The whisky year has reached its third quarter. Leaves will be falling off the trees soon. How do I know this? Because Ingvar Rönde’s Malt whisky yearbook is just out; because the Whisky show in London, which I will be attending for the first time, is just around the corner; because people are speculating about which whisky that dude in the Panama hat will have picked this year. And of course: because Diageo is about to release this year’s special releases.
It’s the same story every year. Reactions can be roughly categorized as follows:
1. ”Wait what, those prices are way too steep!”
2. ”Why do they even include anything but those Islay whiskies?”
3. ”What magnificent boxes/colours!”
4. ”Which one are you hoping to buy?”
And while those who murmur or complain about the prices are always there, as sure as rain in Scotland, many people are also planning what to buy. The flippers and the auction houses are busy rubbing their hands together in joy. In this brave new world in which ”everyone” hates flippers even while investing in whisky and hoping to make a buck, the special releases are sure to set off the perfect combination of excitement and controversy, making energies of all kinds fly from brains to keyboards, magnifying the event beyond its actual value. I mean, just look: here I am, doing a piece about the releases, like a dumbass including those pictures which the marketing department at Diageo makes sure fly all over the internet like so many pound bills.
It’s not strange that Diageo should have special releases each year. And I do want to give them credit for doing this stuff: catering to the nerds is an important part of trading in whisky. If the prices were lower, they would just be giving money away to the flippers, so I do understand the high prices, too. Also, it’s not strange that some people hope to be buying a few bottles of Port Ellen or whatnot, and then hope to make a buck or two, straight away or in the distant future.
That being said, the pull that the new special releases have on the whisky community never ceases to amaze me. It’s like we have been programmed to believe that these bottles, if for collecting or for flipping, simply cannot be missed. The rest of the year, people are speaking about the problems of NAS whiskies; the increasing lack of transparency regarding what’s really in the bottle; the relative merits of independent bottlings as compared to official ones; the ill effects of chill-filtering; whether cask finishing is a thing of evil or a great innovation; and everything else under the sun. Then, boooooom! – 95% of all of that goes out the window because there’s a new PE and a new Brora in town. Or, there’s this really awesome box that comes with the Cragganmore. Or, the colour on the Mannochmore is simply amazing. Or, this is the oldest official Glenwhatever ever released. At other times in the year, it’s ”I don’t care about packaging, I only care about what’s in the bottle” time. Then comes the whisky year’s third quarter with the special releases, and many a whisky aficionado show their true colours. Now, boxes, packaging, colour, and not least the (shrinking, perhaps even disappearing) possibilities of making a buck come to the fore. One might very well ask the question: are these bottles of whisky being sold, or are they actually shares at the stock exchange in liquid form? As one commentator put it on Facebook:
For me, I have tried a few unpeated Caol ilas from previous special releases and enjoyed them. I have only ever tried one of the special releases of Lagavulin 12 YO at cask strength – great stuff if you want to enjoy a right hook of a peater, no frills attached. I have a sample of that OB Caol ila 30 YO lying around somewhere, and from what I have read, it is probably liquid magic. But in general, this is whisky beyond my normal price range. The special releases, to me, are more fun in that they seem to be getting all kinds of juices flowing in people. But you know what? Sit down. Take a deep breath. There are so many great whiskies out there. There are bottles that you already have at home. Really, there is no great need to jump the gun on these particular offerings. Not that I suspect they are not good; if anything, my limited experiences tell me they are probably very good whiskies. For me, I just don’t like the feeling of being person number nine thousand in a crowd screaming after the exact same bottles as everyone else. (That being said though, I grabbed an Ardbeg twenty-one and did not blink about the pricing. And was I envious when a fellow blogger was invited to go to London to try all the special releases? Hell yeah. Would I love to try the Cambus 40 YO now that I have read his piece (warning: it’s in Swedish) about the tasting? Yup. So no, I’m not as independent a whisky drinker as I’d like to think I am.)
Do with these releases what you will, but rest assured: you will survive without filling that cabinet of never-opened bottles with a couple more of never-opened bottles. In this world of bunkermania and constantly rising prices, what the world of whisky needs is for all of us to stop regarding whiskies are pieces of investment and start enjoying what’s in the bottles. So, by all means, get yourself a bottle from this year’s special releases. But please – let us hear the sound of those corks plopping!
PS. If you do not know how this is done, here’s a brief instruction video.