In recent years, beggining around 1999, the quality of the labels has changed a small but perhaps telling example. Let me elaborate. A multitude of small changes between the packaging of the 1980 and the 1981 18 yeard old really does give the impression that a Corporate cost cutter took over as far as the packaging is concerned, at least. (The label no longer gives a bottling date from 1981 onwards, and apprently is no longer a true vintage starting with the 1984 offering!). It seems that the management is consistently raising the price of its product by making a true vintage available only at a higher price range (also recall the infamous "switch;" i.e., when the 15 year old appeared on shelves at the price of the 18 year old!).
It now seems that the cheapest true vintage will be the Gran Reserva which was already undercutting the "regular" 18 year old. But perhaps even the Gran Reserva itself will no longer be a true vintage ( perhaps they should then call it the "Pequena Reserva" or "Petite Reserve").
It seems that what I call the "Auction Folly" seems to have taken over at the Macallan, is in no small part responsible for this state of affairs. I have recently learned that the Macallan is putting in a forthcoming auction, previously unreleased bootlings, to be sold commercially AFTER the auction. A sort of exclusive which, it would seem, defeats the purpose. But I gather there are plenty of people willing to by at auction a product about to be released to the public!
The more important conclusion is that by effectively tying itself very closely to the auction market The Macallan is taking a pretty big gamble. The Macallan now posts on its web site recent auction prices, and fuels the madness by constantly releasing "collectable" (to be auctioned) very expensive bottlings! This al well and fine today; but what will occur when prices come down as they inevitably will?
As of today it seems that the heart of the Macallan is taken away from the mainstream consumer; see for example the demise of the vintage 18 year old. They see it as an opportunity to charge more for a true vintage, which in the short term, makes sense. However, by making quality a commodity only available to the collector (and tying their product to the vagaries of the auction market)or ultra wealthy they are in effect lowering the standard of their whisky and not looking out for the long term viability of their brand.
Re what you call "auction folly" - it is certainly worrying to see people pile into a collectors' market in which prices can of course go up as well as down (and must surely be approaching a peak?). Caveat emptor, as they say - buyer beware, and especially when the authenticity of some of the recent 19th and early 20th century bottles appearing on the market has been questioned. It is very important to establish provenance before buying early bottles as an investment or to drink, given the current high prices.
It is also worrying to see a market in which prices are sometimes fuelled by the purchases of "anonymous" bidders. Recent events on the stock markets provide examples of price manipulation (not necessarily illegal)that do not necessarily help establish realistic market values for some investments. With whisky, it is perhaps safest to purchase for consumption, not for investment, if you don't know the market well. If in doubt, pull out.
On a specific point - I can't understand why someone would wish to pay £UK100 for a vatting of Macallan with no age statement (the 1861 replica), when a standard bottle of Mac is one fifth the price and the authenticity of the "original" and very mysterious 1861 bottle has been called into question. Unless the taste of the 1861 replica is 5 times as good as the standard, or the purchaser places a high value on the packaging of the product.
Lastly - the recent flood of "rare" bottlings surely serves only to dilute the collectors' market, reducing the perceived value of all the other collectable bottles by devaluing the concept of "rare". Unless more and more people can be persuaded to "invest in the market" of course... and the bubble doesn't burst!
I agree that the most worrying aspect is this "auction folly" whereby force feeding (with real and "created" products a la 1861)the auction market, the people at the MAcallan may kill it. It seems like the folks there are trying to maximize their brand recognition in whatever way they can.
I think this all stems from the fact that there is no recognized classification of Single Malt Distileries.
With Bordeaux wine a Grand cru classe 1st category cost much more than say a cru bourgeois or a vin de table (table wine). The strange thing woth Single malts is that on can pay as much for a 12 year old Macallan as for a 12 year old from a distillery that produces a vastly inferior single Malt!
It is too bad that there isn't an establshed classification where in all likelyhood The Macallan would be amongst the First category. But this state of affairs helps explains why The Macallan instead of charging a higher price for its products (which are some of the best out there), is cutting costs by downgrading its 18 year olds (from a vintage to a non-vintage), cheapening its packaging and trying to cash-in quick on their reputation on the auction market.
I have heard of one attempt to create such a classification: 5 experts were asked their top 20 distileries. The results seem to be acceptable. However, it seems that the results were somewhat discredited the presence of a panelist who massively [to use his favorite word] downgraded a recognized first categaory Distillery (Bowmore) and simultaneously gave a perfect score to a distilery which paid him as a consultant (BTW, that distillery did not make it in the First category). Perhaps another try should be made with unbiased people; the same four and another?
The point is that Macallan is already increasing its prices --surreptitiously that is. (As explained at length, they are for example, covertly increasing their prices by no longer offering the same product for its original price: If you wanted a vintage you could get the 18, then the gran reserva undercut it, now no vintage is available at 18, so to get one we have to pay much much more at 25, etc...). This is because the Macallan is better than most Single malts --but instead of raising their prices they restrict production of vintage bottling to the 25 year old and insanely expensive collectors items --at best a de facto tripling in price. Therefore the vintage botlings are inaccesible to the folks who made them so popular (you and me and countless others). A say 10-20% price increase would be preferable since it would still end up less than having to buy a 25 or even a Gran Reserva!
My point is that a classification would legitimate a higher price for the Macallan's regular line. Right now their standard line is dissapearing (or their staandards for those products are declining) in their search for profits. By the way, the Classification for Bordeaux wines still makes sense -- even if not entirely accurate -- I defy you to present me with any wine afficionado who considers Petrus to be worse than a Vin de Table! Simirlarly I don't think anyone would argue that Glen Ord's 12 year old is better than Macallan's (besides their sales rep of course.) Not that I think this is the best possible system, just a good compromise.
an additional problem with the 1861 is that tasting notes suggest it does not even possess the character of a whisky made in 1861, which you suggest might be the only other justification for the high price.
In 1861 it is unlikely a whisky would have been bottled at more than 5 years (more likely much sooner); would have been very "rough" to modern tastes (a less efficient distillation process and no chill filtration in those days to remove nasty impurities!); would have been peaty (there was no railway to bring coal to the area, so local fuel was used to dry the malt); etc etc. I'm not qualified to comment on the claim that Mac was matured in sherry casks as far back as the mid-19th century.
So if it's not a vintage bottling, does not contain rare whiskies and appears not to be an authentic replica, I assume the price must be based only on a perceived collectability, or the attractiveness of the "retro" packaging (however historically authentic). Of course it may be that it tastes exceptionally good but the tasting notes don't suggest anything out of the ordinary (I can't afford to buy some to try it for myself!)
Can't afford to buy 1861 myself either, but I was lucky enough to be present at the Buxrud Macallan tasting, so could taste it there. My notes for the 1861 show it to be quite light, fruity and dry. No hint of peat. I did get a little bit of peat in the 1874, the other 'replica'. Both were nice whiskies, but nothing extraordinary within the line of Macallans on offer (from a remarkably peaty (for a Macallan) 1942 vintage all the way to new-make spirit). Like Iain, I find it very hard to imagine that these replicas really taste like Macallan did in the mid-18th century.
That doesn't strike me as making any sense for distilleries which may not do their own malting, probably source their barley from a shifting variety of suppliers according to price and quality, and sell most of their make to be blended anyway and vat most of the rest to produce a consistent flavour profile. I don't see too many Premier Crus vatted together from different years, or cuvees made of X number of Premier Crus blended with wines from other vineyards or regions.
More to the point, however, surely introducing an official classification would simply fix the opinions of a few (who would do the classifying, and on the basis of which bottlings/vattings?) for ever, to the benefit of, as far as I can tell, hardly anyone other than the profiteers, for what is to stop the select few then using their new-found status to bump their prices up - for all their whiskies, not just the few vintage or replica bottlings - in just the way the most favoured chateaux do? It may well be that vintage bottlings of the Macallan have gone up in price recently; but that is hardly the Macallan's standard line -the whole point is surely that they are using the success of those specialist bottlings to increase the perceived desirability of their 10 or 12 year-old standard line to the "mainstream consumer". Better, I would have thought, to have them do it that way than simply use a "Top Class" classification to justify a price rise across the range.
Why not leave the playing field level (more or less) as it is instead of conferring a marketing advantage on a few? Let them compete on the quality of what they sell now and its price. The fact that you can get 12 year old Macallan for the same price, more or less, as various other 12-year-old singles which some might regard as "lesser" sounds like a good thing to me!
I agree with you that unlike winemakers, many distilleries vat their malt irrespective of year and as a whole produce very few vintages. That is not a good thing in my mind.
If Single Malt is going to continue gainning the prestige it rightly deserves, why not encourage the producers to issue real vintage bootlings? A good way to do this would be some sort of classification based precisely on what --as you correctly point out -- most distilleries don't do: grow their own barley, get their water from one disclosed source, no-chill filtration, no colouring, etc...those could be a few standards of admission to the classification. The distilleries that consider single malt a pure product of the region it is distilled and matured in (going back to the notion of terroir you mentionned) would be classified. in that sense the arbitrary notion of "taste" would not be part of the equation.
Single Malt has come a long way since the early 1980's. Its reputation has rightly soared above many other spirits. But why stop there --lets remember what was done to Cognac. To create a classification would encourage distilleries to create a better product (Note that the distilleries that come close to this are almost always producing the best Single).
I guess the issue can be termed as such: are we going to let the Whisky industry "dumb-down" single malt? they want to transform Singles into a mass market (lower quality) standardized (caramel, Chill, etc) product that will --if all goes according to plan -- replace (or fill the gap) the Extra premium blended at 12 years old and over (made somewhat obsolete by SMS).
Perhaps you are right the 12 year olds will remain comparatively cheap; but lets not think that the quality will remain the same with the increased production. If this happens we can forget about vintages at a fairly affordable prices (like the Macallan 18 distileld before 1984) those will be be produced in minute quantities for the auction market. Well, this is already happening. Further, gimmicks in the industry abound (Replicas, Finishes, Decade Series, Limited editions galore, Caramel couloring, Chill filtering, No indication regarding what Barley is used and in what exact proportion, etc...) when a few requirement could guarantee a better product, which would serve the Scotch Whisky industry as a whole.
Gate, I agree that the Petrus is way overpriced, but it sets the standard for the whole industry; allowing in turn for the savy consumer to go find a small winery which adheres to the standards and does not price itself out. For wine there are clear definable industry standards with rules and regulations; no such thing for SMS --its a jungle out there: anything goes (see list of gimmicks) I just thought that a classification rewarding the Distilleries which follow some basic quality standards could be a viable voluntary option to raise SMS above the fray.
There's plenty of information out there to enable anyone who wants to base purchases on information such as whether the distillery has its own maltings, whether it's a floor maltings, whether that maltings supplies all the disltillery's needs, what the water source is, size, shape and number of stills, etc. etc. There's even the unofficial Premier League of those distilleries whose make is graded First Class or A1 by blenders. I tend to use a mixture of seeing what the great Jackson/Murray/Broom trinity has to say, comparing it with Richard Joynson's view and then taking a punt.
But in the end, there's no substitute for drinking the stuff and deciding if it tastes good. Is a Macallan 18-year-old "better" than a Balvenie Single Barrel 15-year-old, or Longmorn 15-year-old, or Lagavulin 16-year-old, or Highland Park 18-year-old - or a Pappy van Winkle or Sazerac Rye? Purely a matter of personal taste, IMHO, arbitrary though that may be. But if bottlings from one year of production only are really the thing, there are plenty of independents out there who will oblige: Gordon & MacPhail spring to mind, or Cadenheads, Blackadder, Douglas Laing, or the Scotch Malt Whisky Society (the SMWS has done some brilliant bottlings of Macallan in the past with less sherry than the distillery edition).
Ultimately I think that the "personal taste" rationale is a cop out used by the industry to get out of abiding by strict standards. With this 'laissez-faire' attitude, I think the quality of single malt whisky will inevitably go down. I hope I'm wrong.
Regarding Vintages, I just think that it is much harder to present a vintage botling regularly rather than a new "wood finish" or "extra special ancient reserve" which no-one really knows what they really are made of. That's why in my opinion vintages are important. And by the way, Gate, the new misleading named '1984' 18 year old by Macallan is NO LONGER A VINTAGE; they don't just refrain from giving a botling date, they state that other older distilates have been added (vatted) to the mix (i.e., its got older stuff in there). It doesn't "herald the fall of the house of Macallan", since they seem to able to keep their customers buying and defending their products regardless. Their standards, though, are falling.
I guess we should agree to disagree, but I do have a question for you:
You say that "There's even the unofficial Premier League of those distilleries whose make is graded First Class or A1 by blenders," which ones are they? And were does one get that list?
There's plenty of information out there to enable anyone who wants to base purchases on information such as whether the distillery has its own maltings, whether it's a floor maltings, whether that maltings supplies all the disltillery's needs, what the water source is, size, shape and number of stills, etc. etc.
That might be the case for you and me, who have a above normal interest in Single Malts. But I am not sure if the big Single Malts market containing all customers will be able to do the same. They wont have books to look things up, or have any other means of finding such information easily. Yes, they can goto a library and look things up, but would they? It is to much effort, and it would be great if information is available right on byuing a bottle. (who knows on entrance of the shop which Malt he is going to buy for that weekend? In most cases I have no idea, and when I have a idea, in most cases I end up with a different Malt anyway )
There's even the unofficial Premier League of those distilleries whose make is graded First Class or A1 by blenders.
If a Single Malt is a ideal Malt for a blend, does it make a good Single Malt with that as well? The ability of a Malt to blend well with grain whiskies and other Malts is in my opinion not directly related to being a perfect Single Malt for consumption.
Personally I would not mind seeing some sort of classification in which it is easy to see in what way the distillery is still using traditional, labour intensive and expensive traditional ways of distilling. Having their own malting floors (even partly), doing the bottling themself, not using caramel, not chill filtered etc are a increasingly important factors since we like our Malts to be "as pure and natural as it gets".
A distillery who does the malting themself have a serious economical disadvantage over distilleries who get their Malt from a malting company. To defend and justify their price, I would have no problem at all with some sort of standard classification. This is something entirely different then using a classification based on for example geographical location, which is in my opinion impossible to realise in this drink, and/or taste, which is entirely impossible in my opinion, since being so diverse in taste is exactely whats so charming about this drink, and its drinkers.
Hope I made myself clear in a proper way, writing in a non-native language is tricky sometimes
[This message has been edited by Jeroen Kloppenburg (edited 22 August 2002).]
I do agree that if Macallan is putting a single year on the 18 year old but actually filling the bottles with whisky not all distilled in that year, that is not on. A "1984" should have been distilled in 1984 - otherwise what does the year add to the age statement? I couldn't say whether it makes the "1984" a less good whisky to have some older whisky in it (it might even taste better ), but it is misleading labelling, and I think we can all agree that that is not a good thing.
I also agree that it is interesting to know about the minutiae of production of each distillery - the more information, the better - but I would strongly disagree that it should form some sort of official classification so that whisky from distilleries which follow a specific set of practices is "First Class" and everything else is somehow inferior. As far as I know (corrections welcome), Springbank is the only distillery which distils only from its own traditionally floor-malted malt: now, Springbank is a great whisky, and one of my favourites, but I simply do not accept that every other malt is "inferior". As I understand it, every Islay distillery uses at least some malt from the Port Ellen maltings, but Lagavulin or Ardbeg fans would be a bit upset by the suggestion that this makes their favourite malt "inferior". There is so much else that affects the taste of a whisky - shape and size of still, method of firing the stills, how the vapour is condensed, size and materials of washbacks and mash tuns, the choice of barrels for maturing, the warehouses and the maturing policy, and the sheer skill and expertise of the stillman are all factors. And that's without even beginning to consider the myriad other whiskies of the world.
I don't buy a particular whisky because it is made in a very particular way: I buy it because I have tasted it and enjoyed it before and would like it again; or because others have tasted it and their tasting notes make me think I would enjoy it; or just because I have never tasted it before and want to try something new. And that is where I completely agree with Jeroen - the sheer variety of whisky is one of its greatest attractions. Taste isn't a cop-out: it's the one thing above all else that drinking whisky rather than another spirit is all about.
[This message has been edited by Gate (edited 22 August 2002).]
I also agree that it is interesting to know about the minutiae of production of each distillery - the more information, the better - but I would strongly disagree that it should form some sort of official classification so that whisky from distilleries which follow a specific set of practices is "First Class" and everything else is somehow inferior.
I have with my suggestion no way intended to start a classification on "superior" or "inferior" whiskies. In my experience I notice that Malt lovers really appreciate the natural and traditional way a Single Malt is produced, without additions like chill filtering, caramel, or malt that is being bought in. My point in classification would be a way for those distilleries to justify a certain price. We all know that doing all the malting yourself is not really economical. So if a distillery chooses to do its malting exclusively on their own malting floor, they will have to justify that economically in their price of the end product. Now I personally wouldnt mind a classification system that justifies those increased prices. Which in turn gives the end user the garantuee on how a certain Single Malt is produced. Without the German law, would we ever have known about the caramel addition for example? A clear classification could shed a transparent view on over how a Malt is produced, and at the same time, justifying its higher price over a Malt who is produced in a much cheaper production process.
And to bring this all back to the original topic, it also stops distilleries to ask a price which cannot be justified with the classification given. If the classification system sets a rule on Vintage bottlings, and the distillery decides to add Malt distilled from other years to it, it will be visible though the classification.
Edit: keeps being hard to type out in english to get my exact point across
[This message has been edited by Jeroen Kloppenburg (edited 22 August 2002).]
I think that clear labeling requirements would be a good compromise indeed. Since this is probably not going to happen in the near future (if ever) why don't we start creating a list of distilleries that follow certain basic standards? For starters lets get those caramel colouring distilleries out there! Who are they?
I ask any German Reader (or someone who has access to the info; perhaps one could eventually post a picture of the labels) to Name ALL the distilleries WHICH USE CARAMEL. That would be a first step. Whomever can name them could post the their reply here! I for one would be very grateful (I think perhaps Michael Jackson would be too: I remember reading --while still in my teens!-- his first edition to his Guide to SMS where he waxed poetic about the color of a single malt as indicative of all sorts of things...to think that he must have been fooled like the rest of us!).
Aha! This is getting more on to clear labelling, which I would tend to agree with.
Indeed, and not only clear labeling, since "1984" is very clear labeling too, but a independent organisation (consisting of equal members of the producing and the consuming party?) who also has the right to withdraw/reconsider a classification from a distillery once it has been found that it changed its way of producing the malt(or upgrade ofcourse).
One whisky which does have added caramel is Scapa 12 year-old. It's actually a rather good whisky, but I would so much prefer to have it the colour it came from the barrel.
--Glendronach (not a surprise there; their 15 year old makes the Gran Reserva look pale!)
--Lagavillun (can't be true!) and all the other classic malts.
Does anyone now about the Macallan and Highland park?
--Regarding Springbank, in Pip Hill's book appreciating whisky they apparently use sone "wine treated casks" for their bottlings
--What about Glenfarclas?
I do wish we could come up with a list.
I had read about Scapa and the Glendronach in Whisky Magazine a while back, I think. (In the Mail section).
A list would lift the cloud of suspiscion that is lingering above nearly all distilleries today.
What a shock! Seems like its going to be more of a case of the few Distilleries that do not add caramel to their malt...
Thanks for the info (I wish Whisky Magazine would have the courage to list all distilleries who add caramel to their malt)I have learnt more ground breaking information from your post than from an entire issue of many a publication devoted devoted entirely to whisky. I am looking forward to finding out about the others (esp. Macallan). I am pretty shocked about Highland Park. I was considering buying a 25 and some of their vontage bottlings --forget it. All this verbiage on their labels and literature about the colour of their malt is just a plain lie. And to think that every review (tasting) in MJ's Complete Guide to SMS starts with a description of the Colour of the drink! I propose that from now on, instead of "bright Orange" or "Light Amber" and the like, reviewers should only comment on the naturally colored Malts, for the others they could just write "caramel."
Did you get a check from Highland Park --or did you ask for cash? I'm just kidding of course.
But realize that no one is whinning here. Maybe you are right and caramel does not influence taste, but in your rush to "start drinking" you may miss a few olfactory clues (who knows?). Further, and perhaps more importantly, the problem with caramel colouring is at least twofold: (1) lets assume caramel doesn't affect taste (a strange proposition but lets make it a predicate for now) Why are the distilleries not disclosing it? Mr. Argill that is what is annoying about Highland Park (and others): their duplicity. (2) people who are concerned about caramel are concerned about Single Malt Whisky as a whole: we don't think Malt Whisky needs to rely on image and consistency of colour (via caramel) good taste should be enough. SMS should be appreciatted for its taste primarily, to those who want desperatly to find the same product, with the exact same colour every time they open a bottle I say drink Johnny Walker (a v. good blend)), to those who do not care about the integrity of the Distilleries and the Ethical standards of the Marketing deprtments attached to them and want to just "start drinking," I suggest they get into Vodka (where taste matters little and the color is all the same).
I hope everyone keeps those list rolling...IS the Macallan colored or not. Thanks!
Along those lines I found something interesting today. Springbank has on its 10 year bottling the statement that is is not artificially colored.
Now I have these two Springbanks here, the regular 10 year bottling from the distillery, and a Signatory Unchillfiltered 11 years. Guess who the darker version is... It is a bit weird to me that the 10 year old is remarkably darker then the 11 years one. Or could this be normal difference you can always see between different casks?
I would venture that Signatory may have aged the Springbank in a Bourbon cask or an older Sherry Cask. Springbank may be aging their Malt in a certain percentage of Sheryy cask. This would explain the difference in colour.
But the best way to make sure is to ask our Friends in Germany and where ever the addition of caramel has to be disclosed by law, whether Springbank uses colouring (I'm assuming you don't live there).
However even without the labeling requirement imposed by Germany and others there is still a way for the distilleries to mislead us. Another way for the distilleries to go around it could be to use of wine treated casks, I suppose. Then, the distillers would not --technically I guess-- be adding colour to their malt and therefore not have to disclose it even in Germany
No matter what happens, but Macallan changes during the ages, is it not by production methods, then by consumer demand.
It's sad to read all these stories, but a distillery has to change from time to time, even if it's not justified to change, but in the end we all want the good stuff to sit back with and relax with. Macallan tries to maintain their consistancy, and their quality, and sometimes by the consumer demand it isn't always possible. But Macallan never uses any coloring(as described here earlyer on Highland Park, Glenturret etc). Sometimes we want the good old times back again, and enjoy the Macallan when it was bottled during the 50's or even earlyer. But that's all gone now, only those who can afort, to buy an original 1951 Macallan, will know the differences, between a Macallan today and from the past.......
Any how in my opinion Macallan is still a good dram, as for you people, that's up to you to decide what you like or not, but you simply can't compare an apple with an orange. I think we must take it as it is, and hope that the people who produce whisky, have a look on this forum every now and then, just to see what's living amongst the whisky enthusiasts......
They have high standards
And at the same time they are the only ones dlivering such "vintages"? (or at least, that we know off now).
There is no distillery who would say they have to lower standards with so many words. It's a sad thing that the popularity of a certain SMS can lower the quality in such effect... Remember the fate of the Campbelltown whiskies?
James has a point there, for some time now Macallan can't deliver the standard, caused by the high demand of the consumer, as they would like to deliver. They try to maintain their consistancy and quality, and that's the reason why Macallan comes in small deliveries.... So if we all are patient enough, then the quality will follow, and we all can enjoy our favorite Macallan, and as far as I know they still do the 1984 vintage(18Y old). So like a good whisky is suppost to do, is lying there in the warehouse, and wait until it's ready to be bottled. Quality takes time you know!
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