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Whisky Prices Blast Off into Orbit

Whisky whisky everywhere, but so little of it affordable...

A disclaimer from the outset: this is NOT about Diageo’s recent announcement concerning the direction its new range of whiskies from the Mortlach distillery will take and which has got many bloggers VERY hot under the collar. Just head over to Oliver Klimek’s redoubtable ‘Dramming’ if you don’t believe me or are not acquainted with the issue. All I would say is that the decision to price a no-age statement whisky at £55 for a 50cl bottle and £180 for an 18yo whisky is symptomatic of a wider trend: Scotch prices are on the up.

Back in the good old days when I was nobbut a lad (rather, six and a half years ago, when I was 17) you could wander into a good spirits store and even a larger Tesco and pick up a bottle of The Glenlivet 18yo, the first whisky I tried that seduced me with difference, depth and intrigue, for between £36 and £40. When I first peeped into the Garden of Eden that was Scotch whisky, of course, this was no mean sum of money to me. I was used to seeing bottles of alcohol for the £20 mark, maybe a shade over if I was paying attention in the spirits aisle. Now, you are doing very well if you come across an 18yo Glenlivet (re-packaged since 2007) for less than £60. And that is at the competitive end for single malts boasting such an age statement. Bowmore’s 18yo is £67 – Highland Park’s is £88 (using Master of Malt as my price guide). Mortlach’s will be £180 – but the less said about that the better.

I’m not going to go into why this should be in this post – economics, guys, all very unseemly – but what I do want to talk about are the few pockets of comparative shade away from the rising temperatures of Scotch prices more generally. Below are a few of the single malts and blends that offer good drinking for a fee that won’t having you spitting it all back up again.

BenRiach

Bodacious BenRiachs.

Maybe it was the torrent of liquid released when Billy Walker and partners purchased this quiet Speyside giant back in 2004 but the wealth of choice came at an attractively low price. Former owners back in the 80s, Allied, had experimented heavily with the production regimes and releases continue to showcase this shape-shifting ability in complex, characterful and fully-mature expressions. Heavily peated, triple distilled as well as clean and fruity single malts are all available under the BenRiach banner. My picks of the bunch would be:

16yo 40% £36.43 If you like your whiskies quintessentially Speyside, dripping with honey, pear and vanilla, this cannot be improved upon for the price. When I tried this last year I could not believe how lovely it was, showcasing excellent cask management and a beautiful spirit. Master Blender Walker has added a tiny smidgen of smoke into the vatting, too, to add complexity.

Solstice 17yo 50% £58.37 Maybe not quite a full 18yo, but what you have here is a Glenlivet 18yo price tag plus extra ABV, smoke, and a delicious, heavy Port influence. This shouldn’t work, but it just does.

Also on the sensible pricing policy are their single cask releases, which appear a couple of times a year.

Glenfarclas

The Grant family have owned Glenfarclas, beneath the mountain of Ben Rinnes on Speyside, for six generations. Their whiskies are bold, full-bodied, and demonstrate only the best Sherry cask attentions.

15yo 46% £43.21 Every time I come back to this it puts a smile on my face. The spirit within the rich, dry Oloroso drapery is powerful, sweet and completely delightful. There is the juiciest vanilla imaginable and tannic presence. A superstar. Also, a 21yo for £61.49? Unbeatable value.

Bailie Nicol Jarvie

Under the LVMH umbrella with Glenmorangie and Ardbeg (although you’d never know it), BNJ is visually anonymous with it’s bland white label. However, what’s inside the bottle is anything but.

Bailie Nicol Jarvie 40% £19.69 waves of melon, caramel and soft oak arrive on the nose while the palate boasts a commendable weight and texture with oodles of vanilla and succulent yellow fruits. Blends are, to my mind, liquid comfort blankets and this one will soothe and invigorate in equal measure.

Signatory

Owned by Andrew Symington, who also controls the Edradour distillery in Pitlochry, Signatory are a mad-cap independent bottler offering their own unnamed expressions from the various whisky regions of Scotland for under £30, as well as their Unfiltered range which includes single malts from all over the country, either as single casks or pairings of casks, reduced to 46%.

Really amazing value is to be had from their Cask Strength Collection range with whiskies typically of between 19 and 25 years of age, bottled at cask strength and usually from single casks, for below £100 in most cases. It must be borne in mind that Signatory have a reputation of sorts for wine finish deviancy (but less so than Murray McDavid) so tread carefully. However, the company is very good at listing the maturation history of the whisky you are buying.

The Scotch Malt Whisky Society

The Queen Street SMWS bar.

Okay, I will admit that the upfront costs are definitely on the steep side: this is, after all, a private club whereby the Society bottles whiskies for the titillation of its members (no sniggering in the back). Since 1983, when some Edinburgh-based single malt zealots began sourcing single casks from all over Scotland, the Society has spread to just about every continent and major city around the world. There are more than 130 single malts and 10 single grain whiskies listed on the Society’s coded books with monthly releases of single casks.

I was gifted membership for my 21st birthday and I haven’t looked back. The cost to join is now £122 but for that you receive a welcome pack stuffed with goodies, including 10cl miniatures of Society bottlings and four issues of Unfiltered each year (annual renewal currently at £59), a rather brilliant magazine which covers the more esoteric fields of debate and flights of fancy whisky can engineer. Oh yes, and the opportunity to buy some stunning single cask whiskies (the Society won an Icon of Whisky Award in 2012 for best independent bottler).

This month, for example, my eye was caught by 77.34: a 13-year-old Northern Highland dram at 56.2% and less than £50. Or, on the more mature end of the scale, what about a 29-year-old single cask for £131? The SMWS prefers to root out distinctive and unusual examples of spirit from the various distilleries of Scotland (and even Japan). What you are buying is, in effect, unique and unrepeatable. Even if you don’t buy full bottles, membership also gains you access to members rooms in London and two separate venues in Edinburgh where masses of green bottles await the arrival of your adventurous streak.

I would not go so far as to say that good whisky is dying out, but the days of inexpensive whisky are rapidly coming to an end. These guys offer something tasty, individual and not too dear, either. If you have any brands or products offering cracking value which you think I’ve missed out, please comment below.

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Edradour

It would be a joy to simply stand at the whitewashed wooden fence and merely observe the changes of season and weather in this tiny glen with the distillery quietly working away in its midst.

It would be a joy to simply stand at the whitewashed wooden fence and merely observe the changes of season and weather in this tiny glen with the distillery quietly working away in its midst.

Pitlochry, Perthshire, PH16 5JP, 01796 472095. www.edradour.com

APPEARANCE AND LOCATION:      *****      This is such an achingly pretty distillery. If you want small and traditional, you are hard-pressed to find better in Scotland. However, this is also, paradoxically, one of the busiest sites on the central Highland tourist trail. Annually, they receive nearly 100,000 visitors. 19 other people joined me on my tour.

TOURS PROVIDED:

‘Standard Tour’: £7.50. See ‘My Tour’ below.

DISTILLERY-EXCLUSIVE BOTTLINGS:      The distillery being owned by Signatory means that if you don’t like the standard 10YO or the cream liqueur they offer you at the beginning of the tour, there is almost certainly something tasty to be picked up from the almost exhaustive range of single cask, cask strength, non-chillfiltered or more standard bottlings Signatory offers from other distilleries. The range of Ballechin whiskies (the peated Edradour spirit, and finished in a variety of woods) is comprehensive, as is the collection of Straight-From-The-Cask malts which are very distinctive indeed, and available to sample in the bar further down the hill from the shop where the tour commences. Current as of 21/01/2011 there are two distillery-exclusives and one otherwise restricted to the Spanish market but available at the distillery, too: 14YO Barolo finish (50cl bottle), £50; 26YO Port finish, £149, and a Spanish red wine finish, £45.

My Tour – 15/04/2010

THE RUNNING COMMENTARY:      ***

THE PROCESS AND EQUIPMENT:      *

Notes: A Morton’s Refrigerator is used to cool the wort from the mash tun. A very old piece of equipment most commonly seen in dairies. They are building a warehouse at present.

These are the smallesy stills in Scotland and a charming presence.

These are the smallesy stills in Scotland and a charming presence.

GENEROSITY:      (One dram, the 10YO.)

VALUE FOR MONEY:      *

SCORE:      5/10 *s

OTHER TOURS: N/A

COMMENT:       Again, it was the good-humour and character of the guide which made for an extra special experience. Jim was a great host, whose impression of a Highland cow fed on the draff and pot ale will live long in the memory. I think there were far too many English folk on his tour for his liking, and he made gentle jibes at the contingent from south of the border. No racism, just good fun. He explained that distilleries shouldn’t allow visitors into the duty free warehouses unless there was a sealed area. It’s harsh to penalise Edradour for not making the attempt because they are still building their warehouse! A truly gorgeous distillery which is, as the video said, little changed since its inception. Unfortunately they have introduced a £5 fee since I visited in October. A good economic decision for just on our tour there were 18 people but charging that much to see it when its only real claim to fame is as the smallest distillery in Scotland? I’m probably just OK with that because it is quite a contrast from many encounters with the industry. There is a tasting bar where you can sample the many different boutique expressions from this distillery. I wanted to try some of the single cask wine finishes but time was pressing.

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