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!).