Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Whiskey Wednesday: 2010 - An Unexciting Year for Whiskey

After a string of amazing whiskey years, 2010 was a bit of a yawner. Maybe it's just that we've grown used to major breakthroughs, innovative new releases and unbridled creativity from the last three or four years, but the truth is, 2010 gave the whiskey world very little that was new or particularly exciting. Sure, there were some good new releases and some great whiskeys, as there always are, but for the most part, none of these shook up the whiskey world.

To the extent that there were exciting releases they were in the ridiculously super premium MYH (mortgage-your-house) category. Gordon & MacPhail's 70 year old Mortlach weighed in as the oldest whiskey ever released, and the record for the most expensive new release was broken twice, first by the Dalmore Trinitas and then by the Macallan 64 year old Cire Perdue, which literally was sold for more than my house cost. But these whiskies can't really be counted as new or exciting releases since it is very likely that no one will ever drink them (except maybe the lucky friends of the dude who swiped a Mortlach 70 in Stockholm). And every distillery that could find an old barrel seemed to release a 50 year old this year. God bless Glenfarclas, who released a 40 year old at a reasonable price (i.e. the lower three figures).

In the world of Scotch that non-tycoons can afford, though, after five or more years of absolute wonder, this year was boring. Even the most reliable and innovative distilleries seemed to be phoning it in. The new Ardbeg releases, Corryvreckan, Rollercoaster and the new Supernova, were good but neither innovative nor overly impressive. Even the mad scientists at Bruichladdich seemed to sputter after a few years of phenomenal new and exciting releases.

In the world of American whiskey, the fall releases have become utterly predictable. We all know what the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection and Old Forester Birthday Bourbons will taste like, more or less. We don't know what the Woodford Reserve Master's Collection will release, but it will likely suck. Heaven Hill is one of the only distilleries to add some excitement with their Parker's Heritage Collection which is always different and usually excellent. Four Roses did have a great year last year with interesting new releases, including the individual release of all ten recipes for different retailer bottlings.

The majors did come out with some surprises, including new versions of Maker's Mark and Knob Creek, but these were really most remarkable because they came from distillers that hadn't changed their products in years.

Most other notable American releases were from the smaller bottlers. WhistlePig, with their 100% straight rye sourced from Canada and High West's Bourye, a blend of Bourbon and rye, showed the kind of innovation that was lacking elsewhere. There were also some great specialty retailer bottlings, but those are very limited releases.

In any industry there are cycles of production and innovation followed by some market stabilization. We may now be entering a lull in what has been an exciting market for the last few years, but there may be hope as well. Next week, for my last whiskey blog of the year, I'll make some predictions about what we might expect in the world of whiskey 2011.


Jason Pyle said...

Sku, great post. I said essentially the same on John Hansell's blog recently in response to which distillery was doing the best work. Perhaps it's so difficult to figure out because few are doing really innovative, extremely impressive stuff. Is the Antique Collection great? Yep - awesome. Is Pappy 15 fantastic? Yep - as usual. But there's little that's interesting right now. The craft guys are putting out young, thin, utterly average stuff and the big boys are hitting on their normal offering.

Compass Box I think is remarkable. High West as you mentioned is doing some great stuff. What does this tell me? Well it tells me that I want to see more blending. I want to see more come out with new and interesting products by putting different "straights" together to achieve something better than each individual whiskey.

I think there's room to grow in the blending/vatting/whatever you wish to call it realm.

David D said...


That's a fantastic summary. Thanks for writing that because it really helped me to remember exactly what had been released this year. I agree wholeheartedly with Jason's comment that vatting is the future. We at K&L are planning on awarding the Flaming Heart our best whiskey of the year and Compass Box as producer of the year. John's whiskies were fantastic or at least provocative and interesting (Double Single). I think that's the only direction to go in. Who's the best blender? Rachel Barrie is going to start getting more traction that Bill Lumsden in 2011 I believe!

Steffen said...

Vupti doo, there you go

2010 was my best whisk(e)y year ever, a lot of the good stuff that happened can be traced back to 2009 but I have seen

Amrut emerge on the stage
High West emerge on the stage
Burn Stewart going 46.3%
Distillery bottlings by Diageo
Great releases from Compas Box
The first great release from Kilchoman
The new Tomatin (happened 2009 thou)
The generel quality of the IB's I have tried has been very high, but I don't regard this as significant improvements compared to earlier years

sku said...

Thanks to all for comments. Jason, you make some excellent points. I didn't try any of Compass Box's new expressions yet (but based on David's post, I'm going to have to crack open my Flaming Heart), but they do seem to have generated some real excitement this year after resting on their laurels for a couple of years.

Dave Perkins at High West is really grooving, and I predict that his new Double Rye will be a big hit.

Macdeffe, you make some excellent points. I'll mention Amrut and world whiskies generally next week as something which will really bust open next year. Kilchoman doesn't seem that exciting to me, time will tell, and Diageo's distillery bottlings are in their second or third year now and, as always, quite pricey.

David D said...

Agreed, new Tomatin is fine, but nothing special or new, Amrut is very good but no one gives a crap because they're biased against Indian whiskey, new Diageo bottlings are further examples of a giant corporation exercising its monopoly power on pricing, and, while I'm happy that Kilchoman is here, their release isn't really anything great. There are some fine releases this year, but as Steve said, nothing worth getting excited about.

AdamH said...

Part of me has to wonder if we've just gotten very spoiled, given that whisky has been booming more than ever. Consider that the BTAC is now expected and unexciting for many of us -- despite the fact that they're all excellent whiskeys for the most part. Is whiskey getting unexciting, or are we just jaded? Particularly those of us who read whisky blogs and, uh, post comments.

The question this makes me arrive at is, "What else would you have wanted from whiskey this year?"

Whatever your answer may be, it's probably something that's difficult for distilleries to deliver on, year after year. My answer is something like, "I want awesomely-fantastic new whiskies that are unusual considering their source distillery, that feature flavors so unique that they are rarely encountered in the combinations presented."

But, well, you know. (P.S. Hi guys).

Jason Pyle said...

Adam, I think you have a point that we are spoiled to a degree. There were certainly some awesome whiskey produced this year. And so many have elevated their game to a point that each release has been really strong. I think it's more a question of "Who's doing really exciting stuff?"

And when I try to answer that question, that's where I struggle a little bit. But agreed, we are a little spoiled too.

David D said...

Considering that we all get to taste a pretty ridiculous amount of whisk(e)y, it's only natural for our expectations to grow over time. However, if the BTAC comes out every year, and each whiskey is great, then that would make every year a "great" year by default. I think Steve's disappointment was the lack of innovation.

Adam - you nailed it: "I want awesomely-fantastic new whiskies that are unusual considering their source distillery, that feature flavors so unique that they are rarely encountered in the combinations presented."

That's exactly what I want. I want to taste a peated Glenrothes! I want to taste Ardbeg aced in Calvados barrels then flavored with peppercorns! I want American bourbon/rye producers to start tweaking their mashbills and getting creative! I want distilleries to start thinking outside their traditional box.

The problem is that all the people being innovative are doing it with 6 month old whiskies. That's not nearly as fun.

sku said...

Adam, I'd make one amendment to your statement: "I want awesomely-fantastic new whiskies that are unusual considering their source distillery, that feature flavors so unique that they are rarely encountered in the combinations presented AT AS REASONABLE PRICE."

I'm willing to admit to being spoiled by the high quality of whiskey, but David is right, it's not that there is a lack of good, reliable, whiskey, it's that there was a lack of really interesting innovative stuff this year.

A few years ago we had Glenmorangie playing around with different barley roasts, Woodford Reserve doing a sweet mash, Bruichladdich and Ardbeg pushing the limits of peat and several bottlers putting out Stitzel-Weller stocks. This year we got Red Stagg, Maker's 46 and a bunch of 50 year olds. The innovation was largely with the smaller bottlers and some of the retailers who gave us great specialty bottligs (more on that next week in my 2011 predictions).

That being said, I'm not sure I'm ready for David's peppercorn whiskey.

Jason Pyle said...

Great summations David and Sku. I want to be "wowed" and "amazed". I want to taste a product like Double Rye! and go, "Holy crap, I clearly smell and taste gin! I've never tasted that in a whiskey before!".

And as Sku mentions, I want that at a price that's "in line".

AdamH said...

Yes, I definitely should have included the "reasonable price" qualification.

I'm gonna posit the arguable argument that innovation may not be possible on a regular basis (for solid, pedigree whiskies/distillers at least), given the lead-time that it requires. Today's innovation is next decade's surprise whisky. If it works.

I'm no distiller, so I don't know... I'm just sayin'.

I'll try the peppercorn stuff.

Greg said...

Good post Steve. I'd have to agree when it comes to American Whiskey. For the first time ever, I'm not buying any of the BTAC as it's typically the same year over year with minor variations. Scotch Whisky is new to me and I'm still exploring so this year was an exciting year with respect to this Whisky. I also like Irish very much and am excited for the new Kilbeggan Distillery that came online in 2007 in addition to the Dingle Distillery's planned opening in the near future.

sku said...

Adam, point well taken. Also, I want to emphasize that innovative and exciting doesn't have to mean using tricks or gimmicks. It can just mean really good in a surprising way. I'm thinking here of the balance of the old Highland Park Bicentennary, the pure peatey goodness of the young Ardbeg Almost There and some of the Sauternes finished Bruichladdichs. These were not out of the mainstream of the distillery's product but were surprisingly good in a special way.