Reviews of affordable whiskies with some entertaining tales along the way…
New Year Dram 2022
I’ve made it something of a Whisky Reviews tradition to choose a special whisky as my last review of the year but all too often, “special” ends up meaning expensive. In the current climate, with many people finding life difficult, I decided I should focus instead on recommending something a little more affordable, though no less enjoyable. A whisky that stood out for its quality, without an accompanying three-figure price tag. I opted for Elixir Distillers’ Elements of Islay Cask Edit Blended Malt
The year that was…
What an odd 12 months it’s been. Just as we tried to convince ourselves that the pandemic had passed we were faced with war in Europe, an energy crisis and a global recession. In the world of whisky, however, it’s often felt like business as usual. More new distilleries. More expansions. More auction records broken. It’s been a year of £16 million casks, cryptocurrency, NFTs and more cask investment companies than you could possibly count, all of whom are apparently run by staff with vast, yet mysteriously untraceable experience in the Scotch whisky industry. It’s also, annoyingly, been a year of dramatic price increases.
With each passing year, the whisky industry becomes ever more obsessed with its product being heralded as a luxury item. Every distiller, new or old, wants to offer up premium whisky but that word is all too often code for unjustifiably expensive. I understand that rising energy and fuel costs affect the whisky industry just as they do everyone else. The cost of powering a distillery is up. The cost of shipping is up. The cost of raw ingredients is up. The cost of packaging is up. So I do have sympathy for an industry trying to carry on in the face of such challenging times but nevertheless, whisky pricing was already pushing credibility before anyone mentioned a recession and now people have less disposable cash and the product they love is getting more and more unattainable.
People are struggling. Many can’t afford to heat their homes or feed their families. They certainly don’t have the ability to throw money at luxury single malts. In the UK, nurses, ambulance drivers, teachers, postal workers and all the other key workers we took to the streets to applaud during the pandemic are striking for fairer pay, yet the price of whisky continues to spiral ever upwards. I’m not claiming a relationship between the two situations, only voicing a concern that the industry is in danger of losing touch with the average person. If people keep getting poorer, who’s going to buy all this premium whisky? Who is going to pay for the last expansion? Or the next new distillery?
Just before Christmas, I noticed some social media content from an influencer who was visiting Glenfiddich. The event seemed to be celebrating the release of the new Archive Collection which features a 1973 bottle that costs £33,500. Elsewhere that same day, overworked and underpaid nurses were on the streets striking for fairer pay. It’s telling (and rather grim) to note that the average annual salary for a nurse wouldn’t stretch to a single bottle of the aforementioned Glenfiddich ’73.
Now, this isn’t Glenfiddich’s fault. There will always be limited edition, ultra-rare whiskies and they’ll always be priced to capitalise on the more-money-than-sense market. It also isn’t the fault of the influencer, who was only doing their job in promoting a product. It’s just that the timing of it comes across as a total lack of awareness. It’s like the whisky industry exists in its own wee bubble. Forever patting itself on the back for its ever more ridiculous pricing whilst real people struggle to make ends meet. That doesn’t affect us. We’re in the luxury market, don’t you know. It just seems a wee bit vulgar. Like a dodgy character in a bad movie flashing dollar bills at a homeless person. It’s hard to take pride in a society that places greater value on a bottle of booze than it does a nurse.
Price problems aren’t limited to rare bottlings, of course. Earlier this year, Diageo’s core range leapt in price overnight. I bought a Lagavulin 16-year-old in April for £55. A couple of weeks later it was £80. Some will argue it had been underpriced but that’s still one helluva jump. Especially when people are already feeling the pinch. Elsewhere, Arran’s Lagg Distillery decided to launch its 3-year-old whisky with a hefty price tag of £80. It isn’t just the liquid either. Everything whisky-related seems to be affected. Key voices in the industry filled social media this year with posts telling us about an utterly essential new book that no whisky lover could be without. Sadly, not one of them chose to comment on its retail price of £150. I can only assume the book was handwritten using ink made from elf tears, scrawled on pages of unicorn hide.
I love Scotch whisky. It’s the finest drink in the world and I want to continue to support it as much as I can but, as you can probably tell, I’m finding the relentless premiumisation of the spirit increasingly frustrating. It’s all so strange. Whenever I visit a distillery, I’m struck by how far removed it is from the manufactured luxury reputation that the owners of Scotch brands are obsessed with creating for themselves. They are rural factories, staffed by warm, welcoming, down-to-earth people. Somehow, we’ve allowed the spirit produced by those wonderful people, in those beautiful places, to veer dangerously close to becoming the exclusive domain of the mega-rich. What a mess we’re making of things!
We have a say, though. No one has more power than the consumer who cautiously spends their money. That’s our role in this whole thing. We decide how much a 3-year-old whisky from a new distillery should cost. We decide how much a 10-year-old at 40% should cost. If we choose to pay an excessive asking price then we give permission for it to be repeated, even increased. On the other hand, if we show a little fortitude, park the FOMO and step away from a few purchases, we might be surprised just how much control we actually have.
Fortunately, it’s not all doom and gloom. There is still plenty of good quality whisky available at a sensible price. You just have to look a little harder for it and often that means foregoing the established brands. So let’s end the year on a high by celebrating great, affordable whisky that lots of people can enjoy. I’m going to see out 2022 with a great wee blended malt from Elixir Distillers: the Elements of Islay Cask Edit. I’ll also be making an extra effort to shine a light on similar bottlings in the new year.
In the meantime, I hope you have a wonderful Hogmanay and enjoy a new year that is as free from hardship as possible. A year full of health, happiness and quality, affordable whisky.
Slàinte Mhath agus Bliadhna Mhath Ùr.
Elements of Islay Cask Edit
The Elements of Islay range was created in 2008 to celebrate the best of Islay whisky. The range is packaged in laboratory-style bottlings that carry an “elemental symbol” relating to the distillery that produced the spirit. In recent times, the series has diversified to include a core trilogy of blended malts. There’s the Bourbon Cask, the Sherry Cask and Cask Edit.
In this review, I’ll be focussing on Cask Edit, a blend of two malts. The exact identity of the distilleries is a secret but the first is located in the south of the island while the other is in the north, which certainly narrows it down a bit. The component whiskies were matured in a combination of refill casks, bourbon casks and sherry casks. The whisky is bottled at 46% abv and retails for £45…
Smell: Salty and briney. Seashells and seaweed. Soft smoke throughout with a wee tarry note. It’s also fresh with orange and lemon. Apple, too. Some honey and vanilla fudge. Nice nuttiness in there as well.
Taste: Salty and smoky with toffee and woody spice. Cinnamon and vanilla. Caramel sauce on apple pie. Toffee and fudge. Almonds. Sea salt and black pepper. Brine. Smoky finish with a peppery tingle and a woody dryness.
Thoughts: This is great stuff. There are lots of young, Islay-themed blends on the market but this is up there with the best of them. Any notion that a blend needs dozens of components to achieve complexity is immediately put to one side. There’s a nice variety of flavours in the glass yet they sit together incredibly well. The smoke is ever-present but never in your face and weaves through aromas and flavours of the sea one minute, fresh fruit the next. There’s also nut, oak and even the subtle influence of sherry. A really enjoyable demonstration of what Islay is all about.
Price: £45. Don’t be put off by the lack of a distillery name. This is an excellent Islay malt whisky bottled at 46%, without chill filtering. Elements of Islay Cask Edit is a great buy – for Hogmanay or any other time.
If you like the sound of the whisky featured in this article, you can buy it from Master of Malt.
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For more on Elements of Islay visit here: https://islay.com/
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