The Coming Single Malt Scotch Drought

mj-618_348_the-coming-single-malt-scotch-drought
 Jeff J Mitchell / Getty Images

If the whisky shortage were a dystopian movie, it would look something like this:

Close in on a young Charlton Heston on a beach. He looks out of frame; his knees buckle. He screams, pulls out his hair. The camera pans to reveal a massive monolith: a twenty story Macallan 21 bottle poking out of the ground, being pounded by the surf. It's empty — bone dry.

We did this to ourselves.

The current single-malt shortage is something of our own creation: a self-fulfilling prophecy about the rarity of age-minimum whisky. We believed the marketing so hard that we made every scotch distiller’s wish come true: they’re basically out of product. We drank it all.


The problem is foresight: two decades ago distillers didn't see the massive surge in demand coming, and since you have to age 12-year-old whisky for a minimum of 12 years, you can’t make more of it in any less than, well, 12 years.

Whisky makers are losing a two-front battle here: first, they're able to produce less and less of the age-listed stuff while demand rises. Second, they're having to make tough choices about how to use it. (Fifteen-year-old whisky, for instance, is often used in the final product of 12-year-old bottles.)

So they're just dropping the numbers, and making products that are as good as they can get without further crippling the supply. We've mentioned before that the rising trend is non-age-statement bottlings, and that's not always going to be a bad thing. Necessity is the mother of invention, after all, and new whisky products can always be surprisingly good.

But don't fear. No distiller is outright killing off any of its products, but many of the "core" range products of major brands are either in aggressively short supply (Macallan) or being turned into limited edition products that won’t be available every year (Laphroaig). 

What this means for you is that, while your favorite bottle will still be produced in five years, it may not be produced three out of the next five years. And if it is produced, limited supply means you may not actually find it every year at your normal shop.

With that in mind, we put together some guidelines to help you get through this crisis, and help you form a coping strategy for the darkest, driest hours.

1. Make a priority list of what you love or haven't tried.
Like any big project, whisky hunting requires planning. If you've suddenly realized you’re about to run out of chances to try great scotch, now is the time to clarify your wants. Ask friends for recommendations, flip through some whisky books, or just flip through your bookmarks. Now is the time to know what you want. 

Make no mistake, this is going to be a ruthless game. You’ll miss opportunities and lose battles, but you can still win the war.

Take planning one step further: Give yourself a hard and fast list of priorities, and decide what you're willing to spend each month on a trip to the liquor store. Sometimes you may find desired bottle number two alongside desired bottle number five and seven; if five and seven together are cheaper than two, you’ll have your budget to help you make the life or death choice.

2. Taste the younger non-age-statement stuff now and decide if you like it or not.
Speaking of sacrifices, those non-age-statement bottles are going to be easier to find than the old favorites. Maybe they’re not so bad. That’s not a decision we can make for you, but if you love every drop of Glenlivet you’ve ever tasted, maybe Founder’s Reserve is good enough.

 

If you've shied away from bottles without ages, take a look at what’s out there. You might be one of the lucky ones who find a new friend in the crowd.

3. Make friends with your liquor store manager.
This is what separates the people with rare bottles of popular whisky from the people without them. Your local liquor store clerk is a gatekeeper between you and the distributors who decide where your precious drams are sold. Don’t be afraid to be forward. It's true he may be wise to your purpose, but chances are you telling him what you want will make his job easier too.

In the best case scenario, the bottles you want might never make it to the shop because he doesn't know he has a customer for them. So let him know, and he might do you a favor. But make sure you return that favor. Repeat and regular customers are easier to please, so if you're putting your eggs in his basket, make regular or large purchases, especially if he’s offered to hunt something down for you. Those purchases enforce that, if he takes a risk just for you, you won’t leave him hanging. Knowing he can move an entire case of something the same day he gets it is a big deal.

4. Stock up. Buy by the case (if you can) if you know you'll need it.
Getting your hands on supply before it gets any worse is a lot like grabbing a stock before a surge in value: it opens up possibilities. We’re not suggesting you become a professional whisky broker, but consider that if you manage to get your hands on a case of Macallan 15 tomorrow, and in June it becomes impossible to find, you now have some leverage. You can’t sell it back to the liquor store, but you can store it for a rainy day and make a return on your investment… one that could help you procure a bottle you really want. 

Smart Scotsmen all around the U.K. know that whisky is a good investment, and Americans are connecting the dots too. There are plenty of resources that let you see how value has appreciated on limited edition and rare stuff, and if you find the right communities, you can trade what you have for what you want. Whisky is like baseball cards: Some people will have five of what you want, and none of what you have. Make a trade.


5. Look to the single malts of other countries.
You're likely reading this piece because you love single malts, so it's only fair that we tell you single malts are not produced exclusively in Scotland. England, Ireland, and the U.S. all make excellent single malts. What’s more, so do plenty of other countries: France, The Netherlands, South Africa, Italy, Taiwan, Japan, Australia — we could go on for a while.

They won't be a dead ringer for your favorite Lagavulin bottle, but if supply shrinkage is making you look elsewhere, take this time to broaden your horizons. You’re likely to find some gems out there: stuff that you can appreciate for years to come… until the next demand surge.