Reflections on 2011 - The Whisky Year Past
Filled with optimism and fresh resolve at the start of each New Year, it is fun to take a look back at the significant events and trends that shaped the year past. So with a glass of Old Pulteney 21 year old in hand, we reflect on 2011, which turned out to be a pretty good year for whisky.
While global financial uncertainties clouded the horizon, the "economics of whisky" was on a steady and positive path. According to the Scotch Whisky Association, exports of Scotland's finest soared by 22% in the first six months of 2011. The strongest sales were in Asia increasing by 33%. It seems that scotch, along with golf and cashmere, is becoming THE new status symbol of a growing class of upwardly mobile Chinese.
The United States contributed healthy sales growth of 14%, with single malt purchases at an all time high - reaching nearly 1 million cases annually. This seemed to buck the general trend of stiff consumer resistance to high prices in other liquor categories. According to Impact Databank, The Glenlivet has the number one spot in our scotch cabinets, while The Macallan and Glenfiddich were closely matched at second place.
Consistent rumors of the demise of blended scotch were again proven to be greatly exaggerated. While interest in single malts clearly continues to grow, Blendeds held on to their 95% share of worldwide consumption of scotch. Expert Jim Murray took a further poke at single malt brands by declaring that Ballantine 17 year old blended was not only the best scotch, but the "Best Whiskey in the World." Ballantine beat out thousands of malt, bourbon and other whiskey entries for this title in his 2011 edition of The Whisky Bible.
There was one blended scotch however, whose publicity eclipsed all others. The story begins in 2010 when the media was consumed with the finding of a case of MacKinlay whisky abandoned by adventurer Sir Ernest Shackleton. Buried in the Antarctic for 100 years, this discovery was the marketing gift that kept on giving, especially when the distillery who now owns the MacKinlay brand, decided to replicate this now infamous scotch. The task fell to Master Blender Richard Paterson from Wythe & Mackay, who nosed and married various whisky stocks before releasing said reproduction to much fanfare in 2011. MacKinlay Rare Old Highland Malt in a run of 50,000 bottles garnered pretty good critic reviews and is now fairly widely available. If you missed the PBS TV special by National Geographic that documented the replication process, pour yourself a tipple and enjoy these shorter videos that tell part of this wonderful tale:
Aficionados and collectors had much to swoon over in 2011. In April, The Macallan released its "Royal Wedding" commemorative bottling just in time to celebrate the nuptials of Prince William and Kate Middleton. This highly rated scotch was considered a pure bargain and with only 1,000 bottles available it nearly doubled on e-Bay the week it was released. That same month Glenmorangie announced their rarest expression to date "Pride 1981" . This exceptional 28 year old expression was extra-matured in Chateau d'Yquem barriques and retails for $3,600. Certainly showing that age matters, Bowmore released its 40 year old, (said to be Bowmore at its best) proudly sporting an $11,000 price tag. But topping the premium charts in 2011 was touted to be the oldest whisky in the world. Independents Gordon and MacPhail released their "Generations: The Glenlivet 70 year old". This tear drop shaped, hand-blown crystal decanter, nestled in a sterling base can be yours for $21,000. But hurry, supplies are limited.
While it is clear that price climbs in proportion to the age of an expression, whoever thought that the age of the person for whom it was bottled, would be a factor? Just ask super-centenarian Janet Sheed Roberts. The 1955 Glenfiddich Janet Sheed Roberts Reserve fetched a whopping $72,630 at auction in December. It was bottled to commemorate "Wee Janie's" 110th birthday. She is the oldest living person in Scotland, and just happens to be a member of the Grant family who lives next door to the Glenfiddich distillery. This was one of eleven bottles available for the public and all the proceeds were donated to charity from this auction. We wish Janie "Many More"!
Other distilleries marking important milestones were Glenfarclas celebrating its 175th anniversary and on the other end of the scale, Bruichladdich who completed their 10th year under new management. Richard Paterson, Master Blender of Wythe & Mackay, passed his 40th year in the industry. John Hansell and Amy Westlake, celebrated the 20th anniversary of Malt Advocate magazine (now called The Whisky Advocate). In November, Serge Valentin completed his 7,500th tasting notes for popular website www.Whiskyfun.com.
More personal congrats are in order for our friends who received the recognition they deserve:
- Steve Beal, Senior Master of Whisky for Diageo was bestowed the honor of Keeper of The Quaich, a title reserved only for whisky's elite.
- Laphroaig's own Simon Brooking was awarded Whisky Magazine's 2011 Ambassador of the Year Award
- Diageo veteran ambassador and Master Distiller Emeritus Evan Cattanach, received a Lifetime Achievement Icons of Whisky award from Whisky Magazine
- Charles Joly, master mixologist from the Drawing Room in Chicago, won the Auchentoshan Switch Bartender Challenge and is headed "across the pond" at the time of this posting.
While auctions, awards and anniversaries are rather discrete events to pinpoint, prevailing flavor trends were a little more elusive and harder to summarize for 2011. It was however noticeable that the peat wars seemed to have somewhat subsided as new expressions were displaying more depth of flavor alongside their generous dose of smoke. At the end of the year, Old Pulteney 21 year old, hit the shelves at a reasonable price only to fall quickly out of stock once Jim Murray crowned it the World's Best Whiskey for 2012. Amrut delivered a wonderful port finished expression in late December, that we hope to soon sample and Dalmore released another excellent cigar malt which we have yet to see on shelves in the U.S..
Cocktails continued their "carefully crafted" trend with all manner of infused scotches moving towards the herbal and savory. Mixologists have literally become liquid chefs, creating their own bitters, syrups and tinctures. And it seems that a page from Scotch Maturation 101 had been stolen, with the sudden rage for barrel aged cocktails.
On the food front, scotch along with other liquors made progress in becoming known as an essential "food" ingredient, as products containing whisky/whiskey reach an all time high at the Fancy Food Festival last year.
Finally, on November 23rd, it became illegal for distilleries to use the term "Vatted" to describe Scotch made from the combination of two or more single malts. This style will now have to be labelled as Blended Malt Scotch Whisky, a dictate that was determined by UK Parliament in 2009 but didn't go into effect until 2011. John Glaser of Compass Box seized the opportunity to bottle the "Last Vatted Malt" at 11:59 p.m. the night of Tuesday, November 23rd. I guess that's no stranger than starting out the new year 2012 with "Whisky in a Can"?
Any significant trends we missed? Would love your feedback.
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