The Whiskey Hype Train: Expectations vs. Quality

Working at a whisky festival the other day, I was very fortunate to be able to try Pappy Van Winkle 20 and 23 year old for the first time. I think it’s reasonable to say that these bottles are pretty “hyped,” with tales of huge sums of money being exchanged, second mortgages being taken out, fights breaking out at auctions, and thousands of people on the hunt for the magical Pappy. It’s got a reputation. My understanding of this hype was that this is pretty much the best bourbon you can possibly get your hands on.

Was it all it was cracked up to be? Did it live up to the hype?

Not quite. It was very good bourbon, don’t get me wrong. It was a little over-oaked. When I compared it to this year’s William Laurie Weller, I preferred the Weller. By quite a bit.

At the same festival, I was again very fortunate to try an old release of Laphroaig 30 year old. It was on my list of my top whiskies to try in my lifetime. Again, it was a fantastic whisky but not the best I tried that day.

The same could be said of Port Ellen, Brora, or Kariuzawa. These names are kind of mythical in an internet age of Instagram, online auctions and blogs, where everyone can rave about trying the latest, rarest thing even if they didn’t really think it was that great. There’s also the whole “Whisky of the Year” awards situation. Look at Yamazaki Sherry Cask or Craigellachie 31. These whiskies have become hugely hyped almost overnight by winning an award, sometimes only given by one person.

So, why are certain whiskies hyped up? And what can you do to avoid disappointment?

I believe hype comes from a few factors that come together in the right moment. The stuff has to taste good for one. The whisky itself has to be one of the best, but that’s not enough. A bigger factor is perhaps rarity. I’m not talking about Dalmore Trinitas, with only 3 bottles produced. No one cares about that because no one will ever taste it. There could be 100 or 10,000 bottles on the marketplace, but demand has to outstrip supply. Another factor then comes into play: collectability. The whisky has to be something that, perhaps ironically, is so good, no one wants to open it. It’s too good, rare, and/or valuable. You’ll notice that a lot of these whiskies I’ve mentioned above are from closed distilleries. They’ll never make any more after existing casks are bottled and released. That makes them hugely collectable, valuable, and rare. All of these factors drive the price up astronomically, which in turn, drives hype.

What then happens is interesting. These hyped whiskies are then only accessible to the rich few who can afford them. These people often buy up huge amounts of the stuff, making it much rarer and cornering the market. These same people then have a vested interest in driving the hype further and further skyward as they watch their collection’s value soar. There’s money to be made by then drip-feeding these bottles back through auctions and private sales to people only too happy to then spew the hype back up to impress their friends. It’s a vicious circle. And in the midst of it, the actual quality and value of the whisky is often lost.

When ordinary people come to try these whiskies they can be disappointed. It really sucks when you’ve paid a lot of money for that dream sample and reality doesn’t measure up to the hype. Remember: Closed distilleries were sometimes closed for good reason (think Pittyvaich). And sometimes people charge extortionate prices because they can, not because the whisky is worth it.

The message: Be careful. Do your research. To avoid the hype disappointment, try not to buy into it too much. Stay as objective as possible. It’s not always easy, because sometimes the hype is right. Some of the best whiskies I’ve tried have been Port Ellen’s, but there are bad casks from any distillery.

Stay vigilant, my friends!

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4 Responses

  1. Bob October 21, 2017 / 6:24 pm

    Good post – you’ve put your finger right on the current situation with “unicorn” whiskies.

  2. neandrewthal October 22, 2017 / 5:19 pm

    I was a little underwhelmed by Van Winkle 12 and Brora 25 relative to the hype, but Port Ellen 18 might have been the best whisky I’ve tasted!

  3. Arnold October 23, 2017 / 6:02 am

    I don’t understand those people who can willingly spend almost a fortune for some bottles that are not even worth tasting for. I stick to cheap yet good quality for my palate.

  4. whiskeyseller October 30, 2017 / 5:34 pm

    Whiskey marketers have caught on to the fact that if you label a whiskey as “limited release” or “allocated” they can create an immediate demand. Image conscious whiskey snobs will always want what they think they can’t have…

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