Two things I really like came together one afternoon this summer: I love Aultmore whisky (seriously, I adore this distillery), and I highly respect the Laing independent bottlers (Both Douglas Laing with Director’s cut, Old Particular, Provenance and the blends and Hunter Laing with Old Malt Cask, Old and Rare and Douglas of Drumlanrig) and both came, for the first time ever, to the Ben Gurion International Airport duty free shop. This was ground zero for a whisky exclusive launch. Both Laings launched TLV exclusive botllings for sale at Israel’s main (and only) inernational airport, and Fred Laing even flew in for the launch. This should have been a very happy occasion, yet it caused an uproar I’m sure fully intened. Things got NASty, but not in the way you think.
The uproar started with the presentation of a single malt Douglas Laing Old Particular expression designated “Aultmore XO”, raising fears that Cognac designations are on their way into the whisky world, intended to obscure the NAS nature eluding to the minimum 6 years of maturation for the XO designation in cognac.
Fred himself flew into TLV to launch the expressions, kilt waving in the muggy air, and a new era dawned on Israel as a whisky market. This is surprising, because for all it’s smallness, Israel has three internationally read English writing whisky bloggers (Gal Granov of Whisky Israel, Yoav Gelbfish of Whisky Gospel and yours truly of Malt and Oak). None of us were informed of the expressions or of the secretive launch, but this actually makes perfect sense if my supposition is right, and purposeful obscurity was the name of the game.
I approached the James Richardson customer service to get more information about this expression. I didn’t get any information, other than being told that it’s a special sherry cask hand picked by Fred Laing. At this point I posted a picture of the expression on Malt Maniacs & Friends on Facebook and all hell broke loose.
After much speculation in the facebook group, Fred joined the discussion and made the following statement:
Guys – I love your passion! This is an Israeli exclusive bottling and as the label states, this is a Single Cask bottling under our ‘Old Particular’ brand – one single sherry butt, non chill filtered and look at that natural colour! The “XO” was purely a play on words – in my opinion this is an “eXtraOutstanding” cask irrespective of age so we decided to have a little fun with it – we’re not trying to hide anything! It doesn’t carry an age statement – as is the case with many, many Malts – but I believe it is so good that I traveled to Tel Aviv specifically to launch this cask only a few weeks ago where it was very well received when sampled with consumers & the retail outlets team. As for the on-shelf pricing, this is set by the retailer… based on what they can achieve factoring in quality, quantities available etc etc…
Mark Gillespie, of the excellent and informative WhiskyCast podcast picked up the story and interviewed Cara Laing on this expression. Here’s the interview, and my thanks to Mark for allowing me to use the snippet:
So we can put the XO fears to rest. This isn’t Congac’s XO designations, and we’re not heading that way, thank the whisky gods. But I suspect this isn’t the story, and the uproar is both welcome and fully intended.
The expected response from the blogosphere was, of course, of a unanimous tone: NAS is the devil incarnate, and give us back our age statements. I think whisky geekdom felt it was betrayed by of one of its strongest bastions – independent bottlers in general and the Laing family in particular are the “protectors” of purity and quality against the big bad corporations getting all NASty (see Oliver Klimek’s post on his highly respected and influential Dramming blog and Yoav Gelbfish’s review on this expression).
Now the Douglas Laing Co. didn’t last 66 years in a tough business, building solid enough brands to thrive even through a corporate division into two separate businesses through bad marketing, stupid moves or alienating their customer base. Fred, Cara and the staff are highly intelligent business people who grew up breathing the whisky industry since they were in diapers (sorry, they were in nappies). This isn’t a mistake or a faux pas. Fred “sounds” too playful in his response and Cara sounds utterly amused in her interview to be doing real “damage control”. NO! There is something else afoot.
I have no confirmation of my theory, but I’ll put them forth anyway.
Independent bottlers have a problem, which the big guys solved in a way that the IB’s can only envy. Some young whisky is really good, and it’s getting more prevalent as the science of making whisky and wood management techniques get better and better. If you’re careful (and smart), younger whisky can be sold, and not only to geeks who will go for a 6 year old peated Bunnahabhain because it’s interesting.
Speaking of whisky geeks, from peat heads to sherry bombers – how many of us whisky geeks are out there?
If the whisky industry is 92% blends, the other 8% are divided between maltheads (who read blogs like this one and vie to try a 6 year old Bunnahabhain just because it’s there) and people who buy single malts as gifts, or buy a Glenfiddich, Glenlivet or Macallan to drink because of brand recognition, not whisky connoisseurship.
How many maltheads are there in the world? Nobody really knows, but Malt Maniacs and Friends, Facebook’s largest malthead group, has less than 7000 members, and the some of the widely read blogs who’s numbers are known to me, have 500-1000 entries a day (this blog’s busiest day saw 723 entries, and most popular post was read by 2,615 people. Other blogs peaked at yet more). We account for a fraction of single malt sales world wide, which makes us less than 1% of the whisky market overall. Obviously, for independent bottlers we’re a much larger market share, and still I doubt if we hit the 50% mark of their volume, simply by virtue of being out there in stores and now in travel retail. For years, that other 50% (or more) was sold to non maltheads looking for a nice gift or a nice bottle to drink – and these guys ARE NOT going to buy a 5 year old Aultmore, even if it’s good whisky. They just won’t!
Hence, non age statement Whisky, and here is where it gets tricky for the indies. On the one hand, their brands are built on single casks with full disclosure (Old Particular being a prime example of this, with only age stated single barrel aged 14+ years in the range, until now) and one has to tread lightly so as to not damage existing brands. On the other hand, there are some really good products out there which can, if price and packaging is right, be very successful. Enter the “Aultmore XO”! For a 5 year old whisky, this thing’s a cracker. It has its flaws, but for its age, it’s very good. I can understand why D. Laing would want to get this on the market, and I can understand why they wouldn’t want to disclose the age. So what’s needed is a test market to test three issues:
1. Does it sell better than a similar cask that has an 5 year old age statment?
2. Will going NAS harm your brand in the eyes of the non-geeks?
3. Will going NAS harm your brand in the eyes of the geeks?
So, it’s easy. Take a really good but young cask, give it a name geeks CANNOT ignore (you don’t want this one flying under the radar), make it part of a brand you can always claim it never belonged in (like a 5 year old in the Old Particular range), release it in a market where nobody but the geeks ever heard of you, but in a place they can’t miss the small quantity you allocated for the test, make sure not to invite bloggers to the launch, price it so that they will have to cry foul, and see what happens and how sales to non geeks go. I suspect there’s an age stated 5 year old Aultmore from a sister cask in a similarly sized travel retail store somewhere in europe that “somehow” landed there at the same time with similar sales incentives for in store reps – to compare sales volume, or this data actually exists already from past expressions.
When the geeks cry foul and the you-know-what hits the fan, you say it was a play on words – a good spirited joke, we never intended to go Cognac-y on you (in fact, Fred used XO to designate a blended whisky some 35 years ago), it’s extraordinarily good and we had nothing to do with the pricing. Moreover, we don’t need the headache and grief so this will never happen again. No harm caused with the geeks, the brand is protected, but the viability (or not) of small scale NAS releases for young whiskys is proven, and a small company with some great young casks knows if developing a NAS brand for single cask releases (mainly for non geeks) is worth it.
So, it seems that everybody played their part to the tee, and I assume our Glaswegian friends got the market research they needed. Just don’t forget to deduct one bottle off your sales – the one Yoav Gelbfish and I bought. We did that to actually taste this bottle, so we can give the whisky geek community what we all really want – firsthand unobfuscated information about our water of life.
Douglas Laing Old Particular Aultmore XO – 450 Bottles (54.9% ABV, NCF, NC)
Nose: New make hits the nose, then dissipates for the most part, but from time to time rears up again. The sherry is strong in this one, as is the vanilla – which is quite unexpected, even if this sherry cask is American Oak. There are dried fruit, balsamic vinegar, old leather and gentle spice notes. After time in the glass, most of the new make disappears and a dry spice with sherry and vanilla take over. After yet more time dark chocolate liquor appears. Water doesn’t seem to have an effect on the nose.
Palate: Young bite on the front tip, new make and a lot of vanilla, spice (cloves and powdered cinnamon, pepper and cardamom).
Linger: This is where the XO really shines! Long and spicy in the back of the throat with chocolate on the tongue. The linger is glorious.
This is a very young whisky in an a cask of exceptional quality and vibrance. The cask almost masks the new make that is still very much part of the whisky, and while the nose and palate have the new make flaw – which is to be expected and can be enjoyed, the linger is absolutely glorious.
For a 5-6 year old whisky, this is an absolute gem and priced correctly, would make a great buy. However, this is a $50 bottle, and at that price, it would be a definite buy. At $113 (€87) you can get much better, less immature sherry bombs.
Looking into my crystal ball, I expect NAS bottlings of single casks to pop up here and there carrying wordsmithed names (but no more XO, VSOP and the likes – I think the market was pretty clear on that). You can expect them to be labeled one step above the label they actually belong in (just as the Aultmore XO should have been a Provenance Young and Vibrant, not an Old Particular), and priced according to the higher label. This reflects the limited, yet highly profitable, NAS no man’s land that independent bottles can carve out for themselves in today’s market.