How to choose which whiskies to buy?

bunna_octave

A recent birthyear bottling to be treasured and opened at a special occasion

A recent tweet by triggered my curiosity and reminded me of a topic I wanted to write about since I started this blog. Her question was:

What is your main reason to buy / purchase a bottle of ?

My response condensed into the 140 characters allowed in a tweet was:

1) distillery (if it’s a fave of mine that’s a plus) 2) flavour 3) price … 999) marketing and branding

Well, that was a very short response after all, so let me elaborate on a few points:

Distilleries:

I have a soft spot for the small, independent, family owned distilleries. While it can be (and certainly is) challenging for the “wee ones” in the business and there is a lot of risk capital involved in many of the “startups” in the scene (and I don’t want to romanticise here) I feel it can be liberating not having a big corporate entity breathing down your neck which has to deliver quarterly growth figures to satisfy the shareholders – especially for publicly traded corporations. Is the whisky made by the family owned distilleries better? Not really. Great and mediocre (and sometimes bad) drams can be found everywhere, independent of ownership. But for me there’s something so much more satisfying about drinking, say, a Springbank where lots of local people are employed making the whisky on site from malting to bottling than say drinking a dram from a completely computerized distillery run by 2 people pushing buttons. However I am not a snob. I drink and buy what I like regardless of who made it and I keep an open mind. But, nonetheless, I’m much more likely to buy a bottle of malt made by the small, independent guys – even more so if it’s bottled unchillfiltered at 46% or higher and without added colouring. If I look at my collection and count the bottles per distillery then the “wee ones” like (not a complete list!) Kilchoman, Springbank, Bladnoch, Arran and Bruichladdich (yes, I know it has been sold) are by far on the top of the list.

Flavour:

This is the hard part. I know people who only like the smoky Islay offerings or only heavily sherried drams or only very light and delicate ones. I like them all! If it’s a well-made product chances are I like it. I like the heavily sherried, smoky whiskies and I like the old, wood-influenced ones and I like the light, fruity, vanilla-sweet ex-bourbon ones. I can also find great pleasure in the offerings from other countries like Ireland, Japan, Tasmania or the USA. I do, however, make an exception: I’m not overly into the style of very young, very light and quite alcoholic whiskies from refill, re-refill or even re-re-refill casks which does exclude quite a number of the standard, coloured, 40%ABV supermarket entry-level bottlings (again, I don’t want to generalise here, there’s a number of standard bottlings I quite like and tend to keep around the house).

Price / Marketing / Branding:

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An example of a great daily dram which doesn’t break the bank yet offers quite a unique experience.

I like my daily drams. To me a bottle of a “daily dram” whisky lies on average around the 50€ mark, or between 1-3€ per single measure (25ml). That’s an area I feel comfortable and can afford. It is, however, only an average. There’s bottles for 25€ and there’s bottles around 100€ on my open bottle shelf (which is made up of roughly 20-25 open bottles so individual bottles last quite long, some even years). I do have a (soft) upper limit at around 150€ for “birthyear malts” or other desirable (mostly older single cask) bottlings intended for special occasions – as long as I can still get them before they’re prized out of my comfort zone. While there is a significant increase in general quality between 20€ and 100 or 150€ the quality and especially price/performance ratio don’t improve that much beyond this point – from a daily (or even special) dram perspective, not taking ultra rare malts into account which are a category of their own. For example: Is the 25 year old Glengoyne worth over three times what they charge for the already superb 21 year old?  To me it is not – to others it might be.
I am not a collector or investor, thus I also don’t bid on rare malts like 1966 Springbank local barley bottlings or Macallans, Port Ellens, Rosebanks and the likes. I’ll leave those to the collectors and gladly try these “by the dram” at festivals and tastings when I get the chance to – thus no need for me to invest in a whole bottle.
I also see no point in paying dearly for 200€+ limited editions (sometimes with bottle count in the (tens of) thousands so not exactly limited in my book…) of no age statement to middle-aged juice in posh packaging with all sorts of gimmicks from working distilleries churning out millions of litres per year when I can get an equally great single cask bottling of roughly the same age and the same distillery from an indie bottler in the double-digit price range. I’m also definitely not into over-hyped celebrity-endorsed stuff like Diageo’s Haig Club Single Grain.
I don’t want to shell out a (sometimes pretty hefty) premium for stuff distracting from what actually counts: The liquid inside the bottle. You can’t drink posh packaging or the share celebrities get for their endorsements and ad campaigns. And yes, there’s also exceptions to the rule for me (there always are). Never say never – there’s different kinds of limited edition and premiumized whiskies – some are reasonable and worth buying as malts intended for drinking, while others are not. “Buyer beware, buyer take care” as ralfy always says.
(I won’t get deeper into NAS bottlings (no-age-statement) at this point – this will be a separate blog post.)

Collecting / Buying:

Am I a whisky collector? Do I buy to build up a collection? Yes and no. I’m not a collector in the usual meaning. As I mentioned I don’t buy overly premiumized products, I don’t collect overly expensive, rare whiskies or some collector’s bottlings out there like for example Macallan did a while ago with their bog-standard bottle inside a range of special cartons. I buy what I plan on drinking some time in the future in aforementioned price range. I do hovever buy more than I’m consuming. Well, I’d certainly be capable of drinking more but I limit myself in the amount I’m drinking and stay well below the recommended average maximum daily intake of alcohol – and way below the population’s average. I drink small amounts to enjoy (and want to be able to do so for a long time to come) and not large amounts to get drunk. Thus there is an unavoidable buildup of a collection – I prefer to call it amassement – of whiskies. I guess there will be a pretty sizeable “collection” in 10 years time (well.. according to some it already is… ahem) and by then some of the bottles I buy today might become rather special. In fact I already have some bottles I bought 6,7,8 years ago at relatively small prices which are now considered collectable – and I could slap myself not having bought more back then. I also have put my focus on single cask bottlings and birthyear whiskies since it’s getting harder and harder to get great deals on these older, well-aged whiskies and thus I try to buy them while I can still comfortably afford them within my price limit. If the price race of the last several years continues they’ll be priced out of my comfort zone one day and by then I’ll have my own small stock I can rely on for years and years to come. Should, however, the whisky bubble burst at one time in the future (and it definitely will – it’s only a matter of time!) and prices come down again I can still happily say I haven’t overpayed on anything and have only bought stuff I intended on drinking together with friends and family in the years and decades to come. After all, that’s what whisky is for!

(Edited 09/05/14 for added clarity in wording and to correct some language mistakes)

Now it’s your turn! Why do you buy whisky? Which whiskies do you buy? What’s your strategy and focus? Let me know in the comments section below, I’d love to hear from you!

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