Whisky price inflation ignites an inner debate in Royal Mile Whiskies’ Arthur Motley.
How does a whisky become a cult? It’s a thought which sprang to mind when I was tasting this year’s release of Yamazaki Sherry Cask. Why this whisky? Or rather, why this whisky which isn’t the same whisky which did become a cult? Once cult status has been achieved, is it held in perpetuity? Once a cult, always a cult – as I’m sure I overhead someone muttering in a Glasgow bar one night.
Anyway, to get back to the question in hand, cult status is linked to scarcity. It can be granted to a whisky thanks to a (often belated) realisation that it is in finite supply – Port Ellen, Brora, Karuizawa. It can be a limited edition whisky where demand always outstrips supply: Ardbeg limited editions, Bowmore Devil’s Casks, and Yamazaki Sherry Cask.
In both scenarios, it produces a reaction akin to mass hysteria. ‘I haven’t tried it, but I have to have it because people are talking about it.’ It’s drams as Pokémon cards, limited edition trainers, or handbags.
If the cult has momentum, critical faculties also disappear. Possession of the sacred object is all that matters. The liquid (in this case) is meaningless. The fact that it might only be of average quality is irrelevant. It’s whisky as fetish.
Object of desire: Feverish interest greeted the release of the 2016 Yamazaki Sherry Cask
This might seem an enviable position for a producer. In actuality, it can be a nightmare, particularly when it comes to distribution. Who gets it? How many do they get? What’s the price? The same dilemma is then passed down to retailers, who have to deal fairly with cult members, knowing that it will be impossible to satisfy them all.
How, then, to be even-handed with what is an inevitably tiny allocation? Two retailers had an interesting response with the Yamazaki. ‘The issue is how you appear fair and not make more people than necessary angry, because that anger is there,’ says Arthur Motley, buyer at Royal Mile Whiskies.
‘A man gives an award to a whisky, so the distiller decides to increase its price. People get angry. The retailer doesn’t know how many they’ll get or what the price will be, so people get angry with us. We get a small allocation and can’t sell a bottle to everyone who wants one. People get angry. We’re living in new times.’
How, then, to be even-handed in selling the stock? ‘We could alert our most loyal customers and pre-sell the allocation, but that isn’t an option as you’ll be criticised for selling to an inner circle. Or we could sell on a first come, first served basis with one bottle per customer, which is what we did. We Tweeted that it had arrived and it went in seconds.’
That still leaves the fact that many (most?) whisky lovers will never try the dram. Is there any way to spread the love? Master of Malt devised A Cunning Plan for its six-bottle allocation of Yamazaki. Four were bottled as 3cl miniatures and sold in a lottery, which in theory meant 93 folk got to try it – maybe more if they were happy to share a glass. One went for auction, with all profit above the retail price going to charity.
The last full bottle went to a lottery, sporting a back label saying: ‘I hereby swear not to sell this bottle – but to drink it with my chums. May my taste-buds and olfactory bulb shrivel and die if I should break my word.’
How likely is that? We all know that these bottles are now as often bought to flip, not drink. That possession of the sacred object is no longer the main driver within the world of cult. Profit is.
In Royal Mile’s case, someone had tried to cheat the system and ordered two bottles, meaning that there was one left over. ‘Everyone believed when it was released it would resell for £800 to £1,000,’ says Motley. ‘The individual then makes more profit that we or the distiller makes. So we were faced with this issue – do we sell this spare bottle, put it into auction, or do we effectively give it away? Which is what we did.’
The bottle was sold to Edinburgh bar Bramble for £180 (0% profit) and the bar then sold 25ml drams at £6.43 (0% profit). It sold out in 10 hours (search #breakevenbottle on Twitter to see the video). Again, more people were able to try it, which gives this whisky lover a warm, fuzzy feeling.
But is it up to retailers to try to subvert the flipping culture? ‘How do you judge whether a customer is someone who wants to buy for a collection, or is going to drink it, or who wants to flip it?’ asks Motley, somewhat rhetorically. ‘If they do flip it, is that less valid? Is it even our business?’
Here, though, is the dark side of the cult business. Suntory knew that there would be huge demand for this bottle, so the company raised the price, to around (gasp!) £200 retail.
It also raised the spec of the whisky, so that the liquid was commensurate with the price being asked. That is to be applauded. Then you look at auction sites and see it selling for £2,000.
Now, I ask you, seeing this, what price do you think Suntory will charge next year and, if it is a four-figure sum, can you blame them?
The industry gets criticised for greed. Ask yourself. Who is being greedy here?
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