The onset of the New Year is a time to look ahead for many, with resolutions made and goals set. But it also offers a chance to reflect. Here, it's time to look back fondly at the whiskey we lost in 2015, and to examine the ongoing occurrence of whiskey vanishing from store shelves going into the future.
The biggest reason that so many whiskeys have up and disappeared recently is a continued shift towards No Age Statement (NAS) bottles. This is, in almost all cases and despite what brands like to tell consumers, due to supply issues. There's simply not enough aged stock on hand to produce that 8-year-old bourbon or 12-year-old Scotch today while ensuring there's some left for tomorrow. Voila, age statements get removed, and longtime favorite whiskeys are gone forever.
There's simply not enough aged stock on hand to produce that 8-year-old bourbon or 12-year-old Scotch today while ensuring there's some left for tomorrow.
Of course, it's not all grim news. The brands which preach that NAS whiskeys offer them increased flexibility, quality control, and consistency do make a legitimate argument, as long as they see it through. Moreover, the removal of an age label or introduction of a new NAS expression doesn't have to mean a downturn in quality.
The question then becomes, is the consumer tied to a number on a bottle, or open to a similar quality product from the brand, sans age statement?
"Are those whiskeys dying?" ponders Tommy Tardie, owner of The Flatiron Room in Manhattan. "Ask a distiller or better yet their marketing team and they will most certainly answer no. But if you judge your whiskey and its merit on the age posted on the bottle ... then, yes, sadly your favorite whiskey may be dying."
Of course, he encourages consumers not to judge a whiskey by the number on its cover. "Americans, for the most part, have a misguided fascination with age statements, equating quality with age," said Tardie. "I've had people come to the bar and shop by age statements, looking for the oldest age for the cheapest price. Misguided indeed."
Yet, consumers know what brands teach. "In some respects, the whisky industry has to raise a hand and plead guilty to that," explained Craig Bridger, brand ambassador for The Macallan. The growth of single malts was largely fueled by the increasing prominence of age statements, and older was marketed as better, and more expensive.
As such, some of what's being seen now is a reeducation of consumers, and the resulting cognitive dissonance. Bridger also concurs with Tardie on the American market specifically. "The U.S. consumer is especially dedicated to the idea of age statements," he said. While the rest of the world is pouring Macallan Gold, Amber, Sienna and Ruby, the U.S. still has good ol' Macallan 10, 12, 15 and 18.
The Macallan Rare Cask, a new premium U.S. expression, is a NAS release and it's a spectacular showcase of the ideal that great whiskey need not an age statement. Therefore, for the perhaps hard-headed U.S. consumer, Rare Cask is Exhibit A in The Macallan's fight to reeducate. "At the end of the day, if you put a flight of whiskies in front of me and I don't know what any of them are, I'm not going to lift one and go 'This is no age statement whisky!'" jokes Bridger. "I'm just going to evaluate it on whether or not it's delicious."
The biggest supply pinch in 2015 was felt for Japanese whisky, which has continued to surge in popularity not only globally, but also in the domestic Japanese market.
"Americans, for the most part, have a misguided fascination with age statements, equating quality with age ..."
"With the sudden popularity of Japanese whiskey, giants Suntory and Nikka have shelved some of their very popular marks for the time being," said Tardie. "Hibiki 12 has been replaced with the non age statement Japanese Harmony, and Yamazaki 12 is also out of stock almost everywhere."
Suntory launched Hibiki Japanese Harmony this summer, and it's another great example of NAS whisky's strength. It's a testament to the nuanced Japanese style, along with Suntory Chief Blender Shinji Fukuyo's capabilities in producing a well-rounded expression from a diverse range of component whiskies, not all of the same age he's used to typically incorporating.
While Hibiki replaced a single expression, Nikka sent shockwaves this summer with an announcement that essentially all of their age-specific single malts in the Yoichi and Miyagikyo lines, and half a dozen other labels, were being delisted.
They pulled no punches in their announcement, either. "With the current depletion, Yoichi and Miyagikyo malt whiskies, which are the base of most of our products, will be exhausted in the future and we will be unable to continue the business," read a portion of the statement from parent company Asahi Breweries.
That left a huge hit list of whiskies in its wake: Single Malt Yoichi, Single Malt Yoichi 10, 12, 15, 20, Single Malt Miyagikyo, Single Malt Miyagikyo 10, 12, 15, Malt Club, Nikka Pure Malt White, Tsuru 17 ceramic bottle and glass decanter, Black Nikka 8 and G&G White. All gone.
Now, the effects of that to the American consumer are less than it appears on the surface. Only a handful of those expressions were readily available stateside to begin with, while popular Nikka offerings Taketsuru Pure Malt—itself a NAS replacement for Taketsuru 12—and Nikka Coffey Grain are still available.
"What I think Nikka is doing is trying to address it by being proactive and holding back some of their aged stuff so they can make sure that they've got enough inventory into the future," explained Dennis Carr, President of Anchor Distilling Company, which imports Nikka to the U.S. market. "They're focusing more on their non-age expressions, which are certainly growing in popularity anyway, before all of this happened quite honestly."
The biggest supply pinch in 2015 was felt for Japanese whisky ...
If Asahi's June announcement about Nikka sent whisky drinkers scrambling, Buffalo Trace's October announcement about the Van Winkle Bourbon line surely caused a few grown men to cry. The official message began, "The long anticipated annual release of the Van Winkle bourbons is nearly here, but unfortunately some of the angels were extra greedy over the past two decades, leaving us less bourbon than in previous years."
For a product already as highly allocated as the obsessed-over Pappy Van Winkle, an even shorter supply to work with was tantamount to tragic news for its devotees. And even though those whiskeys aren't "gone," for most consumers, they may as well be. If something is so allocated that it's impossible to actually buy at retail, then it's gone for all intents and purposes.
"I think the bigger story is how everything bourbon that's even remotely good is being allocated or is constantly going out of stock," said Jamie Boudreau, proprietor of Canon: Whiskey and Bitters Emporium in Seattle. "This even includes once common whiskies like Buffalo Trace and Blanton's."
Boudreau also cites regional differences affecting availability as well. "Some of my answers may be skewed as in Washington almost everything is allocated if it even gets here at all," he said, acknowledging there may be better availability elsewhere. Yet, for consumers searching for one of these popular and highly allocated bourbons, they're most likely out of luck regardless of their home market.
While talk of a wide scale bourbon shortage has died down, Tardie is seeing the impact in the bourbon sphere as well. "I recently picked up 10 cases of Elijah Craig 12 year. Why? The prominent '12 year' that was rightfully displayed front and center on the bottle has since been quietly moved to the back of the bottle in small 12 point type," he explained. "I predict very soon they will do away with the age completely. Perhaps they wanted to discreetly make the move as to not stir up to much attention. American's love their age statements."
Another example of allocation essentially annexing whiskey from the store shelf is Weller 12. Famously made from the same juice which supplies the Van Winkle line, it's allocated to the point of year-round unavailability. "Almost everything interesting in bourbon is allocated and I'm lucky to get more than one bottle per year," said Boudreau. "This includes almost everything by Buffalo Trace [which produces Van Winkle and Weller]."
Ultimately, some whiskey has been lost for good, joining fallen comrades from previous years. Others are unavailable to such a degree that they may as well be. Others are quietly shifting in that direction. There'll be more to come, so before enjoying that first dram of the New Year, pour a bit out for the ones no longer with us.
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