Is It Worth It? Buying Old(er) Whisky in 2017


This post is brought to you by two recent questions. One was asked of me last week by (ir)regular commenter Ol’ Jas regarding a 1977 Pulteney bottled by Scott’s Selection in the mid-2000s: he wanted input on whether it was worth it at the price. This pointed question focused for me another I’d been turning over in the back of my mind in the last couple of weeks while drinking down a bottle of Talisker 18, purchased some years ago at a much lower price than is currently being asked for it: it’s a whisky I like a lot, it’s one of the first whiskies I thought of as great when I first started getting into single malts in a big way, but I can’t be sure that I will ever buy a bottle of it again. Both scenarios have shifting price in common—that bottle of Pulteney was also being sold for quite a bit more than would have been asked for it five years ago, leave alone at release—but they’re not quite the same thing. And there are, of course, other kinds of scenarios as well which arise in relation to changing prices and the nebulous questions of value. And so, I thought I’d turn this into a blog post in its own right, less with a view to settling these questions and more to ask my readers how you negotiate them.

I should say, first of all, that I’m not talking here about the general question of whether any whisky is worth it past some arbitrary price point, whether any whisky is worth paying $50/$100/$200/$400/etc. for. I’m not saying that’s an irrelevant question but if you spend time on a hobbyist blog like this one then you’re probably already fine with setting that number quite a bit higher than the average person in your income bracket might (and that person probably has other genres of discretionary spending that might invite the same question). I’m also not interested here in the question of the value of NAS whisky per se*. Again, not because I don’t think that’s a pertinent question but because my interest here is a little more narrow. Of course, if you’d like to offer insight into those questions as well by all means go ahead.

Okay, so what specifically am I interested in here?

The question of whiskies whose prices have risen dramatically in recent years

This is the Talisker 18 scenario. I first purchased it for less than $50 and I purchased my last bottle for about $60. A few years ago Diageo raised the price past $120—not gradually but all at once. As per Wine-searcher**, the average price in the US now is $156 and the lowest is $115. You don’t have to be an economist to see that it’s not inflation that’s the cause of this increase. Personally, I find it difficult to justify paying this increase even though the Talisker 18 is not a whisky for which more reasonably priced analogues exist. I’m not sure, however, if this reluctance makes complete sense.

If a whisky is one you like very much, and you think it is relatively unique and the price being asked for it is not out of line with what’s being asked for whiskies of similar reputation and age, does it make sense to balk at it because you paid much less for it 5 years ago? For reference, the average price on Wine-searcher for the Highland Park 18 is $140 (lowest price, $110), for the Bunnahabhain 18 it is $125 (lowest price, $99) and for the Bowmore 18 it is $130 (lowest price, $90). All are cheaper than the Talisker 18 (on average) but are those numbers more relevant comparisons for the current price of the Talisker 18 than what the price of the Talisker 18 was in 2012 or 2007? It should also be noted that while the prices of those whiskies have also risen in the intervening period, they haven’t risen as sharply***. I wouldn’t feel a similar reluctance to purchase the Bunnahabhain 18.

The other question is whether these issues have or should have any relevance to people who have entered into single malt mania much more recently. If Talisker 18 has always been $120 or more since you started drinking and purchasing single malts, and you can afford to pay it, should you bother with the quibbling of people like me who once purchased it for half the price? Should I be telling you that Talisker 18 is not worth it at $140 if listening to me meant you’d never drink the Talisker 18? Or by not going on about the sharp rise in price do I run the risk of normalizing it?

This brings me to the other “get off my lawn” scenario.

The question of the value proposition of older whiskies in today’s market

When I started getting serious about single malt whisky in the mid-2000s, and when I started purchasing more and more of it in the late-2000s it was not difficult to find official releases of 25+ yo whiskies at prices that would now be considered very low (the 2009 Port Ellen 30 yo special release, for example, hung around for $300 for a long time; the Highland Park 25 was easily found below $175). It was also very easy to find fabulously old independent releases from 1960s and 1970s vintages for even less. The years of discounted Ardbeg Provenance were over but there were still plenty of old and excellent whiskies to be found.

This era came to an end about 2011-2012 but there are still stray bottles to be found—sometimes at long-ago prices, usually not. However, if you ask about these bottles you are likely to encounter some old fart or the other who will either tell you (as above) that 10 years ago the bottle cost half as much and was a good value only at that price or that it doesn’t compare at all to some unicorn bottle from the same distillery that hasn’t been available except at auction for 20 years. The net effect of this may be that you feel like whisky from prior eras is either completely out of your reach or only worthwhile if you can pay a king’s ransom for some mythical bottle that the cognoscenti have all given 90+ points to.

This is the scenario of the Scott’s Selection Pulteney 1977-2005 asked about by Ol’ Jas. The bottle he found costs $200. He could be told quite accurately that the price is high relative to what it was not so very long ago and that this is probably not the best example of 1970s whisky he could find. I’m not sure, however, that either answer is useful. If $200 is the general range for this kind of whisky now then, as with the Talisker 18, it’s not hugely pertinent that it cost half as much 10 years ago. More to the point, unlike the Talisker 18, this whisky was a one-off. The price increase is down to scarcity (whereas the Talisker 18 is still being pumped out each year).

And to the other point, I would say that while not all or most whiskies from the 1970s that are still available are great it would be a huge shame if more recent entrants to our hobby were tacitly encouraged to avoid all that are still available only because they’re not of legendary quality. There is a qualitative difference between much of the malt made then and now at the same distilleries and it’s good for people to experience that difference, no matter what they may think of it when they do. Thus, while I wouldn’t encourage people to go out and buy any 1970s whisky they can find, price be damned, I am far more likely to respond positively to a question like, “Is the Scott’s Selection Pulteney 1977-2004 worth it at $200”—especially if the vintage has some other significance to you.

These are my overly long but still half-baked thoughts on the matter. I’d be interested to hear your takes.


*It is, of course, true that the inflated prices asked for NAS whiskies of questionable quality helps make the raised prices of teenaged whiskies seem reasonable. I know these are not exclusive concerns—but I’d like to talk about more than NAS here.

**Please note that the lowest prices listed on Wine-searcher often turn out to be phantoms: you get excited by a price, click on the store link and find they’re actually charging a lot more.

***At the other end of the spectrum are malts like the Springbank 18 (lowest price, $145; average price, $182) and the Yamazaki 18 (lowest price, $250; average price, $529!).

54 thoughts on “Is It Worth It? Buying Old(er) Whisky in 2017

  1. Great piece.

    One big idea that runs though—or maybe, UNDER—this whole topic is how we allow the seller to establish a whisky’s (or any product’s) perceived value by setting the price to begin with. This cuts both ways: If you know that Talisker 18 used to cost $50, then that’s what you think it’s worth and the new $150 price seems absurd. Conversely, if you know that Talisker Storm usually sells for $80, then that’s what you think it’s worth and a “sale!” price of $50 seems like a bargain. Either way, irrational.

    The ugly truth is that ALL prices are just made up. It’s the seller’s guess about how high you’re willing to go.

    The ideal scenario is to try something (or in lieu of that, read reviews) in ignorance of the price asked and decide how much you’re willing to pay for it. Compare that to price asked, and your decision becomes easy. But the problem is that we allow sellers to control our minds (and I don’t use that phrase lightly) by internalizing their prices in step 1 of the dance.

    That’s my starting point, at least. From there, you can start hashing out whether the 1977 Pulteney or the Talisker 18 or anything else is “worth it.” Start weighing things like novelty, availability of substitutes, and absolute value. More to come.

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    • I respectfully disagree- basic tenets of supply and demand are much simpler and benign than you’re representing here. Why should Talisker 18 sell for $50 when far more people demand Talisker, or scotch in general, than before? The market has shown the prices it can bear, given the supply available and the demand available. If it’s truly an absurd price for what they offer, someone can undercut them. Diageo, though massive, does not necessarily have monopolistic pricing power like you suggest here. I do agree that value is ultimately up to you, and personally I’m perfectly happy drinking Uigeadail for <$60.

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        • MAO’s got it right. Diageo does have (a degree of) monopoly power here. As do all sellers of branded goods. That’s the point of branding. That’s why Nike (or whatever) advertises: To make the demand for their products more inelastic, so that people will buy them even when their prices are higher than the prices of acceptable substitutes.

          Of course, Diageo doesn’t have a monopoly on whisky. But they DO have a monopoly on Talisker 18.

          This isn’t personal to Davis and I mean no offense here, but I think 90% of the time when people invoke “basic supply and demand” to explain something, they don’t actually understand supply and demand. And I get that: “supply and demand” has become lazy modern shorthand for accepting and fake-explaining a given market phenomenon. But to really claim “supply and demand” as the explanation for a phenomenon, you need to know the shape of the supply line, the shape of the demand line, and the reasons they’re shaped that way. (Yep, I’m double-nerding it today!)

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        • That’s not what I mean. Even with distillery character and profile differences, scotch remains a product with close substitutes, both vertically and horizontally. To exaggerate the point, precious few will pay 200 for Talisker 18 if Highland Park 18 can be found for 120. Premium pricing strategies will allow aged-scotch to command extra-high prices, but only as high as the market can bear. My argument is that pricing is not something haphazardly decided, especially because cheaper substitutes (and ultimately, discretionary budgets) prevent Diageo from rampant price gouging.

          To discuss your question above, I find little value in comparing pricing to what it cost around a decade ago. It’s an interesting comparison, but a drastically different market, so value needs to be contextualized accordingly. There’s a reason why people weren’t hoarding today’s unicorn bottles 15 years ago.

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      • At the risk of straying too far afield, anyone who thinks the workings of supply and demand in the whisky market are simple and benign (and I think I’m fair in considering of “benign” to mean “natural and unmanipulated” in this context) should try to explain the BTAC releases.

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        • You’re talking about short-run supply and price decision-making with BTAC upheld temporarily by a lack of similar substitutes. If I need to remind you, 10 years ago no one was hoarding the stuff. It’s not a sustainable long-run strategy in a free market. Furthermore, this is not a moralistic stance- by benign, I mean that you are demonizing market forces (those firms you say are setting absurd, irrational prices) that are preventing you from getting cheap rare whiskey and that it does not work that way. Finally, secondary grey markets show that fair notions of supply and demand are alive and well, even if they’re driven by hysteria at this moment. Of course, notions of supply and demand get thrown around cheaply, but as someone with a degree in econ from U of Chicago, I’d like to think I have more than a basic grasp of these concepts… not that I was the best student by any means!

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          • So David, you’re a fellow econ man! Great.

            Really what I had in mind by bringing up the BTAC example is: Why are the retail prices so artificially low? At the risk of stating the obvious, the very existence of that gray market makes it screamingly clear that the retail prices are artificially low. So given that, WHY are they so low?

            Actually, the explanation of “why”—halo effect, vested interest in bourbon’s identity as an “everyman’s drink,” allocation & contracting power with retailers—isn’t so very interesting to me in this context. But if we acknowledge that the retail prices are low, then we have to acknowledge that we’re facing more than the “simple and benign” tenets of supply and demand.

            Buffalo Trace isn’t just pricing them at the market-clearing price where [quantity supplied] = [quantity demanded]. The price is lower, and we’ve got a much more interesting situation than simple supply & demand.

            And different variations on this are playing out in all the prices we see.

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          • Davis,
            Care to further explain what you’re talking about in regard to “demonizing market forces,” the accusation that prices are ” absurd, irrational,” and the expectation of “getting cheap rare whiskey”?

            Mostly, I want to know if “you” means “me” in those statements. And if not, who does it mean?

            For my sake, I’ll tell that that I fully accept market forces, I try to understand them, and I find them interesting.

            Separate from that, I make my personal buying decisions based on my own notions of value (and implicitly, buyer’s surplus—like you with your Oogie).

            I guess mostly—again :)—I want to be clear that all my posts so far on this page are intended to be in the spirit of detached understanding, not personal entitlement, moralizing, or demonization of whisky sellers. Cheers.

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      • Davis, to build on your point about how happy you are buying $60 Oogie (and to continue the econ tear I seem to be on today), it’s worth considering WHY we consider any given purchase a good value.

        It’s because the value we put on the item is higher than the price.

        That sounds simple, but let it sink in a little bit. Everything you buy, you buy because the value you get from it is higher than (or at least, equal to) the price you pay. That means you’re constantly coming out on top. Every single time you buy something (excepting disappointments), you win! That shirt’s worth $40 to you but it cost $30—you’re up! Oogie’s worth $80 to you but it cost $60—you’re up again!

        This concept is the great underappreciated bedrock of market economies. Anyone who finds this interesting can google the term “buyer’s surplus.”

        As for the opposite? That explains the all items you DIDN’T buy. You value JW Blue at $70 but they’re asking $200—leave it on the shelf! Talisker 18’s going for $150 now but you’ve internalized a value of $60—leave it on the shelf! $200 for 1970s whisky? No way!

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        • Yes, I’m very well aware of how buyer’s surplus works. I’m personally less willing to shell out for high-end scotch than I am for bourbon and buy accordingly. All I’m saying, and I don’t think we will see eye to eye on this, is that even if I think $150 for Glengoolie 18 is stupid and I’d rather get Laphroaig 10 for $40, it’s a much more efficiently-priced product in TODAY’s market than you may think. If they felt they could afford to lose a few buyers at the margin and increase aggregate profit, they would. Whether that price is worth it to you, or me, or MAO, is a much more individual decision based on individual preferences.

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        • Replying to this since it won’t let me reply to the other ones anymore. Your original post came off as (what seemed to me, based on the wording) an attack against the pricing decisions of producers. You mentioned that the prices seemed absurd and irrational given what they used to be, and that sellers are controlling the minds of consumers. I hate Diageo just as much as everyone else, but I don’t believe they are using malicious pricing tactics to force people to buy Talisker 18 for what they ultimately charge. To me, it’s a response to the global demand for fine scotch, yet they also know that if they charge too much, HP or Laphroaig can offer better value for many consumers. That’s why I was saying it’s a benign market pricing mechanism. They’re not preying on people with an insatiable medical need for Talisker, nor are they out to make sure ol’ Jas can’t buy his favorite bottle. In the long run, spanning decades, these strategies get weeded out. We probably agree on a lot but that is where I am coming from, and how I interpreted your OP.

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        • Davis, gotcha. Thanks for explaining. And now I see what wasn’t totally clear in my original post. We’re talking about this bit:

          “This cuts both ways: If you know that Talisker 18 used to cost $50, then that’s what you think it’s worth and the new $150 price seems absurd. Conversely, if you know that Talisker Storm usually sells for $80, then that’s what you think it’s worth and a “sale!” price of $50 seems like a bargain. Either way, irrational.”

          I meant that it’s irrational, FOR THE CONSUMER, to base their value judgments on what original price the seller has placed in their mind.

          I totally understand pricing strategies (I think!), and I totally understand that the goal of everyone upstream from my purchase is to make maximum money, not to supply me with whisky. In fact, I’ve been called an industry apologist on occasion for defending sellers’ capitalistic behavior (i.e., charging market prices) when other whisky fans are berating their “price gouging.”

          So yeah, I think we totally agree on most if not all of this stuff!

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  2. I think this is the most relevant question to be asked about whisky in 2017. A lot of reference being made to long ago prices. I recently just purchased a 40 year old home, had I done so in the early 2000s, it also, would have been 1/4 of the price. Value is relative, and relative in this sense referring to the current market. Understanding there are alternatives in both scenarios, I could have moved to a different part of town, or I could alternatively switch to a different spirit. But if I want to drink whisky, and I do, I need to value my purchases based in the context of the current market, not what I could have purchased a similar bottle 10 years ago (I got into whisky seriously around 2009). What this ultimately does is tier buyers. I can’t afford a bottle of Port Ellen in 2017’s market. I could have done so in 2010, but I also can’t afford to live in a multi-million dollar home (then, or now). There seems to be a resentment towards capital market forces, and a regret, possibly, for not purchasing more bottles when they were more affordable. For better or for worse, whisky is a global market. Supply and demand drive much of the pricing action. Say what you will about the larger marketing efforts or trend towards NAS of the industry, but they are profit seeking enterprises and will price accordingly, and to what level they think they may be able to move and maximize said profit. Just like every other industry that’s ever existed. Markets are cyclical, consumption patterns and tastes will change, and if you’re still drinking whisky in the next little while, odds are you’ll be able to purchase affordable older bottles in current time. Until then, I’ll seek value in my budget range, acknowledging the fact that I can’t afford the best of the best. But with a little effort, one can still drink excellent, well regarded whisky in 2017.

    PS big fan of the blog. Keep up the good work

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  3. Hi there,

    “The dirty little secret of the Scotch industry is they’ve become addicted to high prices, but they’ve run out of old whisky” said Ian Buxton in an interview or wrote in one of his books..

    For me that says it all.

    Greetings
    kallaskander

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    • Kallaskander, that quote does indeed shed light on many phenomena in the modern whisky world, but I don’t think it actually does anything to help us decide whether old(or) whisky is worth any given asking price.

      Care to expand?

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      • Hi there,

        it is but a grain distillate. Nothing else. Relatively cheap grain is transformed to alcohol and folklore and marketing make it more than it principally is.
        That means there is no connection between the costs of production and any supposed – or asked for – value.
        Had the covetted bottle been consumed within its supposed lifespan of say two years after bottling, all problems would be solved.

        No whisky is worth the given asking price. It begins with the VAT tax you have to pay when you buy it. The rest is irrational make blieve … so if you can make any buyer to believe that he wants to pay a few hundrets of dollars or any other currency to own the bottle he thinks he must have you have done something right.
        Not the whisky nor the bottle nor the packaing is worth what some people are able or willing to pay.
        Greetings
        kallaskander

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        • Kallaskander,
          I get what you’re saying about “folklore and marketing” propping up whisky prices, but it sounds like you’re going so far as to say that NO WHISKY IS WORTH WHAT IT COSTS TO BUY. Is that right?

          If so, do you not buy any whisky?

          I guess I follow your logic, but I don’t come to the same conclusion. I mean, a piece of artwork might just be comprised of some cheap paint and canvas, but that doesn’t prevent the art from being great and valuable. Similarly, I think whisky—at least the whisky I typically buy—is worth what I pay for it, even if it’s just comprised of processed grain.

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          • Hi there,

            exactly. Prices for paintings in the 100 Mio $ realm have nothing to do with any actual value. Only with a supposed market value.
            Market value being what some people are willing to pay and being able to really pay such sums. These are imagined sums to express hove covetted a Monet Renoir Picasso or van Gogh may be… and human imagination has nothing to do with limitations. That is why whisky prices soar.

            It is the same with Port Ellen or old Macallan bottlings. They are not and never were worth what some people can afford and are prepared to spend on them.

            A more recent example. Highland Park was under 50.- € here some 5 years ago. It is a good whisky and around 50.- € seemed a good price. Then Edrington’s imagination set in and they imagined they could ask twice as much. So today HP 18 is well over 100.- € – still a good whisky but overpriced and not worth it.
            Only to some to whom 100.- € is not much more than a dime. Edrington still sell some HP 18 but not to the common whisky drinker anymore.

            Greetings
            kallaskander

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  4. And if you go back far enough your dram would have cost you some homemade cheese and potatoes! I agree with you that the price hikes for the hobbyist whisky blog reader are annoying but not the central issue: what is pivotal is squaring the cost of whisky with various demands on a fixed disposable income.

    If you wish to buy the same number of bottles of Talisker 18yo in 2017 as you did in a 12-month period around 2009 for argument’s sake, then you’re going to feel the pinch severely. You can spend the same amount of money on whisky overall, still have your Talisker 18yo, but accept that you must drink less of it and supplement your cupboard with cheaper whiskies/whiskeys or even beers (an Imperial stout aged in oak is a flavour kick the equal of any Sherry bomb).

    What I have done is modify my drinking habits such that I place more value and hence put more funds behind tasting. I’m lucky to live in Glasgow and attend events or go to bars where old and old-style whiskies are available. I can try spirits from yesteryear and enjoy some stories alongside them. Master of Malt’s Drams allow me to evaluate contemporary old whiskies at a slight premium, but without paying for a bottle which would only sit around for months, using up capital which could have been spent on tastes of other unusual whiskies. I don’t buy these regularly any more since I’ve found that old whiskies are rarely as satisfying as I expected, often a lot of money for something that could just as easily be rum or Cognac. I go instead for mid-teens bottlings from characterful distilleries where I can actually distinguish the distillate.

    The old whiskies I deem ‘worth it’ are few and far between but I tend to favour character and the unknown. I treat it like a puzzle and try to research the best flavour-to-price ration. Karuizawa? Definitely not. Glen Garioch from the early 1990s? Now we’re talking.

    I don’t really drink that much whisky, I’ve realised, but when I do fancy ‘just a dram’ I buy whiskies of contrasting styles which I feel offer very good value for money, and for which I have an arbitrary budget of £60. It’s taken a number of years to reach this system (that arbitrary budget used to be much higher), and it does now mean my limited money better satisfies my tasting and drinking selves.

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    • James obviously has it all figured out!

      I really agree with the principle of mixing up “high” and “low,” so to speak. For the sake of stretching your money and still including some “high” in your life, for sure. But also to keep on foot on the ground, so you don’t get used to “high” and set that as your new quality floor. And to help you really appreciate the contrast and what makes the “high” so good to begin with.

      An annual bottle of Talisker 18 in the rotation, even at today’s jacked prices? Sure! But intersperse it with some Jameson or Te Bheag or whatever.

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      • The disproportionate amount of time I spend on whisky retail and auction sites, ogling what I can’t have, would suggest it’s anything but figured out!

        The point about a ‘quality floor’ is valuable, though. I realised it was only too easy to keep pushing that upper price bracket higher and I lost sight of the great liquids further down the ladder. I wouldn’t say the risk is getting used to a certain quality level – it’s more problematic simply normalising spending £150 on a bottle of whisky. My aim is to own bottles which scratch the itch for a tasty and engaging drink on a Friday night (definitely possible for £60 or less) but which do not deplete funds for genuinely rare and interesting whiskies I will only sample once.

        This must come with the caveat that I could afford to buy bottles of the luminaries mentioned above when they were cheaper and feel no urge to revisit them now. I agree with MAO’s point that, to a newbie peering in, it must be quite galling having all these bloggers eulogise about whiskies now red-shifting out of their budgets. The feeling that yours is a ‘lower tier of experience’ must be both wounding and difficult to shake. But this is the primary affliction of the social media age, affecting not just commodities such as whisky but everything up to birthday parties and honeymoons. There is enough joy and quality to be had in whisky within my budget to worry about whether I am having less fun than the guy who can pick up an Ardbeg Provenance or latest Brora.

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        • “There is enough joy and quality to be had in whisky within my budget to worry about whether I am having less fun than the guy who can pick up an Ardbeg Provenance or latest Brora.”

          Well said!

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        • But don’t you want to have the joy of the guy who when you say how much you enjoy the latest batch of the Uigeadail posts a picture of his case of sherry cask Ardbeg 1974??!!!

          The first step to joy may actually be to unsubscribe from every whisky group you may have joined on Facebook.

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          • Is that how it goes down?

            My absence from Facebook might be the reason I seem to be having a better time on the whisky web than others. :)

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          • It’s not unusual on the Malt Maniacs & Friends page, though not as prevalent as it once was. MM&F is the only active whisky group I’m a member of, and I don’t look at it regularly any more, partly for this reason.

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          • Does that actually happen?! You can’t blame whisky for the one-upmanship tendencies of arseholes, I suppose.

            Social media cut backs are definitely the way forward!

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  5. Working from the Talisker 18 scenario are things like Old Pulteney 21, Hakushu 12, and HP 15- older whiskies (relatively speaking!) that have gone up in price. The difference being that they have been discontinued. OP21 is still available for ~$150 which seems like a lot because it was ~$110. Hakushu 12 is north of $75 from below $50, and the HP15’s seem to keep rising, now around $100? Add in Scapa 16 and Longmorn 16.

    Do any of those represent good value? I’ve decided they do not.

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  6. Without meaning to close the economics seminar, I’d like to move the discussion a bit more in the direction of James and Patrick’s comments (and picking up also on aspects of Davis and Ol’ Jas’s exchanges). In particular, I’m interested in hearing from more people about the question of how you strategize your drinking/purchasing given the realities of current pricing, especially of older (by which I mean 18+ years) whiskies that are still being produced. The move to rum or brandy or even bourbon is not feasible for me because none of those do for me what single malt whisky in the Scottish style does (or provide me the range of profiles that single malt whisky does).

    One thing that is very clear when I look at my whisky accumulation is that I have always purchased at a greater rate than I drink (I only have 2 drinks a night, each between 1.5 and 2 oz). In other words, I’m already spending more than I need to (to the extent to which I “need” to drink). So, in theory at least it should be simple enough for me to spend the same amount of money and still be able to purchase malts I like to drink in the quantity that I actually drink them. So, I could certainly afford to purchase Talisker 18 at the current price—all I have to do is not purchase another 1-2 bottles a month that I won’t get around to drinking for another 10 years anyway.

    The barrier for me is psychological: I can’t help but feel cheated if I’m being asked to pay twice as much for something without any justification I can see for that increase. I like Talisker 18 and would like to keep drinking it but not that much. Ditto for most of the malts Patrick mentioned (the Scapa and Longmorn 16s I was never very interested in). Now if the Laphroaig 10 or Talisker 10 or Clynelish 14 were to have their prices doubled I would be in a real bind (I don’t want to give anyone any ideas).

    But how would I feel if I were new to the hobby/obsession and constantly reading other people’s praise for whiskies like the Talisker 18 or the Highland Park 18 or the Springbank 18 that are still in production but cost way more than they used to? If I could afford them easily at their current prices (which I couldn’t have if these had been the prices when I was starting out) I guess it wouldn’t matter (and I guess these are the customers the owners are hoping for). If I couldn’t afford them would I feel like I was doomed to being forever stuck in a lower tier of experience? Maybe this is a problem contributed to by blogs like mine (but far more greatly by groups on Facebook) that unavoidably fetishize older, more expensive whiskies. Maybe we should be far more focused on “promoting” the merits of reasonably priced whiskies.

    This also makes me think that it may be useful to create (through crowd-sourcing) a chart of close substitutions for high quality but overpriced whiskies. Sort of like a list of suggestions for things that could get you close to the Talisker 18 profile without giving you quite that hit to the wallet. (Personally, in that situation I’d say stick with the Talisker 10 or get a bottle of that and the D.E and do the occasional vatting experiment.)

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    • MAO, the “I can’t afford X. What can I buy instead?” swapperooni list is a great idea.

      As to the broad problem of unaffordable older whisky, I think that’s inevitable. It’s just a matter or where that line is for each of us. Except for the super-rich, we’ll all have some threshold beyond which we’re not paying and we’re not experiencing. For me, for example, I’d love to try some of those 1960s Longmorns you’ve blogged about here. For someone else, Talisker 18 is the forbidden fruit. And of course for many “drinkers,” the whole world of single malts is the overpriced expensive stuff that need not be considered.

      That psychological barrier about not wanted to get cheated is very interesting. I think that’s the reason people are always seeking justifications for the high prices they face: They want to feel like there WEREN’T ripped off, that it was reasonable to get charged what they paid, and that they’re not dupes. “Aging is expensive! The angels’ share! It must cost a fortune to mega-peat that Octomore malt! Springbank got a 10% lower yield on that local barley!” Nobody wants to accept that they simply paid the seller’s made-up price and that a huge portion of that price was profit.

      Now among all those justifications for high prices we give ourselves, AGE is the big one that people are always willing to make, regardless of how it translates into the drinking experience. I find that curious. A few weeks ago, I posted a list on another blog about all sorts of expense-incurring things producers could do to increase (or not) the quality of the whisky, and how so many of those practices don’t enjoy the same standing that AGE holds in these discussions. I’ll try to dig that up. But my point will be that all that stuff matters only insofar as it enhances your drinking experience, and the ideal will always be to try AND VALUE a whisky blind. Of course, that’s not always possible, but you work backwards from that starting point.

      Like

      • I found that list I made elsewhere of expense-incurring things producers could do to increase (or not) the quality of the whisky. It was on the Scotch Noob site:
        http://scotchnoob.com/2017/05/15/scotch-101-what-is-nas/

        Forgive me for quoting myself, but it didn’t really get any traction over there, and MAO’s topic here is where it might better fit. The point is, why are we willing to pay extra for aging, but not this other stuff?

        “We have to totally disabuse ourselves of the notion that prices should be bear relation whatsoever to ANY production costs—and not just the costs of aging. Producers can do all sorts of things that cost money and that might improve (or at least affect) a whisky’s quality or perceived value. Here are a few:

        •Put it in a wood cask for a long time

        •Buy better casks

        •Pour the whisky over a model’s body before bottling (that was real a few years ago, wasn’t it?)

        •Peat the malt

        •REALLY peat the malt

        •Use local barley

        •Bespokify the casks

        •Dilute it with less (or no) water

        •Age it in a warm climate

        •Age it in a cool climate

        •Age it in a four-seasons climate

        •Stick it on a boat for a while

        •Make it survive a tornado

        •Take a smaller heart cut

        •Double-distill

        •Triple-distill

        •Advertise

        •Put it in a cool bottle

        •Multi-vintage

        •Bottle single casks

        If you’re looking for your bottle price to be something like (A+B+C + 5% profit margin), then you got some problems. First, good luck figuring out what the costs of A, B, and C are. Second, why the hell would you even care? Is it because you feel ripped off if your retail price is way higher than A+B+C? Do you want to go through their cost accounting to select which costs you WILL pay for and which you WON’T? It’s a fool’s errand.”

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    • I love the idea of the substitutes database but it’s beset with the same problem as the ‘malternative’ quests embarked upon by so many bloggers: yes, the journey through other spirits can be entertaining and enlightening in itself, but your Haitian rum is never going to taste like Port Ellen, nor is that Armagnac going to map the vintage Macallan feel in quite the same way.

      The brands comment above is the Achilles heel: only Talisker 18 tastes like Talisker 18. Ledaig, Ardmore: they’re always going to taste like cheap imitations unless you can put aside the former idol and appreciate them on their own terms.

      The hardest to accept is not in itself that the price has gone up; it’s that the awesome drink you used to enjoy daily is now a weekly or even monthly luxury.

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      • I do not believe a comparisons list would simply offer ‘cheap imitations.’

        An example is when I had a bottle of Old Pulteney 17yr and a friend had Glenfiddich 15 Solera – we had them side by side all night and were shocked how similar they were. Now, to someone who can’t find/afford OP 17, I could offer the fact that to me, on one occasion, the Solera was very similar.

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        • I take your point that there are many very similar whiskies out there. I can see how the baked fruit and oak spice of the Pulteney and Glenfiddich may well parallel one another and I’m sure others will have their own correspondences.

          My argument related to the very idiosyncratic whiskies, usually involving peat, for which there are no direct comparisons. MAO’s Talisker 18 is possibly the best example, but the Ardbeg core range, Highland Park and Lagavulin are all situations where the character of the spirit and the following which has arisen from that character makes it very difficult to come across a regular cheaper bottling which doesn’t fall some way short of the Taliskeriness or Ardbegish qualities you were searching for. Part of the problem with suggesting substitutes is individual palates: what I find in a Talisker 18 and would class as a marker for it, and which I find echoes of in another whisky, may not be replicated by the experience of the person I’m talking to.

          Of course, the mentality behind substitute purchases is key: so long as you can avoid thinking ‘I’m only drinking this because I can’t afford that one’, you’ll be fine. A lot of it comes down to ignoring just the hype we are inadvertently reiterating here. If you cannot afford Talisker, Port Ellen, or Karuizawa, don’t let their existence trouble you. Liquor stores are full of substitutes, just do not compare them directly to out-of-reach bottles whose myth will increasingly overshadow their true merit.

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      • “your Haitian rum is never going to taste like Port Ellen, nor is that Armagnac going to map the vintage Macallan feel in quite the same way”

        Respectfully James, you’ve obviously not tried enough Armagnac or rum/rhum… :)

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        • Johanna, are you actually saying that there are Haitian rums that taste just like Port Ellen and Armagnacs that taste just like vintage Macallans—to the extent that they could be replacements for them? Or do you mean that there are rums and Armagnacs that are just as good as Port Ellens and vintage Macallans. If the latter, that’s not something James is ruling out.

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          • Well my understanding of the English language didn’t lead me to believe that James was seeking an exact replica of taste; his expression was “map the feel” which I translate as a nuanced impression that evokes the same depth of pleasure and satisfaction from the apple vs the orange.

            On that basis yes, I’ve had rum (not Haitian) that I’d put in a blind tasting against Port Ellen and doubt many would be able to pick out the difference. And I’ve had brandy (Armagnac, Calvados) that could pass for a 60s Macallan, and both the above could stand head and shoulders next to said whiskies. And I should also point out that I’ve had p*ss poor Port Ellen and vintage Macallans that were really good but no more.

            TLDR: not all that glitters is gold.

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          • Well, this may be a problem with my understanding of the English language but I’m having trouble following the claim from the end of the first para to the beginning of the second. At first you say that you are talking about “a nuanced impression that evokes the same depth of pleasure and satisfaction from the apple vs the orange.” So here rum and Port Ellen are an apple and an orange—which may still give equal pleasure in their own (characteristically different) way. So far, so obvious. But in the second para you then say that you’ve had rums that you’d “put in a blind tasting against Port Ellen and doubt many would be able to pick out the difference”. So now they seem to both be apples (or oranges) and we’re back in the territory of “an exact replica of taste”.

            But I’ll bow to your superior knowledge and experience and ask for recommendations of these rums that are effectively indistinguishable from Port Ellen (or Caol Ila, for that matter). Ditto for brandies that could pass for 60s Macallans, especially if they are more easily available/accessible at lower prices.

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        • I’m always keen to expand my spirits horizons, Johanna! I’d just love to know which ones in particular you would personally recommend. (Maybe SMD didn’t close down Port Ellen after all but moved it wholesale to the Caribbean?!)

          I do say above that the line between whisky, rum and Cognac can blur, but I didn’t mean it in a positive sense. I’m not especially interested in tasting oak eau-de-vie whether it hails from Scotland, Jamaica or France. However, a rum that is indistinguishable from Lagavulin 12yo and that I can get for £40 instead of £80 would be just super!

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    • “I’m being asked to pay twice as much for something without any justification I can see for that increase”

      Let me guess: you’ve never purchased real estate, have you?

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        • “…prices double in a few years [ ] with no relationship to anything else”

          Actually, as a real estate broker, I can confirm that prices are driven by desirability. San Francisco, London, Vancouver: these are examples of very desirable real estate markets and accordingly the price of real estate in these cities shows no sign of decreasing any time soon.

          Macallan, Lagavulin, Talisker: likewise these are very desirable whiskies (and/or whisky brands) and as long as they are perceived as such, we can expect that the price of these bottles won’t be decreasing any time soon.

          Given that you live in the world’s most capitalist economy, I’m at a loss to understand how you don’t see “desirability” as a justification for the increased price of the whiskies you’ve been enjoying.

          You enjoy Talisker 18 Year Old, a premium, age-statement single malt whisky from one of Scotland’s blue chip distilleries. So do many others, many of whom publicly laud its greatness on social media and blogs – such as yours :) – which in turn reinforces and validates their good taste, as well as attracting attention to said whisky and enhancing its desirability. There is a finite amount of eighteen year old casks that Diageo can use in bottling Talisker 18 Year Old – what possible reason would they have for charging less than people are willing to pay?

          You’ve stated that other spirits such as rum and brandy don’t provide you with the satisfaction that Talisker 18 Year Old and its ilk does. So they pretty much have you by the short hairs and I believe the old fashioned response to this is “suck it up buttercup”.

          TLDR – why wouldn’t a publicly traded company beholden to its shareholders not maximize the revenue base of limited inventory? My understanding is that shareholders are interested in quarterly dividend checks, not the amount of goodwill generated towards customers.

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    • “…like a list of suggestions for things that could get you close to the Talisker 18 profile without giving you quite that hit to the wallet.”

      Excellent suggestion, like letting people know that Weller 12yo is essentially Pappy Van… oh wait a minute, scratch that, right, Weller is now on allocation…

      Like

  7. Hi!

    First comment here, thought I’d chime in as a newcomer to the hobby. This has turned into a bit of an essay, read at your own peril!

    As a student I am on a tight budget, so I really need to think about what I consider good value for money – as you say, MAO, I read lots of praise for late-teen and 20+ y.o. whiskies, or rare gems from the 60’s or 70’s, and I just can’t fathom being able to afford those bottles. I wouldn’t say I feel “stuck in a lower tier of experience”, but the thought of joining the hobby in the aftermath of a golden age, where rare and old whiskies were cheap and plentiful, is obviously disheartening. Because of my age the fantasy of buying/hoarding these bottles 10-20 years ago doesn’t really apply, but there is still a distinct feeling of missing out.

    One of my main ways of getting to try interesting whiskies, as James says, is by the dram, or at whisky festivals (well, I’ve been to one, so far), or through swaps; my father-in-law and a good friend both enjoy whisky, and by sharing samples the three of us together are able to try a far broader range of whiskies than each of us would be able to individually. This has its limits though – I don’t feel you really get to know a whisky from a sample or dram in the same way as you do over the course of a whole bottle. Sure, samples are an important way to decide which whiskies you want to buy, and an enjoyable experience, and a good way to practise evaluating a whisky, try and guess its origin, come up with shared notes… But it’s not the same as having a full bottle on my shelf – and in that respect, as much as these strategies make it possible for me to enjoy a lot of whisky, I still find myself edged out of the premium market.

    The thing that most upsets me in this context is, need I mention it, the NAS-isation of whisky, and the silent watering down of many release to 40% (often alongside price hikes!) – interestingly I have noticed some US releases are not subject to this, but in the UK it is a noticeable phenomenon. I don’t want to rant about this here, I’m sure anything I have to say has been said before. But as somebody who is just starting to enjoy whisky the fact that most of the whiskies I can afford are not whiskies I want to drink, and that this is a recent development, is obvioulsy frustrating. The increasing density of marketing talk together with a growing scarcity of actual relevant information (cask numbers but no vintages, for example?) leaves a bitter aftertaste to interactions with distillers. Of course I am aware that the distillers don’t owe me, the hobbyist, anything, and it would be outrageous to demand that they sell me old rare whiskies at bargain prices if they can charge more and get away with it, as per Davis’ and Jas’ discussion. Whisky hobbyists probably do not produce a significant share of a distillery’s/brand’s profits, and as such their concerns appear to be moot to many whisky producers – but loving a product while finding its producers indifferent to my interests is a frustrating experience, and one that makes me more open-minded to other spirits, for example.

    I am curious what people think as to the sustainability of the current premiumisation of whisky – is there another whisky loch on the horizon, or will prices just keep rising? Obviously the globalisation of the whisky market and the advent of online shops have radically changed the way the market works – it is far easier these days to find buyers even for absurdly expensive bottlings as the marketplace has grown much more connected. But is this sustainable? Will over-oaked whiskies in over-priced decanters still be fashionable as status objects for Far Eastern investors in 10-20 years? (My jealousy may be shining through a bit here…) And is the whisky industry not shooting itself in the foot by alienating the people who are perhaps not their most profitable customers, but arguably their most loyal, and perhaps their most ardent advertisers?

    I think for me the answer, for now, lies in being very discerning regarding where I spend my money. Attitudes in the whisky world have contributed to my seeking out other spirits, and unlike you, MAO, I do find much to enjoy in rums and brandies. My most recent bottle, a rare treat at £80, is a 30 y.o. Cognac from Cadenhead’s – you’ll be hard-pressed to find a whisky at that age-to-price ratio and it is one of my favourite spirits to date. When buying whisky I am increasingly discerning as to who I am buying from. Springbank and, though I am daunted by this move, the independents, can expect to see more of my (limited, low-budget) custom, Diageo, despite my love for Lagavulin, will see less. I appreciate that many people might think this a ridiculous way to decide which whisky to buy, giving up on a whisky out of principle, and in truth I do not think that I have had my last sip of Lagavulin, but I have decided that in general I want my money to support distilleries or brands whose practices I am on board with – that’s part of my personal appreciation of value.

    As a closing comment, I would like to say that I am grateful to bloggers for providing information both on bottles I am considering buying and on bottles I will likely never even see in person. I think there is a lot to be learned from others’ tasting notes. I appreciate it when at least some of the whiskies I read about are bottles I could feasibly own one day, but I do think it would be a shame for bloggers to water down what they are doing by only publishing notes for affordable bottles, or focussing on suggesting alternatives to premium bottles. Reading about whisky I will never taste is still part of my whisky education, and allows me at least vicarious enjoyment. And to my mind the idea of suggesting alternatives slightly defies the point of enjoying whisky – I want to appreciate whiskies for what they are, not try and find passably similar or less-good-but-cheaper bottles. I would encourage bloggers to keep doing what they’re doing, and on that note: Cheers MAO for the enjoyable blog!

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    • Thanks for the great comment! You raise some very important points and I can only hope that industry pays some attention to these issues.

      Yes, here in the US we get some malts at 43% that are at 40% in the UK and Europe (Laphroaig 10) but, on the other hand, opportunities to go to whisky festivals or bars with proper selections are far fewer; and we have a far more limited range of independents available as well.

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    • Lots of wise words in here. I think if principles aren’t exercised in whisky you do end up not giving money to people who deserve it. Plus, knowing the likes of Springbank, Kilchoman, Benromach, Dornoch and their ilk are going about their business in a conscientious way, and you’re buying into that ethos, adds enjoyment to your whisky beyond the content of the liquid itself.

      Reading about rarer whiskies needn’t be angst-generating, either. As you say, it adds to your knowledge of how brands have grown and what types of casks and production practices were in operation when. There is more to whisky than drinking it, and knowledge needn’t cost much. I suspect some whisky geeks have a notch-on-the-bedpost approach to trying older whiskies: it is less about learning and appreciating the inherent value (and by that I mean quality) of the spirit itself but being able to brag about having tried it at a later date.

      As for full bottles best allowing a whisky to develop and show itself, I haven’t had that experience myself. The rate at which I drink means that any beneficial oxidation invariably tips into harmful oxidation and the second half of my expensive bottle is effectively a shadow of what it was. I know I’m better off with sample purchases and swaps.

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      • Cheers! I think I have the same problem as you, that a full bottle, particularly if it’s not my favourite, can go a bit stale on me – I just find that if I can try a whisky 3 or 4 or 20 times I get a much better feel for what it’s like, and how it tastes differently depending on mood, situation, what I have eaten that day… I enjoy that process of discovery, because I feel afterwards I have gotten to know a whisky better, and am more confident in my opinion of it.

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    • Hi there,

      reminded me of my comment at all things whisky http://www.allthingswhisky.com/?p=3153#comment-688715
      where I wrote about the passion and the inability of the whisky industry to see the importance of enthusiasts.

      Mate I am sorry to see that in such a young and curious newbie like yourself the passion is already muted or nipped in the bud by the state of all things whisky (not the blog).

      And another self-quote if I may because it reflects the cynicism with which some in the industry go about quenching the thirst for knowledge and Real Whisky. http://www.allthingswhisky.com/?p=2608#comment-689724

      People forget if not we do all to re-educate them.

      Do not let you be put off Kon. We will come to see other whisky days again.
      Greetings
      kallaskander

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      • Cheers kallaskander!

        Don’t worry, I’m not too put off. I enjoy whisky, and luckily there is still some whicky which I enjoy AND can afford.

        I appreciate your taking the time to respond to my comment. And I too live in hope that we will see other whisky days again. I do think there are a few distilleries who are aware that, for them at least, enthusiasts are a very important market, and I’m curious to see how the new distilleries springing up these days turn out in that respect.

        Greetings to you too!

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  8. In terms of strategy, I stick to my allocated annual budget and that gets distributed across anywhere from 3-4 bottles a year to 10-20. I always try and keep in mind what I have currently in my collection, either those styles that I am currently enjoying, or addressing a ‘style deficiency’ that I may be lacking as I have drank it down recently. I like to have as wide a variety as my budget will allow, as like many of you, I seek to have a whisky that suits my current mood.

    That being said, I’ve noticed my purchasing habits have trended towards the ‘fewer bottles a year but of higher quality’ scenario. Quality again here is relative, but I’ve been drinking whisky for close to a decade now, and that has helped me refine my tastes and preferences to be able to somewhat distinguish the generic ‘good’ vs ‘bad’ (nuances that make a whisky great are very personal!). It has also afforded me the opportunity to sample a wide variety of styles and profiles. So if I am seeking a certain style, I’ll tend to spend it on 1 or 2 bottles (of 18+ in age) versus a larger variety in the past. Where I live and shop, I have the opportunity to sample before I buy, which obviously, helps immensely in narrowing down your purchase choice. These tend to be one offs in the sense they are usually single cask bottlings and generally bottled by an independent. I do have a soft spot for the unique and quirky though, so that also tends to inform my purchases, always in the context of what I own currently however.

    I’d say 70-80% of what I have on hand would be considered one off as described above. The remaining 20-30% I suppose would be classified as your everyday drinkers/affordable entry level (yet still high quality!) malts. These generally are the Talisker 10, Laphroaig Cask Strengh, Lagavulin 16 (preferably 12!), the Clynelih 14 (a favourtie of mine as well, and one of the most underrated ‘entry’ level malts in my opinion) as well as a smattering of Speyside region whiskies, of both bourbon and sherry maturation. I find taken as a whole, I suppose I would characterize my collection as an attempt at achieving a balance, trying to include a little bit of each style/profile one could reasonably expect to experience from the wide ranging world of single malts. Obviously with a slight skew to my personal preferences as well.

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