It used to be that scotch marketing was extremely consistent: the older the scotch, the more revered and expensive. But within the last five years, high profile distillers have had great success marketing young scotch or scotch without age statements (which could therefore be any age over three years), sometimes at higher prices than the old stuff: Laphroaig Quarter Cask, Aberlour Abunad’h, Bruichladdich PC5, various Ardbegs, the list goes on and on. What gives with the industry? Why this change after umpteen years of tradition? Well, I credit the ole' US of A, or more specifically, the influence of American taste and culture on Europe and the UK.
Reason 1 - Bold is Beautiful
As scotch ages in the barrel it loses some of its harshness as well as its alcohol content; it becomes more subtle and complex. This is wholly Un-American! We do not do subtle and we are suspicious of complex. We like big, bold, simple flavors. For wine, that means chardonnays that scream oak and cabernets that will knock you down with their power-fruit. Even in France, I have heard tell that the wine cognoscenti is complaining that American bold is catching on with the countryfolk and appreciation for the complexity of Burgundy and blended Bordeaux is waning. Young scotch has powerful flavor, especially when of the smoky variety, which is what most of these younguns are. It's bold, it's no nonsense, it's practically American.
Reason 2 - Hope I Die Before I Get Old
In the UK and continental Europe, age is still identified with respect and reverence. The Queen is old. The Pope is old. The Rolling Stones are old. In the US, we do not revere our elders. We don't trust anyone over 30. In fact, we don't trust anyone old enough to remember who said we don't trust anyone over 30. We prefer youth in music, in politicians, and apparently, in scotch.
Reason 3 - Time is Money
Most importantly, by selling young, the distilleries are making profits on scotch that would have otherwise evaporated. You have to have some sympathy here. Scotch is a tough business. The distilleries go through all the trouble of making it and then they have to sit on it for at least ten years before anyone will buy it. That's why there are very few new distilleries opening up. You have to have a lot of foresight to do well. Case in point, Lagavulin, which dropped production of its popular 16 year old scotch when sales were lagging in the late '80s. They didn't foresee the single malt boom we are currently experiencing and as a result, didn't have enough product to meet demand in the early part of this decade. As a result, they have been surpassed in sales by competitor Laphroaig which had made the right call. A few new start-ups, like Arran and Kilchoman, are betting that the single malt boom is more than a fad...but it's a crap shoot, and marketing young scotch takes some of the edge and the risk out of the business.
For my part, I think a lot of the new, young scotch is high quality stuff. Laphroaig Quarter Cask, Ardbeg Uigeadail, and the mystery malt Smokehead are great, fun to drink smokers, but hey, maybe that's just my American bias.
Next Wednesday: Part 1 of my July 4th Salute to American Whiskey