The lowland distillery Bladnoch was bought up by Australian entrpreneur David Prior last year. A little more than a year ago, I voiced skepticism concerning the future of Bladnoch (in Swedish, sorry). It seemed to me that Prior was more interested in brand development than in whisky per se. Bladnoch has now released its first two single malt expressions, in Australia. They will soon be launched in the UK market. With all my disdain for whisky packaging, I must admit that the two expresstions revealed – the NAS Samsara and the 15 YO Adela – are beautiful, design-wise. (The design has actually been known since February, but it’s not until now that we can really take a look at the – for the UK market – upcoming whiskies.)
These upcoming expressions were revealed on Bladnoch’s Facebook page on October 14. The post has to date been shared 185 times and has +1600 likes, which must be considered as a strong marketing success given that Bladnoch, before the current ongoing refurbishment which will increase poduction capacity sixfold, is a very small distillery indeed. The post said the Samsara and Adela would be ”Soon available for Australian and UK purchasers, more info to come”.
So, two new expressions from Bladnoch is under way soon, with the third, it would seem, still in the works.
I enjoy Bladnoch. I also like that the little distillery remains independently owned. As we shall see, however, the pricing is of these new releases is…well, intriguing. When I voiced skepticism back in August of 2015, this development was precisely what I worried about: that Bladnoch would become more about branding than about the whisky. I don’t mind change. I certainly don’t mind ”branding”, although I do agree with Charles MacLean that the notion of ”branding” single malts leads in the wrong direction. (Read his excellent piece on the subject here.) I don’t mind nice packaging, either, although I think the whisky business at times goes way too far with its packaging. So, my critique does not come from a standpoint where I am averse to any kind of change – an attitude which us whisky afocionados often exhibit, and in spades. Where I object is when whiskies are over-priced in order to create interest. It seems to me that this is precisely what is being done with these new Bladnoch releases. The extremely low-key attitude of the previous owners, Colin and Raymond Armstrong, has given way to something much more focussed on ”the brand”. With its re-branding and price hikes, Bladnoch certainly risks losing the loyalty of old fans of the distillery.
Samsara has been matured in first-fill bourbon casks and first-fill ex-Californian red wine casks. At $ AUD 149 – roughly €105 or £90 – it certainly sits on the high-end of pricing for a more or less unknown and untried single malt like Bladnoch. (For some links to Australian sites selling it, see here, here and here.) It’s bottled at 46.7% ABV and contains what seems to be the new Bladnoch tagline: ”ludicrously smooth, meticulously crafted”. (46.7, by the way. With Talisker at 45.8, Bunnahabhain and other distilleries in the Burns Stewart group at 46.3, and the Swedish Mackmyra at 46.1, is ABV becoming yet another branding marker for distilleries? Is the trio 40, 43, 46 becoming just too plain a choice?)
Or perhaps it’s Australian prices that are generally really high? Well, not really; comparing with other Australian prices, the NAS Bladnoch is, price-wise, up there with Springbank 15 YO, Distiller Editions from Cragganmore and Caol ila, and Glenmorangie 18 YO, a very cursory look reveals. For a fairly unknown distillery, charging the same for a NAS as what Springbank does for their 15 YO is…let’s just go with ”cocky”.
The 15 YO Adela, matured in oloroso sherry casks, also carries a hefty price tag. It is sold at around $ AUD 179 – roughly €126 or £107. (See for example here and here.) €126 for a 15 YO whisky: that is a lot of money. At least they didn’t ”go Mortlach” and release their whisky in 50 cl bottles, huh? Again at a glance, in comparison to other Aussie prices, we are around the prices for Glenmorangie Taghta and the unpeated 17 YO Caol ila from this year’s Special releases. (Also, some whiskies are apparently really expensive in Australia: the Redbreast 15 YO costs this much down under.)
A third bottling can be seen in that 14 October Facebook post – the first picture above: the Bladnoch Talia. A google search yields no interesting results. I assume it’s a fortcoming release from the distillery which is not yet ready for market.
So, looking at these releases, it seems that Prior has a two-pronged approach in his plans for Bladnoch. On the one hand, there is the cheap blended Pure Scot, meant to attract a younger and new audience. I see absolutely nothing wrong with that, and I do think the modern and different packaging is actually quite nice and appropriate for its purpose. With its single malt releases, I am much more concerned. Ian MacMillan, master distiller and master blender for Bladnoch and a living legend, may have vatted great whiskies together – I haven’t tried them, they may be absolutely fabulous. However, with an expensive NAS and a fairly expensive 15 YO, it seems their purpose is to tickle if not investors then at least those who like to buy premium whiskies, rather than people interested in actually opening the bottles. Such a lovely distillery. Such good whiskies. Such a fascinating and complicated history. Such a shame.