Whisky and the Art of Shopping

As for any purchase, shopping for whisky can vary from being a rewarding to a disastrous experience. Hopefully, after reading this, you will be better informed to avoid the pitfalls.

Who’s it for?
The first thing to consider is – who is the bottle for? If it is for yourself then we don’t have to worry so much as you should know your own tastes fairly well. Having said that, you might want to bring a bit of balance to your selection by trying something new.

If the bottle is a gift for somebody else, the hardest decision is usually picking the flavour to match their palate. It is usually safest to stick to a middle of the road character. That’s not to say a person with an adventurous streak wouldn’t benefit from the opportunity of trying one of the more pronounced tastes. To be safe, try an easy going Lowland, one of the unpeated island drams or one of the many gentler Speysides and avoid heavily peated or cask influenced spirit.

To take a chance of broadening someone’s horizons, look to these more sherry cask influenced or the peated varieties. Of course you don’t have to restrict yourself to buying a single full (70cl) bottle. Often for the same price as a ‘big’ bottle it is possible to buy two half bottles, three quarter bottles or even a miniature selection. The latter often comes in a tasteful presentation and allows for experimentation while reducing the chance of the gift not appealing. Some bottlers offer a range of styles covering blends as well as both single and vatted malts. Further, as distillers become more flexible it is possible to find a single distillery in a variety of styles. Innovations such as the variation of peating levels or, more commonly, the practice of secondary maturation (or ‘finishing’) allow customers more choice. This is where a standard cask’s contents are moved into a more active barrel to add a layer of flavour to the house style.

How much to spend?
When trying to appreciate the value of a whisky there are some pointers to look for. The price of a bottle will be controlled by its size, the strength and age of the contents, packaging and any brand premium. All but the last of these are obvious.

Generally, the smaller the bottle the less you are spending on the contents and more on overheads like packaging. You might end up spending less money but getting less value.

When considering the strength of the whisky, remember that a bottle contains water, alcohol and flavour. At full cask strength you are accessing unlimited choice of how the whisky tastes. All you need to do is taste the whisky at full strength and slowly add water and re-asses the dram. You will almost certainly find an improvement as the diluted alcohol releases the dram’s character. Continue to experiment until you find the water too obvious. For this reason, an apparently highly priced half bottle can offer more than a pre-diluted full bottle at the same pro-rata price.

As a whisky sits in a barrel it will slowly evaporate. This is maturation, necessary to mould the simple raw spirit into a mellow complex drink. All the overheads associated with time in wood adds to the cost of older bottlings. Here, there is a golden rule – older does not guarantee better. Ideally the shop selling the whisky will let you try before you buy. This option becomes more unlikely as the bottle increases in price. An alternative is first trying the whisky out at a bar, at a whisky tasting or perhaps miniatures are available. This might be an expensive way to buy whisky but can save a lot more in the long run.

With the premiumisation of the top end of the market, packaging can be important. Although it may only account for a small proportion of the total price an attractive bottle or box will still add to your spending. If you intend to drink the dram, this ‘added value’ is not so welcome. If you intend to keep the bottle for sentimental reasons or to gift it, the presentation is more important.

When it comes to paying a premium for a high profile brand, any premium should guarantee quality. However some companies need to be competitive with pricing, as their name has less caché than those well established in the market. The quality of some of these blends and malts can often be pleasingly surprising. Again, a gift of an obscure distillery’s malt may be more adventurous but less prestigious than a recognisable

Finally, as most brands are produced on a large scale, a common approach of suppliers to supermarkets is to offer discounts. These can be significant even amongst the ‘quality’ brands. This type of shopping is usually impulse driven, an attractive special offer while buying the week’s groceries can be a great temptation. Conversely, supermarkets surely lure us in with the promise of bargains knowing we’ll stock up with milk and bread while we’re there. One point to remember is that small dedicated off licences, particularly whisky shops, compete with supermarkets with their quality of service – try before you buy for instance.

Drink or collect?
Whisky is made to be drunk, I often hear. My opinion is, it is made to be sold. What retailer cares if the bottle will be downed that night or locked in a cupboard for years? The enjoyable fascination with the history and romance of the whisky industry is well supplied by companies recognising the value in their rarer stocks. Due to many closures during a period of rationalisation in the 1980s, many single malts are becoming prized possessions. With the rise in appreciation of malts in general and carefully bottled examples especially, the collecting market is booming. Until recently an element of complacency has allowed the price of the closed distilleries to be reasonable. Today it is becoming harder to say this.

Also there has been an apparently welcome blossoming of the supply of these ‘soon to be extinct’ species. But caution should be exercised if the purchase is to be eventually consumed. The temptation to bottle a ‘hard to replace’ malt may sometimes get in the way of offering best quality. This problem will become more significant as time passes. Whisky can be left in the cask too long. Although an advanced age statement can promise great rewards, often the result is an expensive disappointment with the wood dominating the subtle spirit.

Taste the difference
As part of Lothian Life’s program of whisky tastings there will be a repeat of last year’s supermarket challenge. Previously we examined 5 Islay malts from the main supermarkets and compared them ‘blind’ with a well known brand and an independent offering. The results were most interesting! This April we will hold another tasting where 3 supermarket whiskies will battle with 3 brands and an independent bottling. Sign up to our email subscription list to make sure you don’t miss out!

When shopping for whisky, remember that price, quality and value may not all be closely related. Do some homework or seek advice if you feel you can trust the retailer. If purchasing for your own consumption, ask to try before you buy – you may not always be offered the service even though it exists. Keep an eye on supermarket prices for the ordinary but look for the specialist outlets for the more original bottlings.

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