In the light of various steep price rises in whisky, naming no names, Ian Buxton takes a look at what’s behind the changes and suggests that things might not be as bad as they at first seem. There are still bargains to be had, if you know where to look.
The distilling industry seems recently to be curiously enamoured of comic books. No sooner had we absorbed the cultural alienation of Diageo’s curiously anaemic latest Special Releases bulked out, Hulk-like, by a booklet straight out of the Marvel studios than we were greeted by Bowmore’s The Changeling. This collection of two premium-priced travel retail exclusives are, according to the press release, “imagined within the immersive world of acclaimed graphic artist Frank Quitely” whose work is more normally found on the pages of Marvel and DC Comics.
The label features a strangely weedy-looking blacksmith – apparently a legendary figure from Islay legend. According to the myth, he was captured by the Fairy Queen but I like to imagine that he has secret powers, having been bitten by a radioactive master blender or berated by a bewildered traveller, enraged by the $3,300 price ticket on the 33-year-old version.
But ZAP! BLAM! KAPOW! Who is really being beaten on the blacksmith’s anvil? Yes, it’s the long-suffering whisky loyalist, now hit by rising whisky prices. Great was the indignation on social media earlier this year at the soaring cost of Scotch and Bourbon, with regular whipping boy Diageo criticised for substantial hikes in single malt prices and Talisker 18 Years Old singled out for particular criticism.
They’re far from the only ones. Not to blow my own trumpet (well, a little bit), in my most recent book, the updated edition of 101 Whiskies to Try Before You Die, I pointed out the bargain represented by Glenfarclas 25 Years Old which I’d spotted on promotion at sub-£100 and was regularly available with change from £150. It was, I wrote, “the bargain of the decade” but I hope you grabbed a few bottles, as that price now seems as fantastic as the caped crusader and his buddies.
However, hold on, because it seems likely to get worse. According to industry body the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA), a recent survey of their members found that a majority of distillers were facing increased energy costs from 2021. Additionally, 40% of those businesses surveyed said that shipping costs had doubled in the past year, and 43% also reported supply chain cost rises of more than 50 percent.
Horror stories abound
Horror stories abound. According to the ever-reliable and understated Daily Record (a Scottish red-top tabloid), single malt prices are set to triple! Never slow to jump on a bandwagon, whisky ‘investment’ sites have enthusiastically pushed the line that now is the time to add a few casks to your portfolio (full disclosure: I shan’t be bothering).
What’s more, to the alarm and consternation of the embattled drinks and hospitality industry, this week’s Chancellor of the Exchequer Jeremy Hunt has cancelled the planned 2023 freeze to alcohol duty rates meaning that next February we can expect a further £1.35 tax on a bottle of spirits. Predictably, the SWA was unimpressed. “Time after time, duty freezes on spirits have increased government revenue contrary to what the Treasury’s forecasts have predicted. The industry has been an economic anchor, even in times of volatility,” said CEO Mark Kent. “Distillers are facing increasing economic headwinds and rising costs”, he added [and] “the duty freeze offered much-needed support. We urgently need that commitment to be reinstated.”
It’s not all doom and gloom
And yet… contrary to all the doom and gloom over today’s inflationary climate, there is still great value to be found if you know where to look. I’m a big fan of some well-known blends (I’d point you to the new iteration of Dewar’s 12 Years Old when stocks of the first-fill bourbon ageing hit UK shelves soon) and, to my surprise, recent research has suggested that, taken in the round, Scotch prices have done little more than track global inflation trends.
You’ll have noticed that your gas and electricity prices have jumped up and your groceries are a tad more expensive than this time last year. Yet, according to extensive international pricing research reported by industry bulletin Just-Drinks, when adjusted for inflation few brands have set price increases in real terms between January 2019 and April 2022 (it takes some data to collate data on this scale). While they report The Macallan, Wild Turkey and Ardbeg outstripping cost-of-living increases most other brands have moved more modestly and thus, in relative terms, have got cheaper. Hard to believe I know but further details are available here and it’s hard to argue with the cold, hard facts.
However, with the way everything else is going, it simply doesn’t feel like that. Whisky prices still come as a shock to most of us and there seems little end in sight. It’s enough to drive you to drink – just a more modestly priced one.