Today Single Cask Nation issued the news that they're not going to be acquiring or bottling the cask of Glenfarclas that they proudly announced to Nation members back in November. In an email to the nation, co-founder Joshua Hatton stated that "our ceiling didn't quite meet [Glenfarclas'] floor," which led to a breakdown in final negotiations. While this is disappointing to those of us who were really itching to get our hands on a bottle, I think we'll live just fine. In fact, the more I think about it, the prouder I am of the populist stand that Single Cask Nation took here: "We're okay with walking away."
In these boomin' whisky times, some crazy things have happened to the value of aged distillate that have no doubt influenced your ritual search for liquid gold. I bought rare bottlings of Bruichladdich's Octomore 2.1 and 2.2 only a year-and-a-half ago that would be entirely out of my reach now (if I could even find them). Their contemporary bottlings are no better; perhaps I shouldn't have opened them! (... nah). Small town liquor stores are desperately beefing up their connections with distributors to grab even three bottles of Springbank 10, while whisky bastions are seeing old wares fly off shelves faster than they can call for replacements (our local Gomer's has huge, perpetual gaps in the single malt section between lines of high-stock favorites like Glenfiddich and Glenlivet). It's not uncommon for online vendors to strictly insist on "1 bottle per customer" in order to give whisky fans more than a 24-hour window to grab a new or rare release (before it's gone forever). Times they are a changin'.
Now, I'm no redistributionist (whisky makers and bottlers deserve to be rewarded generously for the value of their hard work and talent), but I tend to believe that whisky pricing is getting uber-crazy in ways that do not necessarily benefit new or "part-time" whisky consumers. Avid whisky collectors are obviously the Real McCoy, people capable of setting aside a chunk of their treasure for the acquisition and enjoyment of premium whisky. Small time collectors will still buy their chosen bottles, they'll just have to buy slightly fewer as price inflation takes its toll. Either way, the collector sees whisky as an investment, so some deal of expense is expected. The whisky boom has stunned and dazzled many a collector, but I'm relatively certain that it fails to dissuade. Thus, whisky makers and bottlers will still make handsome royalties.
The real cost of price inflation is that it creates a Jurassic Park out of whisky's attraction.
I'm not bitter or jaded about it, but the more that distilleries use "limited release" creep to make all of their whisky stock rare and premium (think Talisker Storm, Ardbog, Black Art 4, or the rash of single barrel bottlings; no matter that many of these are excellent), the more that those delicious and rare experiences are out of reach of the casual consumer. At some point, the Wow! factor fails to impress and "rarity" reaches saturation incommensurate with objective valuation. Until that time, the premium push will price part-time consumers out of all but the most plentiful stock or mediocre (not to mention low proof!) bottlings. Whisky shows (about the only place where rare whisky can be found and sampled at very decent cost; forget bars or pubs) become our "coupon day."
I adore whisky shows, but I'm not ready for them to be the only gateway to the best our community has to offer. At some level, I really want to share that stellar new Bruichladdich with my neighbor. I actually love to pour that Ardbeg Alligator for the casual visitor who expresses an interest. Do we really have to wonder why big whisky shows are becoming so popular and sprouting up all over the world? It's practically the last place where we can stand shoulder to shoulder with our fellow man (rich or poor, sick or in health, classy or ... not so classy) and proudly say "I'll have what he's having", allowing ourselves - even for a moment - to be equals united by love of Provenance: "L'chaim, friend, and shalom!" Not surprisingly, this good will may not last. As whisky shows increasingly shelter their most premium pours behind "VIP" tickets, special drinking tokens, or paid ticket drawings, how long will it be until even that divine experience is back out of reach? What will a whisky industry look like that closes the door on newcomers and reserves its most delectable drams for the affluent and the collectors? I'm thinking... something like the 1990's.
Whisky is sold on the free market (outside of some rather ridiculous taxes and tariffs), which means that ultimately we decide what whisky is worth. If you don't like the asking price, the answer is simple and straight-forward: just walk away. While Single Cask Nation could charge whatever a distillery demands for their whisky and be relatively certain that somebody will buy it, that somebody might not be the members that Single Cask Nation is looking out for.
I'm still sad about the Glenfarclas, but I know that Josh, Jason, and Seth have some great single cask bottlings waiting in the wings and I'm sympathetic to SCN's business philosophy. I don't need the good will of distillers, importers, distributors, or parent companies to trust Single Cask Nation's motives or taste in whisky, and that's enough for me. In fact, it's why I come. Ultimately, community is the human terroir that independent bottlers are so eager to cultivate; I say, long may they be successful!