Every year right around this time Diageo provide some public services by testing the state of the whisky bubble and the emotional state of whisky geeks everywhere, while simultaneously providing some high concept comedy to ease our strain in these troubled times. Herewith an annotated guide to the Diageo Special Releases for 2014.
Let us begin with the two categories that make the most sense. The prices listed are the recommended retail prices that are posted in the UK now—they’re usually lower in the US, and the sales situation is also usually different in the US (things hang around longer than they do in the UK or EU).
The “Let Them Eat Cake” Division.
There is a school of thought that holds that the entire purpose of the Special Release pricing is to redefine the meaning of the word “affordable”. At any rate the malts in this category are the ones that most people can afford, even if we might not be as tempted by them if they were regular releases.
Caol Ila 15, 1998, Unpeated; £75 (up from £70 for last year’s Stitchell Reserve).
One and a half times the price of the regular 12 yo but at a much higher strength and in a special variant form and older than last year’s version. Fair enough.
Lagavulin 12, 13th Release; £80 (no change in price).
Always reliable, if not always very distinct from the previous year’s version this is quite fairly priced as well. Always hangs around in the US for a while and I always manage to snag one for about $80.
The “We Only Need to Sell Three Bottles to Pay for Them All” Division.
Some of you may be wondering at my having described the most expensive tier as making sense along with the cheapest. Well, the fact of the matter is when you look at what is charged for old whisky from non-Diageo distilleries that are still on the go such as Glenmorangie, the Macallan, Highland Park, Dalmore etc. etc. it becomes harder to fault Diageo’s asking for comparable money for the oldest Port Ellens still in stock and quite a bit less for the remaining Brora. This is not to say that these are reasonable prices; it is only to say that Diageo are far from the worst offenders in this category. If idiots are willing to pay upwards of $2000 for the Glenmorangie Pride then why shouldn’t Diageo try to get as much for this Brora? At least they’re not making you pay for an ugly decanter in the bargain. (Still there are knock-on effects that affect the rest of the lineup, for more on which see below.)
Brora 35, 1978; £1200 (up from £750 for last year’s 35 yo, and £400 for 2012’s 35 yo—that’s right, the price has tripled in the space of two years).
Port Ellen 35, 14th Release; £2200 (up from £1500 for last year’s 34 yo).
Demand for these two distilleries, especially Port Ellen, seems inelastic and unconnected to price, and as they long ago passed out of reach of my wallet I’m not personally too exercised about the jump in this year’s prices; it’s not like I could afford them last year either. Let me note though that the “they’re only eliminating the middleman” argument that some trot out in Diageo’s defense re the prices for Brora and Port Ellen, in particular, is a bit specious. While it’s true that there’s a fair bit of selling on at auction etc. it’s not as though all or most of these bottles were in the past being bought by people who didn’t drink them—plenty of those people who bought these to drink in the past, as a special treat or otherwise, have been locked out over the last few years and they probably feel more aggrieved than I do. Me, I paid a fraction of the price being asked for this Port Ellen when I bought the ninth release some years ago; ditto for the Brora sixth release—and those purchases felt like the height of financial irresponsibility at the time.
Now we move on to the more questionable divisions.
The “We Are Absolutely Not Ready to Concede that Rosebank Will Not Be Making the Leap” Division
Rosebank 21, 1992; £300.
This must be for all the people who passed on the last Rosebank 21—the previous 21 from the 2011 Special Release hung around for a long time despite being much cheaper. Now, Rosebank has its adherents (I’m not one of them) but there just isn’t the kind of mania for Rosebank as there is for a bunch of other closed distilleries. And despite the price increase I suspect Diageo must have hoped they could have asked a lot more for this one three years later. Well, there’s always next year.
The “Traumatic Head Injury” Division.
As in you’d have to have one to buy one of these.
Singleton of Glendullan 38yo; £750.
First ask yourself how often you’ve been moved to buy the Singleton of Glendullan 12 for $45 and then ask yourself how you feel about paying about 20x the price for a 38 yo. It may, of course, be very good but the odds are this whisky only made it to 38 years old because Diageo sneakingly suspected no one ever wanted it at a younger age. And frankly the Whisky Exchange’s advance notes seem to suggest they would have been right: “…the strength is not overpowering and neither are the wood tannins. It is laden with menthol notes and is spicy on the finish.” Just what you want from a £750 whisky. Come on Diageo, if you want me to pay £750 for this you have to at least have the decency to burn the distillery down first. (Incidentally, this is £225 more than was asked for the Talisker 35 in 2012.)
By the way, the problem with the Port Ellen and Brora prices is also that they function to make the price for this one seem reasonable. But it’s not. £750 for an old whisky from a marginal distillery that the owners themselves have never seen fit to take seriously before is taking the piss (keep in mind you can buy the Glenfarclas 40 and the Tomatin 40 for far less with far greater confidence; hell you can buy the Glendullan 12 with far greater confidence). They’re probably hoping people who were planning to buy a £750 bottle will accept this as a consolation prize.
Speaking of which…
The “Will it Fly?” Division.
In this division in prior years have been found such malts as the Glen Spey 21, the Auchroisk 30, the Glenkinchie 20, the Dalwhinnie 25, the Cardhu 21 and the Dufftown 28—from lesser distilleries (in terms of name-recognition but capable of greatness—well, maybe not Glenkinchie…) that Diageo has given their moment in the sun; this, by the way, is something I’ve appreciated in the past when prices were much more reasonable. But even though, for the most part (in the US, at least), the public has shrugged—most of the above are still widely available, sometimes highly discounted—Diageo continues to raise the price for each year’s slate. This year we have:
Strathmill 25, 1978; £275.
I’m sure Diageo has good reasons for thinking that it is a good idea to be asking for large amounts of money for old whisky from distilleries that most people have not heard of and which most people who have heard of them are wary of, but for the life of me I can’t figure out what they might be. It certainly can’t be to up the status of the regular Strathmill as there is no regular Strathmill (outside of the not very widely distributed Flora & Fauna 12).
Benrinnes 21, 1992; £240.
Now, I’ve enjoyed a few good Benrinnes in my time and if this gets discounted below $200 I might even give it a go. But see above.
The “You Didn’t Go Crazy for the Cragganmore 21 from 2010 so How About If We Add Four Years to the Age and More than a Hundred Quid to the Price?” Division
Cragganmore 25, 1988; £299.
All I will say is that you can still get the Cragganmore 21 for less than $150. Look for this at a discount sale near you in a couple of years.
The “Looking for the Next Talisker” Division
Caol Ila 30, 1983; £425.
Clynelish Select Reserve; £500.
Here’s one paranoid reading: As stocks of Port Ellen and Brora reach their end, Diageo are poised to promote Lagavulin and Talisker to their places in the Special Release price hierarchy. Clynelish and Caol Ila will then take the place of Lagavulin and Talisker. And if these prices—which again will seem to some people like great consolation deals after the shock of the Brora and Port Ellen and after they get over their laughing fit over the Glendullan—fly we’ll be well on our way. Especially considering that the Clynelish is a fucking NAS whisky—and the rumour from the unofficial press corp. (i.e. bloggers who got advance samples) is that if it had an age statement it would be 15 or 16 years old. Well, at least it can’t be as bad as 15 bottles of the Glenrothes Select Reserve.
In other notes, I wonder if this is why the Caol Ila 25 and the Talisker 25 got dropped from cask strength to 43% and 45.8% respectively: to grow the stocks for future super-premium releases. Well, Diageo, here is the contract we will make with you: don’t fuck with the Caol Ila 12, Talisker 10, Lagavulin 16 or the Clynelish 14 and we will not advance on you with pitchforks.
1. It is entirely possible that Diageo is fucking with us/running a long-term psychology study. The prices of the Caol Ila Unpeated and the Laga 12—and especially how those prices aren’t increasing exponentially each year—could almost be read as an admission that those two are the real drinking whiskies in this lot and the rest are just experiments to see what they can get away with.
It certainly doesn’t seem to be an important source of income for them, relatively speaking. If I’m doing my addition correctly, if each bottle in this release sells for the prices currently listed they will bring in a little less than a total of £25 million. That seems like a lot but keep in mind that Diageo sells 226 million bottles of Johnnie Walker alone each year (and that includes the Blue Label). Take a conservative average price of £30 across the range and you’re looking at more than £6 billion, which makes the take from the Special Releases look a bit like a rounding error.
2. If you’re outraged by these prices look in the mirror. The immediate context for the announcement of this release is the ongoing brouhaha over the Ardbeg Supernova 2014. This is a NAS whisky that is being sold for $150 in most US markets and which people are buying multiples of, either because they’re suckers for marketing stories or because they plan on selling them for even more. (I tasted it over the weekend, by the way, and thought it would be a reasonable proposition at half the price.) See also the Bowmore Devil’s Casks. These are not great whiskies, and yet we behave like headless chickens on coke when we get a chance to buy them. The industry watches our behaviour closely, I’m sure.
3. It also used to be the case that independents offered much better deals than the official bottlers. But when the official bottlers are able to charge such high prices the indies are going to keep pushing their limits as well. Already in the US G&M and A.D. Rattray may be the last remaining reliable indies from whom good deals are available. Even parvenus like Editions Spirits (or whatever their name is) and Exclusive Malts are asking for high prices for whiskies in their teens or early 20s. A rising tide, as they say, lifts all boats. The problem, of course, is that most regular drinkers are already out to sea in steerage and there aren’t any lifeboats for us for when the water level gets too high. Not unless you want to drink the Glendullan 12.
Over to you.