If you buy whisky only once a year for Burns Night, you might be in for a shock when scouring the shelves for your favourite brand: a 16-year-old Lagavulin, for example, now costs about £70. You can get the sweeter, less complex eight-year-old – a sort of Lagavulin-lite, if you will – for about £57, but the 12-year-old is now a £129.49 special release these days.
Granted, you can still pick up own-label whiskies and household names such as Whyte & Mackay and Famous Grouse for about £20 (prices vary hugely, so it’s worth shopping around), but go for more upmarket “expressions”, and you’ll pay a good deal more. Johnnie Walker’s Black Label, for instance, is £20 in Asda at the time of writing (and £30 at Sainsbury’s), but confuse it with Blue Label, and could find yourself shelling out over 150 quid.
The whisky market has become all about what is euphemistically called premiumisation – ie, making it much more expensive. That’s partly about rarity: old casks are finite, which makes them highly collectable and a good investment at a time when interest rates have been at a historic low. The average per-bottle price last year was £426.58, according to Rare Whisky 101 (which, incidentally, categorises anything under £1,000 as “more affordable”). Market leader Johnnie Walker’s Pittyvaich, for example, from its Ghost and Rare range of bottlings from closed distilleries, fetches between £229 and £275, which makes the bottles in today’s pick look comparatively reasonable. Macallan, which has long been a collector’s item, fetches many times that for its new Red Collection, which ranges from £11,300-£65,500.
The other big driver of whisky prices are the increasingly sophisticated oak treatments currently in vogue. There’s a fashion for unusual finishes, such as the three different kinds of barrels used to make the Isle of Raasay’s single malt, and including the on-trend chinquapin, a species of white American oak (that’s something to drop into conversation with a whisky geek).
That said, there is value to be had, if you look for it. I recently came across the Australian-owned Bladnoch, whose head distiller used to work for Macallan and whose excellent sherry and bourbon cask-aged Vinaya (46.7%) is currently on offer for £38.99 at House of Malt, making it quite a bit cheaper than those produced by his alma mater. I also like the Pure Scot in today’s pick, which is a timely reminder of just how good a blend – and a modest ABV – can be.
Five special-occasion drams for Burns Night
Ardbeg Wee Beastie five-year-old Islay single malt £38 Tesco (or £33 with a Clubcard), 47.4%. Who could resist a bottle with a name like this? Full-throttle, iodiny Islay.
anCnoc Highland single malt 12-year-old £32.05 Master of Malt, 40%. A more delicate, restrained style of malt, redolent of heather honey.
Pure Scot Signature Blended Scotch Whisky £32.99 House of Malt, £39.95 Master of Malt, 40%. Rich, characterful, and with a lovely, caramelised pear fruitiness that reminds you of the virtues of a blend.
Isle of Raasay Hebridean single malt R-02 £48.95 The Whisky Exchange, 46.4%. Less peaty than an Islay, but intriguingly complex thanks to the clever use of different Bordeaux and American whisky casks. One of my favourite whiskies of 2021.
Glen Marnoch 12-year-old Speyside single malt £19.99 Aldi, 40%. A classic, crowd-pleasing, award-winning whisky that does exactly what it says on the tin and is hard to beat for value.