Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Diageo Manager's Choice Debate

I am at heart a whisk(e)y nerd. I spend far too late nights engrossed in my subscription copies of Malt Advocate, Whisky Mag and I burn far too much time enthralled by the WhiskyCast podcast. I see a large wall of whiskies, I geek out hard. I typically lose motor function first. My walking slows to a dead crawl, I have a tendency to drool all over myself and anyone foolish enough to hove into my range. Next goes the social awareness and gesticulation. I speak like I'm trying to talk with a mouthful of rubber cement and what comes out is often the most inappropriate responses. This is typically limited to guttural grunts and perverse swear words that can only come moderately close to the true, soul-shaking joy I am experiencing. My friends can attest to my stunned reverence and crippled sociological judgment. They've been to tasting rooms with me.

Its safe to say I like whisk(e)y.

I've been following bourbon, scotch, Irish, Welsh, Japanese, and whatever artisan whiskey the world can crank out with reckless abandon for many years; far more years than I've been legally allowed to drink. Shhh, don't tell Johnny Law. I like to try to keep up with not just independent bottler releases but liquor group special releases. And no special release has rocked the foundations of whisky culture more than the Diageo release of Manager's Choice.

John Hansell, the publisher, reviewer, writer, big cheese of Malt Advocate sums and reviews things up quite nicely here and here but if you're lazy like I am, I'll sum it up shorthand for you here. A few months ago, Diageo decided it would release specially selected, single cask whiskies for the whisky market. The bottles were indeed special, with unique wood profiles and ages for their classic malt lines (such as a 9 year old Oban aged in a sherry cask). Some rarer bottles, typically from distilleries solely used to make their blended scotches were released as well. However, for many, it came with a bitter twist. The price. What was originally thought to be a special release for the whisky nerds (such as myself) turned into a release for serious collectors. Bottle prices that were hoped to be under £100 soared to as high as £350 for the more publicly known scotches.

When I first read about the releases I had hoped they would be affordable. When I quickly found out they would not be, I sighed quietly into my dram and continued on dreaming of the day when I'd be able to afford super-expensive whisk(e)y. But I reflect on it now and I find that I find myself allying with those who balk at the decision. Mark my words, I fully support Diageo. If I were given a job there, I'd work there in a heartbeat, no questions asked. I just feel that this was a poor choice on their part. There are, on average, about 240ish bottles per cask that they selected, depending on age and wood. At £350 a bottle, that's extraordinarily expensive, even for those in the British Isles where wages are paid in pounds. I wonder how many bottles they will move. From what I've seen of the whisk(e)y world, there are far fewer collectors interested in high-ticket items than there are aficionados. And aficionados have massive buying power. I don't think it would be economically wise to burn the aficionados who have helped bring scotch from its 70s roots of just pure blends with no single cask or even single distillery offerings. The aficionados have elevated the world of scotch from a simple drink to a drink of legends. How often is a premium scotch billed as a drink of class; of taste? Quite often. Why? Because it was built so. Yes, the marketing departments probably had their say. But the quest for flavor, for breaking the mold, pushed the boundaries (and asking prices) of scotch to the heavens and far beyond. All because aficionados wanted it. I hate to generalize, but collectors buy the bottles as a monetary investment. Aficionados buy it as an investment of faith, an investment of quality, and an investment of discovery. This is what Diageo should be rewarding, not those hellbent on sequestering their bottles to the nearest safe in hopes that it will be worth 100 times the paying price in years to come. That outlook on whisky doesn't bring them anything. Those that buy the whisky and share it, spread the good times and a good dram, that's what they should be hearkening to. Collectors will buy one bottle, aficionados will buy many.

Alright, I've said my piece. Take it as you will. I'd like to know your thoughts on the subject, if you feel comfortable sharing them. You can post them in the comments or email me to your heart's content at drinkreviews at gmail dot com. Keep on drinkin', folks.

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