I’m going to sound like one of those perpetually peeved old men you sometimes encounter in the pub, who vividly remember ‘when it was all fields down there’ – referring to a brand new estate of recently built houses. It pains me to say it, but whisky – particularly Scotch and Japanese – has become a very expensive luxury.
In fact, these days, I find it difficult to justify the purchase of many of the whisky brands I once fell in love with; the ones that kickstarted a lifelong fascination with the spirit.
The reasons behind the increased price of many of our favourite single malt brands are as complex as they are broad. Most distillers face the same economic factors that we all face, such as increased energy tariffs and other utilities costs, which have made a huge dent in the bottom line. According to a survey conducted by the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA), nearly 30% of distillers reported that these costs have actually doubled in the space of a year, with more increases expected.
The cost of the raw materials needed for making whisky have all increased too. Barley prices, casks and glass bottles have all risen dramatically. Then there’s the supply chain itself: the cost of importing these essentials and exporting the finished product internationally. The SWA also reported that 73% of distillers expect to see an increase of over 50% in shipping costs alone.
There is also, of course, the relative scarcity aspect with some whisky brands, versus increased global demand, which has also steadily pushed prices up. As a result, many drinkers are falling out-of-love with their favourite aged expressions and are feeling underwhelmed by the cheaper, non-age-statement alternatives distillers are offering.
The good news is that there are still some great value whiskies out there to explore.
What is value?
One question I considered here is just what the word ‘value’ represents. Price and affordability are relative: both to the individual drinker and the level of premiumisation that the whisky sits in. Just because a whisky appears expensive doesn’t necessarily mean it isn’t good value for money!
By way of a relatively extreme example – and bear with me here – the recently released 1958 Shirakawa Japanese single malt whisky will set you back a cool £25,000. However once you factor in that this is the only example of a one-of-a-kind whisky, never before bottled and never to be repeated, from a distillery that was long since demolished, its scarcity, makes this a ‘reasonable’ consideration. Particularly in comparison with competitor brands, in this case Karuizawa, which commands a much higher premium, for significantly lower age statements.
Similarly, independent whisky company Gordon & MacPhail is the master of releasing supremely aged whisky (50-plus years and counting) from ‘marque’ distillers, such as Glenlivet, Longmorn, Mortlach and Glen Grant. They are released at a fraction of the price that proprietary bottling would cost.
For the likes of us mere mortals though, here’s a list of a few gems, which are well-priced*, well-aged, complex-as-the-day-is-long and offer great value for money.
Great value whiskies to buy
Berry Bros & Rudd Blended Malt Sherry Cask
One of my lockdown discoveries. Berry Bros has knocked this blended malt out of the park, creating a rich, expressive and very drinkable whisky for under £30. Notes of dark honey, orange peel, cocoa and spicy dried fruit. A great sipper or in an Old Fashioned. Alcohol 44.2%
Bushmills Black Bush Irish Whiskey
This blended Irish whiskey is perhaps one of the most accessible-yet-complex whiskeys on the market. The high proportion of Sherry cask influence in the recipe means it’s full of rich, nutty and toffee notes, with a superbly warming and approachable spice. A whiskey that deserves far more attention and consideration. Alc 40%
Bowmore 12 Year Old
Bowmore is arguably one of the most highly sought-after Islay whiskies in the ultra-premium and prestige sector. Yet this 12 Year Old sits at under £35 and is a monster of a whisky for the price – as is its older brother, the 15 Year Old. A wonderfully floral-style smoke, with a buttery richness, lemon zest and cracked black pepper make this an unmissable bottle for your cabinet. Alc 40%
Butterscotch & Vanilla & Toast & A Generation 30 Year Old Grain
A 30-year-old Scotch for under £65? You’d better believe it. Grain has often been seen as the underdog or the ‘filler’ in blended Scotch whisky, but this proves you can teach an old dog new tricks. This whisky is full of creamy, buttery notes, with honeycomb, brandy snap biscuits, rum-and-raisin ice cream and white chocolate. Alc 40%
Glenfarclas 15 Year Old
Bold, rich and hugely complex, Glenfarclas has long been classed as the true ‘whisky enthusiast’s whisky’ and seen as a distillery that doesn’t compromise on quality to chase the bottom line. The Sherry notes are here for all to see, with dried fruit, spice and that patina of maturity too. A very old school single malt. Alc 46%
Glenmorangie 18 Year Old
Stylish, refined and very underrated – not to mention underpriced! Glenmorangie is no doubt a well-known brand of single malt, but this expression definitely deserves more attention than it receives. Layers of silky, buttery fruit, vanilla and creamy oak, with a base of rich spiciness underneath. Alc 43%
Glen Moray Port Cask
One of Scotland’s most overlooked single malts, Glen Moray has a range of cask finishes including Sherry, Chardonnay, bourbon and Port. Each one offers genuine bang-for-buck alongside complexity and a smooth drinkability. The Port cask has bold notes of soft red fruit, dark spices (liquorice and cinnamon) as well as a palate-coating creamy oak. Alc 40%
Glen Scotia Double Cask
Campbeltown is arguably the least well-visited whisky region in Scotland, given how far down the Kintyre Peninsula it’s located. But it’s also incredibly special because the whiskies currently produced there – from just three distilleries – taste so distinctly different from anywhere else. This Double Cask is no exception. It’s like going back in time, with a wonderfully distinct red berry fruitiness, some characteristic saline notes, creamy fudge and then something slightly herbal and mossy notes. Scotland’s best kept secret in a bottle. Alc 46%
Redbreast 12 Year Old
With Irish whiskey currently enjoying a spike in premiumisation, thanks to the rising crop of highly acclaimed craft distillers and award-winning expressions, it’s worth considering the more traditional but still fabulously priced Red Breast 12 Year Old. This is a single pot still Irish whiskey matured in both American bourbon barrels and Oloroso sherry butts. Powerful aromas of tropical fruit, vanilla and a spicy, fruit-laden palate give this an unbeatable edge. Alc 40%
Honestly, I really don’t know how a multiple award-winning Australian single malt whisky can be on sale in the UK for under £35, given the vastly increased barriers to entry into the marketplace… And yet here is Starward, full of rich, ripe fruitiness, maple syrup, spicy oak and a thick malty note, showing Scotland a thing or two about true value-for-money. Exceptional. Alc 40%
*All prices are correct at time of publication. Whiskies may be available from other retailers at a higher price.