Let’s go way back in time…
Long before the abstract concept of currency came into play, mankind had to determine standards for exchanging goods and services. Our collective past has shown us that we as a species used to be much more diversified in terms of our skillsets. We had to know how to fulfill our basic needs and, further, how to maintain them indefinitely. As a simple example, does not every man out there have a dad that seems to know just a little more than he does about home maintenance? Fixing a car? Raising a family without a handbook or the internet at his disposal?
In those early days we also learned that there was strength and security in numbers. Civilizations came together. Skills became much more specialized. Division of labour took on new dimensions. Not everyone had to be able to make bread…or forge tools…or work stone…what-have-you. Instead, man was wise enough to realize that he could rely on his brother (or sister) to provide something that he himself was not quite as adept at making or doing. So long as he had something to offer his brother (or sister) in return, that is. This became a quid pro quo system (or a “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” scenario). Brilliant. Initially, at least. Until societies expanded to the point where it simply wasn’t feasible to have the ‘specialists’ swapping favors all the time, or until your neighbour had something you desperately needed, but perhaps had nothing to offer in return.
So what came next? Why, the advent of the monetary system, of course. Value ascribed to tangible commodities (precious resources initially, then to coins and paper in a more abstract promissory capacity). This allowed for a rather faceless economic system to develop. You no longer had to rely on the trust and reputation of your mates to do business. Instead you could trade a hard value to a perfect stranger in order to enact a transaction. It all sounds a little cold when worded as such, but so be it.
Granted, this is all very simplified, and occasionally anthropologically contested, but that’s sort of the gist of it.
Now, why do I bring up trust and the handover of value from one to another here? It’s simple, really.
Like it or not, we whisky geeks have built a relationship with our brands, our distillers, our ambassadors and our spirit sellers. On the consumer side we’ve done our due diligence by buying the products, attending the events and sharing the good word via social media (and otherwise). We’ve done so to date because we were able to work off a long-developed understanding of value. We knew it took substantial initial investment and a huge outlay of cash on the part of the distilleries in order to first create the product. We knew there was overhead and other expenses such as labour, utilities, facility maintenance, leases or mortgages, shareholders, tariffs, etc. We knew there was a not inconsiderable delayed return on investment due to the necessary maturation times of the spirit, and inherent warehousing costs. We also knew that beyond all of this there were bottling, labeling, transport, marketing and other such expenses. Fair enough.
Our willingness to lay out our hard-earned money for a fine bottle of Scotch, produced by working men and women in one of the most beautiful places on earth, was based on an acceptance that Scotch whisky exemplified class, elegance, tradition, history, time and beauty. We could pick up a bottle and contemplate in awe that the spirit in our hands had taken 18 years to make. 18! Amazing. We could marvel that the world was a much different place when the whisky we held was distilled and left to sleep the seasons away on a dirt floor somewhere in the rolling hills or along the rocky coasts of Scotland. And because we knew what had gone into that bottle, we were ok with paying what the sticker on the shelf asked of us.
We’ve now moved forward a few steps down the road from those times. The prices that are staring us in the face from those shelves have doubled or even trebled in the past few years. We’ve watched the fluctuation in markets that have relationships with the whisky industry (grains, fuels, currencies, etc) and acknowledged that ‘yeah…I can see how this would have an effect on the distillers trying to make a go of it.’ I think we could all reasonably expect some sort of an incremental creep in pricing strategies. A fair increase, of course, and one that was relative to related markets. Again…we could always look back at that big ‘18’ on the bottle and think ‘yeah…I can support that kind of investment’.
But now…in our day…a new trend has emerged. Not a new concept, mind you. But a new trend towards the brands slowly (or not so slowly in some cases) stripping away those reliable numbers on the bottle that had previously confirmed for us that the distilleries were just as invested in our purchases as we were. Yes, of course, some non-age-stated whiskies have always been around. And blended whiskies, of course, have rarely trumpeted their age (unless they wanted to be sold as premium spirits). But we’re not just seeing a few non-age-stated whiskies anymore. We’re seeing a tidal wave of brands that have moved in this direction as a means of protecting their valuable mature stocks, while continuing to generate cashflow via the turnover of spirit that historically the brands would have seen as too young to be released as it is. So how is this being mitigated? How are they managing to sell us these younger whiskies and still make them drinkable (and not only drinkable, but in some cases very good)? Through clever vatting on the part of their blenders (and then, of course, a healthy splash of marketing wherewithal).
Many young barrels are being married with a couple of older barrels – which add a little complexity and knock off some of the younger, more spirity edges – then the whisky is sold under a clever name, rather than a number. That age statement which used to be such a key marketing tool for the brands in times of plenty is now a liability due to the requirement that any number on the bottle reflects the youngest whisky therein, and not the oldest.
Just so this is all abundantly clear: we are now buying younger whiskies at prices inflated to ratios that are unsupported by the relative increase in respective costs…and with no justification on the part of the producers. The most prevalent defense is their insistence that our palate decide and not our intellect. And while that is my paraphrasing, the sentiment is just as insulting when spun by the brand ‘faces’ and ‘voices’.
So what has effectively happened now – whether the industry will admit it or not – is an imbalance in the relationship we had spent so much time cultivating. That once understood covenant between producer and consumer. That understanding that allowed us to symbiotically partner up, assuming we were both mutually gaining. As we all know, a relationship of this sort is based on trust. Sadly that trust has been eroded. The scales have tipped, and the consumer is unquestionably the loser.
Ahhhh…so now we’re back to trust, as we were in the opening paragraphs above. As you can see, we’ve come full circle. Now let’s get to the rub…
The brands won’t trust us to buy their whisky if they put a low age statement on the bottle. They don’t trust us to think for ourselves and make wise decisions with our money. They think we will assume a whisky with a low number on the bottle is inferior to their shelf-neighbour’s age-stated whisky and that we’ll maybe reach for that one instead (and what is wrong with that, even if so? Is that not the free hand of the market at work?).
Interestingly enough, while they are cynical and untrusting of our consumer prowess, they insist that this information we’re clamouring for is irrelevant and that we should simply trust them to make the decisions as to what is best for us. They are the experts after all. I mean, really, what could some blogger or writer – who has only tasted a couple thousand whiskies across all ages and styles – possibly know about this stuff, right? We are left to feel like we’re coming across as the annoying squeaky wheel, the to-be-dismissed angsty teen or the bad apple spoiling the bunch. ‘The whisky will still be good’, they say. ‘Don’t worry about what it costs you to buy it, versus what it costs us to produce it’, they don’t say (but it is, of course, implicit). Ummm…no. It simply doesn’t work that way in the real world. Not in any of the transactions or purchases I make, anyway.
Ironically, those missing numbers do make a dramatic reappearance when they want to sell their ultra-premium rare and old malts for astronomical sums. Because let’s face it: who will buy a bottle for $2,500 if they have no idea what their $2,500 is actually buying?
Trust is a two way street. But right now, we’re on a one lane highway and going the wrong direction. And where do we go from here? I honestly don’t know, but I’m sort of tired of not getting a peek at the map.
How many different ways can a blogger say “NAS is bad?”…
Hope you’re not sick of me yet, Skeptic.
Lemme see…how many ways can we say this? Maybe one for each inane response thrown back from a brand ambassador in defense. Maybe one for each new NAS expression that gets released. Maybe one for each new thread or comment posted in support of the crusade against this stuff on WWW, Connosr, etc. Who knows?
People are talking. I went to a festival last night and one of the ambassadors wouldn’t even make eye contact with me. Even when I waved at him. Let’s just say his brands are Schmacallan and Lowland Park.
There’s an undercurrent of discontent we’re fomenting here. I have no intention of letting it die on the vine. If that means getting creative with language and approaching from different angles, so be it.
The message in every country song is the same: truck’s broken down, girl ran off, dog done died. Amazing how many ways they can come up with to make it palatable to the next individual. …and then there was Johnny Cash throwing up the middle finger. Well…guess I’ll be the Man In Black this time.
Just messing with you…I liked your reply though
Hopefully as many ways as the industry tries to convince us that NAS is all good. I want the Ms Bell’s of the scotch world to know that we’ve spent our capital (time & money) on something we love – reading books, attending tastings, joining scotch clubs and we don’t appreciate being talked down to like a simp with such drivel as “Beauty before Age” all the while expecting that we merrily continue to open our wallets for such nonsense.
We’ve got on board with the rich history, sense of place, craftsmanship, and above all else the pure enjoyment of the drink. Don’t spoil the goodwill with increasing greed, taking the piss and other similar shenanigans.
Be honest about the challenges that you face, and ask the purchasing public to come along for the ride and I guarantee you that you’ll build much more goodwill and hedges against any future downturn rather than rapaciously trying to drain my wallet with increasingly inferior offerings. Moving forward I’ll take Benromach any day over “Lowland Park” and the likes.
Well said, brother. It’s a bit like a street fight. Once you’ve got your opponent down, don’t let up until you know he’s not getting back up.
Keep that boot on his neck, Curt.
It’s sometimes difficult to judge appropriate levels to suit those who always found more fault with the critics of NAS than who ever found fault with NAS itself. If only people would shut up and drink their whisky, the industry wouldn’t be distracted and could finally set about improving things for consumers, just as it always intended to do.
How does any hit song (not just country music) become a hit? The DJs play it over and over and over, again.
Oliver’s latest post offers an interesting perspective. Can’t say he’s in lock-step with you, Curt, but it’s interesting reading nonetheless.
I’m at the far western edge of your grand country this weekend.
Let me add briefly that the producers need to get in front of these critiques sooner rather than later. In addition to Curt’s commentary here’s a sampling of recent blog post titles from my whisky feed (these are from some of the most popular sites):
Breaking the Status Quo at the LCBO
Beginning a Whisky Buying Freeze and Ending the Dusty Hunt
Is Older And More Expensive Whisky Really Better?
Limp DISCUS – How Alcohol Lacks A Watchdog
2014: The Year of the Whiskey Consumer and Fake Whiskey
Suntory Announces Major Price Hikes from April 2015
Sku’s New Year’s Wish List
Coupled with Serge’s 2014 recap and Ralfy’s NAS ban and you have a growing discontent with the current MO in whiskyland.
If anything, I read these as a plea to the producers to provide the respect that Curt talks about, and to cease eroding the goodwill I mentioned.
A wise Irishman, Edmund Burke once said “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men should do nothing”. Well it might be a little harsh to call distillery owners evil, when really there mostly just large soulless corporations that are just trying to maximize profit. Do I think for one moment they are looking out for my best interest……..no I do not. As for the part about good men should do nothing…..well here’s the rub, ( In my opinion ) the so called experts/ writers have failed badly, so badly that the line between industry propaganda and responsible journalism has completely collapsed.
There seems to be no professional criticism what so ever, it’s all spin-spin-spin. When was the last time you heard a professional whisky expert say that was a shity whisky at a f-ing ridiculous price. The last I remember hearing anything close to criticism was from John Hansell in August of 2013 with “ Some new whiskies I like, and some I don’t (part 2)”. We know who filling the barrels, but its bloggers who are filling the void of criticism, hell they even criticize themselves. Time for a professional to step up, but until then, the newly initiated to the whisky wars need the benefit of crusty out spoken seasoned veteran bloggers.
Exactly! The stakes are certainly lower than those Burke was discussing (it is only whisky), but the principles are the same: accepting bullshit is an invitation to be given more; acquiescence IS a choice and non-resistance IS an act. As Neil Peart wrote: “If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice”.
The pros looked at the landscape and, as Roskrow indicates, made their choice (despite his empty threats to call them out, producers “jumped the shark” about vastly overpriced boutique doorstop bottles on John Hansell years ago without so much as a flutter). Despite, or because of, their extensive knowledge of whisky, the pros are marketers, pure and simple.
It’s been 8 days. I’m showing withdrawal symptoms and miss my ATW fix.
I hope we figure out where we are going soon, as I miss reading your great posts! 🙂
Thanks, mate. Appreciate the kind words. There’s no significant relevance to the lack of new posts. Simply fighting off a cold that doesn’t want to let go. I’ve been in no shape to review anything for the past week or so. Couple more days and I’ll be ready, I’m hoping.
Sorry you are under the weather. I completely understand and have to face the fact you are mortal like the rest of us (sigh). Please get well soon. Your health and well being are job one. I will patiently await your next post as you are vital to my learning experience on our shared journey.
Your posts remind me of another journey of mine (and many others), and reading the words of those who made the reports of Peak Baggers or 14ers who have climbed the peaks of North American mountains – and in particular Longs Peak.
Your posts provide a very similar guide. You have gone before us – and we seek your journey notes just the same.
Get healthy. That’s job one.
One of those watching for your signs.