When I go through the bottlings I tasted for the blog and the bottles I bought for my own whisky cabinet here at home, it undeniably seems that I have a penchant for single cask editions. “Of course”, I thought at first, as it gives the whisky nerd in me an excellent opportunity to delve into the magic that happens when spirits meet the wood in a single cask for a certain number of years. But then I had a re-think, because quite often when I talk whisky with other like-minded people, you almost inevitably get into discussing different single cask editions with each other – and why is that?
Let’s start with what single cask really means. At first glance, this may seem quite simple – whisky that immediately after distillation is placed in a single cask and then X years later gets filled into a bottle. Depending on the size of the cask, this means a certain number of bottles. A hogshead cask, for example, can result in around 150-300 bottles, while a larger cask, such as a sherry butt, can yield up to 500-600 bottles.
However, it is not always that simple and misunderstandings often arise when you mix in the marketing process. One example is a bottling of seven-year-old whiskey from Caol Ila from, according to the store’s marketing, a single barrel (see attached image), where it says in small print that at least three barrels were used when creating this bottling, and where this exclusive edition resulted in a total of 1324 bottles, instead of the 150-500 that is usually the standard. Fantastic. In this case, the customer can guess that they either took three smaller casks and put in a larger sherry cask as a kind of longer “finish” (most incredible, due to size and that cask numbers are missing) and then bottled as a limited edition, or mixed together three casks without further storage after that and then bottled these casks immediately. This is not a problem in itself, but the crux here is the information that goes out to the consumer, where the online store does not clarify this but only prints that the whisky comes from a single cask, and how should you as an ordinary consumer know what is what? It can be quite difficult to find out for the common customer, and how often do you read the fine print when you think you have come across a find? And a thought that struck me: When you talk about single cask whisky, it is assumed that you also talk about single malt whiskey, BUT imagine if you were to take X liters of freshly brewed distillate from, say, three different distilleries and at the same time pour them into a single barrel. Then my question becomes whether you can even do that – a Blended Single Cask? Exciting thought!
And then there are casks that are extremely active. Suppose you only empty half the barrel and bottle it as a single cask edition. Then you can repeat the procedure six months or years later, but with a different age for that bottling! Maybe completely legal but still a bit sad – if anyone has ever chosen to even do so. Keep in mind, this is pure speculation on my part and it would be very exciting to have it confirmed or denied! Can it be done in this way, according to the regulations?
To empty a barrel and sell half to one independent bottler and half to another? And if so, how do you sync it so that these two do not risk competing with each other, as it may complicate the collaboration with both? And if the answer is “yes” – has anyone done it? And if so, how open were they with the procedure?
What about Mackmyra, then? I do not know how many times I have been asked “What do you think of Mackmyra?”. Well, what do I like about, say, weather? My starting point is neutral. Some days I prefer sunny weather and other days rough weather does the trick. Some bottlings I think are great, others not my thing. So why is it still popular to hate the official editions but love the private bottlings? It’s the same liquor, with the exception that a highly experienced and trained Master Blender creates the official editions (even according to public preferences)! Is it a nerdy excuse to be allowed to like a distillery that is trendy to talk down on? Or is it to flatter your own ability to take out The Perfect Cask – to the degree that at the same time, indirectly, you mean that as an ordinary whisky consumer you do a better job than the pros? And if so, who would believe you? If that’s the case, why not work in the industry yourself? And Mackmyra is certainly no exception. As soon as a brand becomes too commercial (or popular), you become a little special if you go against the grain (no pun intended) and say “thanks but no thanks” to what everyone else wants. The only way to avoid The Big Diss Death as a super-popular whisky is to do something completely magical with its otherwise fairly ordinary whisky (most whisky produced in standard volume are thus ordinary – it’s mostly the marketing strategies that differ, and to some extent the taste notes). In the absence of unicorn tears and mermaids, you can simply send it into orbit around the earth. Or wait a minute …
Back to this business with the poor lone casks. I have, just like everyone else, bought the entire marketing package with unique drops from unique barrels, and at regular intervals I buy a single cask edition or two. Why? Well, I guess I’m a sucker for treasure hunting. It’s a bit like going to a flea market and managing to find THAT precious thing that everyone later will be Oooo-ing and Aaaah-ing over when they come and visit, and when they then ask where they can get it, you happily inform them that it is a find that no one else in the party can get their hands on (considering that these editions often consist of around 300 bottles). Yep, I like that feeling too. Not that anyone would ever admit that they do, but should I just as easily throw pies to the right and left, I might as well send one up in my own grubby little face. The idea that I, with my nerd skills, have been able to dig up this precious whisky, and then also find properties in it that everyone else has overlooked over the years is tickling, even for me. Unfortunately, I also have to admit that in some cases that particular treasure I found was not as terribly brilliant as I had hoped for or thought. It IS fun to offered unique whisky to the people I love. Friends interested in whisky already know some of the bottles I have opened in the cupboard. It takes a few months for me to nibble away one of several opened bottles with my partner, family and friends, and to occasionally snatch the foil and offer an odd bottle is a lot of fun. The only thing that beats that feeling is probably to offer a damn good standard bottling that everyone loves and asks for the next time they visit, and which they can also buy themselves from the Swedish Monopoly Store (Systembolaget).
Exclusivity – let’s be honest here, in many cases it can feel as if single cask editions are priced with the good ol’ joy-o-meter bang at the top. When a standard twelve of the Glen Something distillery usually goes for less than five hundred kronor, it is of course remarkable when a single cask edition from the same distillery costs almost three times as much. Sometimes people can go crazy when it comes to getting their hands on a twelve-year-old single cask bottling from the same distillery, no matter what the whisky tastes like.
Now, it’s of course very tempting to criticize the manufacturer/bottler so-and-so, but from a business perspective I guess it’s much more expensive to bottle an edition consisting of only a few hundred bottles, compared to a core range bottling that is always available on the shelf. Should the customer take the time and money to buy this unique bottle, I guess she wants some information on the label, which means unique labels and maybe even a review of the design. Then it must also be decided on which market this edition should go to (Europe? Asia? Travel retail?) and how much PR to spend on it. If, for example, Laphroaig were to release a single cask bottling of, say, 16 years of age and to the Swedish market, it would probably be enough to just whisper a few words to a few bloggers, then the talk would run wild. Who knows – maybe it’s just enough to send in an application for approval of a new label? If, on the other hand, Ardmore or Glen Moray did the same, it would probably not attract as much attention at all and might require a lot more marketing, which probably also affects the price – but not too much, as the customer may not be willing to pay as much for such editions compared with identical ones from another distillery. What affects the price even more than this is probably the status.
Take three different quality distilleries as an example: Let’s say thay you for free choose can a 16-year-old single cask bottling from either Ardbeg, Highland Park, Balblair or Loch Lomond to keep and to treat your friends to/ brag about on social media – and ignore your personal preferences, because now I’m talking about status at the structural level, not individually. Which one had you chosen? Please note, all four distilleries make (in my opinion) good whisky. Back to the question – and the answer! Highland Park has a high status in Sweden as they have invested heavily in marketing adapted to “Male Manfred” – it’s all about muscles, tattoos, Vikings and connections to Sweden. It has exactly zero to do with how the whisky tastes, BUT I feel a little tougher when I own a HP. On the other hand, they have gotten a bit of hubris and literally pumped out different single cask bottles in recent years, which means that some consumers either do not have time or are not tempted to buy them all because they feel less exclusive due to quantity. GlenDronach has done the same thing, but minus the penis extension advertisement and instead invested in telling the customer that he is a true connoisseur who has had enough sense to buy their whisky. Balblair is a mystery to the average consumer, which means a lot of bragging rights among like-minded nerds, but then it can be difficult for everyone in the circle of acquaintances (regardless of interest level) to know how much money such a bottle is worth (because yes, it always matters) as well as to recognize the brand, which lowers the boasting factor a bit. Loch Lomond has long had a somewhat tarnished reputation, something they have regained in recent years and shown both high quality and exclusivity through various agreements with prestigious sports tournaments etc. This message has reached a lot of whiskey nerds but maybe not the broad masses just yet. In addition to this, like many other distilleries, they have released some very affordable bottling, which tends to lower the brand’s status despite also gaining a larger, loyal consumer base. Therefore, I do not think that the majority had chosen this name to have on the bottle at home either. So to Ardbeg, which – just like the above-mentioned distilleries – also makes good whisky. Ardbeg has, like HP, also directed their PR towards the “Male Manfred- segment” with color scheme, name (either with monster references or dad jokes – if it is not alligators or beasts, it is a name that imitates a sheep, because it is “fun”) and product packaging. This, together with an overall substantial price tag on most exclusive bottles and a few single cask editions in recent times, makes me dare to say that most people would have chosen a 16 yo SC from Ardbeg over the other three distilleries. Had these four single cask editions (16 years, bourbon cask, 53.8%, official editions) been on the shelf, people would probably have been prepared to pay the most amount of money for the Ardbeg edition. I guess I would too (possibly with the exception of Balblair, but in that case I am emotionally invested in a different way so I should disregard that). Marketing and status are powerful things.
Are there any benefits to single cask bottling at all, now that I seem to have dismissed the phenomenon completely? Here I want to answer with a resounding YES, and I will definitely continue my constant search for new, unique experiences. Because that’s what it’s all really about – getting a unique whisky experience of what you happen to have in the glass. For me, it is also about continuing to keep an open mind. Take distilleries like Glendullan, Fettercairn and Glenlivet, for example. These distilleries I have either A) from the beginning not been so impressed with in terms of certain official editions, or B) barely encountered official bottlings of but had to rethink or see the distillery from a different, useful perspective after trying their whiskey from single casks.
Advice on how to think about single cask editions:
- Take a sober look at exclusivity: Be aware of what a single-cask edition actually is, especially for the producer. Although it may very well be good whisky in the bottle, the bottling is also a way for the producer to market a craft connection between customer and distillery.
- Consider the price tag. You often pay quite a lot extra for a certain distillery with high status when it comes to SC, compared to if it had been from another distillery. There are a plethora of independent bottlers that you can buy from both stores and international websites, so look around before you decide on a bottle.
- Think about what you want to experience. If it’s any new single cask bottling from the favorite distillery, it can pay to dig around and be price conscious. Is it a new experience in general as, for example, a distillery you have never tried anything from before, or is it about pure FOMO – to miss out on what everyone else is talking about?
- Be curious: I often want to get distillates from distilleries I have never tried before to get an idea of what a cross section from this distillery can taste like. But it is far from a complete picture I get then, so it must not represent the distillery as a whole, but more as an indicator, a gateway that can hopefully entice me to try more editions from the distillery.
- Be crass: There are no guarantees that the single cask edition you clicked home for this or that much money is actually good – but you will most likely want it to be, and it will affect your experience of it.