge Beatha doesn’t need to be a remortgaging event to enjoy. Yet some of the standard 10 to 12 yo’s have becomre tawdry facsimilies of their former, usually unsung glories, and prices in the UK are creeping up.  MacAllan being the worst offender. I have heard though that in Tokyo and Shanghai, the 12yo is every bit as good as the 1995 product, once to be found on optics in the bars in Ballater. A drinking whisky for whisky drinkers, ken? 

However other whiskies have been doing the reverse of this aweful trend, when it comes to their standard offerings for the hoi palloi like me with a spare fifty squid or visa card on hand in duty free. Highland Park, Glen Morangie, Glen Livet, Glen Grant and the export Glen Fiddich all very much improved, not just ,my ageing palate. Also the steady creeping rise of blended scotches, which is perhaps as much due to good standard grain scotch as more % young gun malts i  them. Hats off to them, i challenge you not to prefer a Grants over an unopened 10 yo bottle of Glen Morangie from 1990. 

There are three movements you can track. Firstly confusion marketing, leveraging the brand into new higher margin opportunities via odd names and cask finishes. These cask finishes or ,multiple casking, are often over powering or down right mediocre and genrerally disappoint or lead whisky into tasting more like bourbon or a more off mark confection.

 That and names or new styles wrapped in designer boxes and bottles, all trying to fork an extra fiver or tenner margin out a bottle while selling something which would be most likely rated as 10, or even a barely-legal 8 y.o. in the guid auld system. We have in this  whole blended malt, or pure malt issue which some sellers have tried to trade up in price, while other’s like JM and Monkey Shoulder try to leverage heritage in a modern concoction, which although very smooth for the price, is a confect. Kind of what baseball is to cricket. Recognisable to the auld game, but a concession to a populist direction. 

Secondly there are the super exclusive and general price-detemines-qaulity age-ed malts, blender’s choice, manager’s selection, single cask and non marketed distillery who actually hired a social media marketing manager in 2002. Super whiskies at astronomical prices, dragging with them many well known 15 yo and 18 yo’s out of the pockets of the rabble and hoi palloi of bevvy-merchants like me. Lovely and delighful for the Chog-nis’eandchi , but can we not have some more mid priced real rippers, instead of as the case now, several 15-25 yo products i could name are like buying French premiere cru wines vs a stomping good new-world Pinot Noire or Malbec at a fraction of the price. Sorry, mah tongue doesnae get it Jimmy.

Thirdly that there is though some amazing upsurging of new available standard product, both from the estasblished brands and the once hidden away distilleries who piped their amber product into Grouse and Johnny Walker. On those in the the latter, once hidden away category,  Moray was first out via Lidl of all places, with its light, unpretentious speyside – highland malt. Bargain basement no more, it is more than a tenner over what it was a decade ago, and sits with an older sister on many shelves. For real gems you have to go to the mellow hills of Benachie and Tap O’noth for the beat examples of sherried, highland styles from Dronach and Ben Riach. 

On gthe other hand here, well known names have got their acts together. Livet, Morangie, Jura, Grant and most of all Highland Park have raised their game more than Scotland did against Holland in 1978. Wonderful standard product from up the brae in Kirkwall. Rich, smooth and just a touch of peat and dried fruits….while being spicey it keeps away from the peppery. 
Other old brands have found new shelf space, where once shunned, such as Lagavuihlin and the smoothest of smooth, Spring Bank. However  others like Auchentoshan seem to need to fight to stand shoulder to Shoulder witb these, by coming with Bourbon and other heavy finishes in novel packaging.

There are many reasons for all this, going back to the great slump in demand for dark spirits in the late 70s and early 80s, through to ‘victim of its’ own success’ when there weren’t enough good sherry casks to go round. This fascinating blog does it far more justice in a comprehensive and discursive manner than yours grumpily and truly, gee-us a simple guid malt Melvin here could ever acheve !

Other standard 10-12 yo offerings are left behind in this rush it seems. Oban, Tobermory, Dalwhinnie, Knockando and a few more I have noticed are rather insipid and ‘rustic’ compared to the triumphs of Dronach, Riach and my new drinking favoirite, Highland Park.

I was myself a little irritated with the whole industry when all this confusion marketing – sub brands, rebrands, aged not on the label exploded a decade ago. Litho printed, matt laminated celtic and fantasifull scenes on the boxes, and then god help us, the labels. MacAllan was no longer the touch-stone whisky I had once held so dear and pronounced favourite drinking scotch, with any good Islay as a sipper. 

Yet ,me, the shabby punter not wanting to part with too much pain in the purse for too little gain on the taste buds, I have at least ten good distilleries on my side. All improving their standard ten or twelve, and mostly having a fairly affordable venture to 15 or 18, or like Highland Park or Jura, a kind of safe range of select in house blendings which do not dissapoint for the price and explain their promise well on the box.