Sunday, May 19, 2013

The elephant in the tasting room

I've read a lot of gloomy predictions recently. People who know a lot more about these things than I do are saying that whiskey enthusiasts are in for a tough time, as emerging markets, speculators, and trend-followers with more money than sense provide a market for distillers to sell worse whiskey for more money.

This is, of course, a very different angle on the Whiskey Renaissance than I get from popular articles written around a private tasting with a master distiller. Those all stress excitement and experimentation and new ideas and creative ways to keep up with demand.

You'd expect the folks making more money to be happier about the direction the whiskey business is headed than the folks spending more money. The blind man at the front of the elephant has a much different experience than the blind man at the rear.
Even decanters favor the front end.

For my part, I think my own ignorance, inexperience, and low standards will serve me well. Ten and fifteen years ago, which I'm told was a great time to be into Scotch, I was buying a bottle a year whether I needed it or not. I don't have the historical perspective to resent having to pay $40 or $50 for a 10 y.o. single malt; I just don't do it very often, and almost never without having tasted it before. (As for the price explosion on the higher end stuff, I frankly wouldn't have paid the old price of $120 (or $300) anyway, so the new price of $180 (or $900) doesn't really confront me. When I crack the bottle of Talisker 18 I got for $42, I'll just do so with the expectation that I won't be replacing it when it's gone.)

With American whiskey, there's a large and growing selection available for less than $50 -- and a fair number of decent whiskeys for less than $20. I can play very happily in this shallow end of the pool, if only because I've never really been in the deep end. And while few of the craft whiskeys are good value for the money in the blind tasting sense, I enjoy trying them and look at it as an investment in better whiskey to come.

So while an Iron Age of Whiskey Exploration may be upon those at the back end of the whiskey business elephant, I think I can still hope to manage a bit of a Silver Age of Whiskey Enjoyment.

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