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It's the happiest day of the year.
The BC Liquor Distribution Branch’s annual spirit release is this Saturday, so that means it’s a big day for lovers of whisk(e)y in all it’s iterations (there’s even a solo bottle of Vodka for those who don’t like brown liquor). You can pick up a copy of the brochure at your local store—just look for the cover font that looks likes it’s from the Saved By The Bell credits—or access a digital copy here. But you really don’t need to, because we’ve gone to the trouble of going through it for you already and distilled it into 10 compact, digestible snippets.
It’s become sort of a calling card for the whisky release to include some bottles so rare that you need to enter a lottery for the right to buy them. Last year it was the 72 Year-old The Macallan for only $78,000 on offer (weirdly, another bottle of this is on offer this year….isn’t it supposed to be insanely rare?), but this year you can apply to buy The Macallan Single Cask #9064 for the more manageable sum of $600.
I haven’t tasted it, so this isn’t a drinking recommendation but a financial one. For starters, people are starting tor realize that single casks offer a guarantee of rarity that many prestige bottles don’t (there’s only so many bottles in a cask, after all). Oh, and some nuts appear to selling this bottle at upwards of $4,000? (maybe I should have lead with that) in the USA. I’m actually going to throw in a ballot for this.
I love Glenrothes 12, a tight spicy little hand grenade of a whisky. It’s got nice banana and ginger notes and at $70, it’s pretty well priced. You know what it’s not? Rare. It’s so common that it would be odd for a store with a decent Scotch selection not to have it. So why is this in our special release?
Glenomrangie’s Dr. Bill Lumsden is pretty much the most respected person in Single Malt Whisky these days. He’s unpretentious, doesn’t care much for super aged whiskies and is a straight shooter to a fault (albeit one with a PhD in Microbial Physiology and Fermentation Science). What he does care about is terroir, or the idea that whisky of a certain place takes on characteristics unique to that place, which is tricky given how disparate the elements are for most single malts.
But for this year’s Private Edition, Allta, Lumsden was able to use a local yeast he isolated and the Cadboll Barley that grows around the distillery to see if it could better help express a sense of place. If that place has layers or raisin, orange rind with a hint of chili then he’s succeeded. A wonderful malt (that’s probably a pretty solid investment to boot).
The price of Single Malt has risen so dramatically in recent years that it’s commonplace to mention bottles costing hundreds of dollars as if they are no big deal. But spending that sort of $$$ on a single bottle of whisky is a very big deal to me, so when I say this bottle of Ardbeg Traigh Bhan 19 is worth $340, I really am taking a big leap. There’s a few things at play here: for starters, save for their entry level 10 year old, Ardbeg rarely does age statements. This started once upon a time when they had no old whisky, but has become a part of the culture. Secondly, 19 years is a sweet spot for smoky Islay whisky, as anyone who remembers the dearly departed Laphroaig 18 will recall: the smoke retreats ever so slightly and in rushes some chile dusted dark chocolate with an intense, mouth-coating wallop. And Ardbeg has a devoted a deep pocketed following like few other distilleries, making this a sound financial bet (but please forget that and just drink it).
The world of Independent Bottlers is complex. On the most basic level, they source casks from distilleries and bottle them under their own labels making note of where they came from and their age. Lagavulin doesn’t make a 11-year-old whisky, but a IB like Cadenhead might. At the higher level you have IBs that are sort of like a brand themselves. Compass Box is one that’s been mostly successful in pricey blended whisky and Port Askaig has carved out a niche for specializing in Islay sourced whisky. I’m lead to believe that their 10 Year Old ($125) comes mostly from Caol Ila, a great Diageo distillery we don’t see enough in BC, and it’s a great smoky, salty dram with savoury notes of capers (?). It’s long sold out in the UK, so seeing it here is a bit of a unicorn.
Things used to be simpler in whisky. A distillery’s 12 year old cost less than than their 18, which cost less than their 21, which cost less than their 25. It was logical given (parking taste matters aside) that the process in the same distillery was roughly the same, so their older spirits should largely cost more. But a few year’s bak Diageo (the 500-pound gorilla of single malts) launched Lagavulin 12, for more than Lagavulin 16. Wait, what? Sure the former was cask strength but that doesn’t come close to accounting for their price increase. And of course I bought it, because I frickin’ love Lagavulin. And it’s great. This year it’s the Taliskers turn: you can buy the everyday 10 for $100, or the 8 year old on Saturday for $110. It’s not egregious really, but if age doesn’t matter then how come the 40 year old is $5000?
Full disclosure: I’ve not tasted Black Bull 40 Year Old, nor, until I cracked the book, have I even heard of it. It’s blended, but of some cool parts: Bowmore, Abelour, Highland Park. But you’re already asking for a big leap of faith asking so much $$$ for blended whisky, the least you could do is not get the same artist to paint your label who also painted the side of the Boogie Van the neighbourhood pot dealer drove in 1978. I think this bottle comes with a eight-track of Nazareth’s Greatest Hits. You could buy this or 90 bottles of Angus the Bull, which has a better label.
I have a bottle of Bushmills 21 ($255) that I bought 4 years ago and every so often, after a tough day, when I don’t want to be challenged or intrigued but simply enveloped in a warm hug of demerara sugar, roasted nuts and raisins with a finish that goes on and on with nary a wrong note, I reach for this numbered beauty. It does the trick. There’s a 21-year-old Redbreast that I haven’t tried and it’s only a bit more; my guess is it’s likewise a Godsend.
So I’ll be honest—I’ve haven’t been 100 percent on board with the freight train of popularity that is Japanese whisky. In part it’s because I like my whisky on the bolder side. In part it’s because I think mixing good whisky with soda and a huge ice cube is a waste of good whisky. In part it’s because so many of its acolytes are keen to short circuit the effort to learning about whisky, preferring to go the easy and cool route with the flavour of the month. In part…wait, where was I? Frankly, a huge part is that each day I inch closer to old crank territory, but even at my most magnanimous these two bottles are $5,400 each-—Nikka Yoichi and Nikka Miyagikyo—which strain the credulity of any sane drinker. For starters, no age statement…on a $5,400 bottle of whisky! Secondly, the bottles can be found for $2,700 south of the border. I haven’t tasted them, so I cant offer a thirdly, only to say that the market for Japanese whisky is as overheated as a 33-foot-lot in Dunbar in 2016.
I’m not a huge bourbon guy, but I love Blanton’s ($115) and they have a lot of cool special editions: Special Reserve, Straight From the Barrel, Gold Edition. Which one is this? None of them, it’s the plain old entry-level model. There’s nothing wrong with it—toffee and caramel with a nice rye bite—but the BCLDB is doing so many cool custom bottlings with bourbon for the release that I’d have thought they’d choose something a little more special Plus it’s insanely expensive: the same bottle is $64.90 at the LCBO.
As children the Three Little Bears teaches us that it’s the middle ground—not too hard, not too soft—that’s to be strived for. Our whisky does just that—some of the sweetness of bourbon, the smoothness of Irish— and you get this: A 42 year old bottle of Canadian Club is $290. A few aisles over, a a 40-year-old bottle of Fettercairn, a Scottish Distillery I didn’t even know existed until a week ago, is $6,500. Or put it this way…the tax on that bottle is more than twice the cost of the entire bottle of Canadian Club. I mean, shouldn’t you just buy a bottle in the off-chance the Canucks win the Stanley Cup? (Also here we’re cheaper than the LCBO).
Remember that rant about Japanese whisky a few paragraphs back? I feel the same way about the hype around Pappy Van Winkle, which lest us not forget, has been a marketing company, not a distiller for years. I mean, how can everyone collectively forget that? I think we should all boycott this lottery in protest. Who’s with me? Full disclosure, once the boycott is in progress I intend to zip over to Park Royal and put my ballot in with hopefully much improved chances. So I’m a dupe too. Partly, it’s because you can resell these (not in B.C. of course) immediately for big $$$. But partly…having a bottle of Pappy on your back bar would just be sorta cool. Sue me.