Cult whiskies

They’re out there. If you can find them, that is. You see them on display at specialty whisky shops, but they’re often not for sale; if they are, you’re going to pay dearly for them. Whisky collectors show you pictures of them with pride, as if they were pictures of their firstborn child. They also command exorbitant prices during specialty whisky auctions.

Welcome to the world of cult whiskies.

What is it that makes a whisky so special that enthusiasts will go to extremes to get it—spending countless hours searching, paying unbelievable prices to procure it, traveling across the world to pick it up—and then not even open it for years? As one of the many enthusiasts seeking out these whiskies, I can tell you that they all meet some, if not all, of the following criteria:

The distillery has a stellar reputation. This reputation is earned by producing consistently high quality whiskies for many years, if not decades.

The whisky in question frequently garnishes high ratings and reviews by respected whisky writers and whisky publications.

The whisky is often unique in some way with regards to its production method or flavor profile, and it is usually complex—sometimes challenging—in nature.

Cult whiskies from Ireland

The whisky’s production is limited in quantity. Either the distillery is small, operates intermittently, or the whisky is a special limited release.

Not all whiskies that command a high price at auction are what I would consider cult whiskies. Many collectors purchase whiskies as an investment based solely on the whisky’s rarity, regardless of the quality. Their intention is purely financial, and I’ve met many collectors who don’t even enjoy drinking whisky. So, the difference between a rare whisky and a cult whisky is the ultimate intention of the procurer. An enthusiast purchases a cult whisky with the ultimate intention of actually drinking and enjoying the whisky. Therefore, a cult whisky is usually both rare and exceptional in quality.

For example, for the past several years, United Distillers and Vintners (UDV) has been releasing limited cask-strength whiskies called the Rare Malt Selection. Two of the earlier releases included a 1969 vintage Lowland whisky called Hillside (better known as Glen Esk) and a 1972 vintage Northern Highland whisky called Brora (the original Clynelish distillery). Both are from distilleries no longer in production and stocks are limited. As a result, both meet the criterion of being rare and are highly collectible.

However, it is the Brora that would be considered a cult whisky. Why? To start, the distillery (and the new Clynelish distillery across the street that replaced it) has enjoyed a reputation for producing good, complex, often difficult to find whiskies. Add to that the special nature of this specific bottling. This Brora was very heavily peated to levels similar to the peat smoke-infused Lagavulin from Islay. In the early 1970s, the parent company feared that they wouldn’t be able to produce enough Lagavulin to meet the demand, so they experimented with the possibility of making a Lagavulin-like whisky at Brora. The end result was a fabulous whisky that combined the spicy, coastal character of Brora with the peat smoke of whiskies from Islay. It meets all the criteria for a cult whisky—rare, respected, complex, challenging, and unique. This whisky was released nearly six years ago, and its cult status just continues to increase.

While there have always been cult whiskies to some degree, there seems to be more now than ever. What is it that is propelling this cult whisky craze to new heights? And what could cause this trend to cool off faster than whisky served over ice?

There are several factors driving this demand. Let’s start with a booming global economy. The so-called “wealth effect” of the stock market and a strong job market has some of us feeling a little richer. Because of this, we’re spending more. A lot more, according to recent statistics. So, why not indulge a little with a good bottle of whisky, right? No use being frugal just so our kids can spend all our money after we’re dead. That’s how many people are looking at it, anyway.

Another source of whisky-itis is the amazing benefits of the Internet. For example, I participate in a single malt mailing list consisting of more than 300 whisky fanatics all over the world, and it’s the Internet that brings us all together. Fifteen years ago no such opportunity existed. Now we have news groups, mailing lists, chat rooms, and websites—all fueling the fire of whisky.

A third forum for whisky exchange is whisky auctions. More specifically, it has been the semi-annual whisky auctions conducted by Christie’s, held first in Glasgow and now in London. These auctions have brought the whisky buyers and sellers together, allowing an efficient exchange of cult whiskies and social interaction by their owners. Other whisky auctions are also developing.

A fourth venue is the specialty whisky retail outlets located throughout the world. Many have made it their personal mission to offer the widest array of whiskies—often traveling to distilleries and collectors to get the really rare ones—and offering them at the appropriate price, of course.

Finally, we have to credit the obliging whisky companies. While many cult whiskies are created from unintentional production activities at a given distillery (e.g., low production runs at small distilleries or changing the age statement of a given expression), many of the larger, reputable whisky distilleries have been offering limited releases of exceptional qualities. For example, limited expressions like The Macallan 1874 or Glenmorangie Tain L’Hermitage boosts the distillery’s cult status.

Cult whiskies fromthe United States

So, what could bring a whisky down from its heavenly perch? There could be an event significant enough that would bring the entire family of cult whiskies back to reality. For example, if the United States or other leading whisky-consuming countries would experience a recession, the demand for higher-end whiskies would certainly wane. Also, if the industry incorrectly projects the demand for higher-end whiskies and overproduces, such excess supply would cause the entire category to become less glamorous.

On an individual distillery basis, a gradual decrease in the overall quality of the whisky, with a corresponding increase in mediocre or poor product reviews would certainly cripple the cult status of that distillery’s whiskies. Also, a quality reduction due to management or ownership change can have a dual effect. In this case, the whiskies before the change will become more coveted, while the whiskies produced after the change will be ostracized. Of course, the opposite could also occur if the change is for the better. Even if there is no real change in the whisky, a management or ownership change could temporarily affect the cult image of a given whisky until the consumer’s anxieties are allayed.

Finally, are cult whiskies worth the price of admission? That depends on a couple factors. The first one—and this is a critical one—is whether the whisky was already a cult whisky when it was initially released. Over the past 20 years, many whiskies were released at very reasonable prices and didn’t become cult whiskies until years later after the prices were marked up by specialty retailers or at auction. The challenge wasn’t the price tag, but rather having access to procure the whisky. Often it is just being at the right place at the right time, like being at the distillery when a special bottling is released.

This leads us to the second factor. How much you can afford to spend? If you are very wealthy, you can buy cult whiskies at today’s going prices. Many people do, and they buy a lot of them. I know people with thousands of whiskies in their collection. Some have built libraries—even museums—for their collections. Others have actually written books about their collection. For the rest of us, we’ll have to pick and choose, and hopefully be in the right place at the right time. Some whiskies might seem relatively expensive when they’re first released, but their value can increase several fold within a few years. Being aware of what’s going on, knowing what new releases are coming on the market, and having a venue where you can procure these whiskies will help increase your odds.

 

While not all-inclusive, below is a list of some of more coveted cult whiskies within the past two decades (In alphabetical order).

Single Malt Scotch

Aberlour 1964 One of the first vintage whiskies sold in the United States and the first of a small, continuing series of Aberlour vintages.
Ardbeg All Ardbeg whiskies have cult status to some degree, given that the whisky has been in limited production during the past 20 years and because the whisky has historically been the smokiest whisky of them all. Enthusiasts are particularly obsessed with vintages from 1974 and earlier (when the whisky was consistently heavily peated), and with the 10 year old distillery bottling from the old Allied Distillers days. New expressions, like the new 10 year old, will ensure its continued cult status (if they can maintain high levels of peating).
The Balvenie “Classic” 12 year old Also known as Founder’s Reserve. It was a richly sherried, honeyed Balvenie sold in a tear shape bottle with a tall neck. It predates the current 10, 12, 15, and 21 year old expressions. Many have said that it is better than any cognac they’ve ever had, regardless of price.
Bowmore Three expressions of Bowmore from the 1960s and bottled by the distillery in the mid 1990s were known as Black Bowmore. The whisky was so heavily sherried and aged for so long that it appears almost black in color. Serious devotees with deep pockets have the entire set. Another cult whisky is Bowmore’s Bicentenary bottling, that was celebrated in 1979. Jim McEwan, who has worked at Bowmore most of his life, told me once that he’s going to be buried with his bottle.
Caol Ila Caol Ila in general is something of a cult distillery. This distillery’s spicy, phenolic whisky is hard to find. However, the 12 year old distillery bottling that predates the current 15 year old distillery expression is particularly cult-worthy. I got mine from a retired distillery worker who gave me a tour of the distillery nearly 10 years ago. A 20 year old 150th Anniversary cask strength whisky bottled in 1996 for the workers is also highly craved.
Glenmorangie Any of the earlier one-time runs from Glenmorangie are cult whiskies. In particular, the 1963 Glenmorangie (their first vintage offering), Glenmorangie Tain L’Hermitage (the first limited run Rhône wine-finished expression), and the Glenmorangie Sesquicentennial Bottling, celebrating the 150th Anniversary of the distillery (sold in 1993 in a stone bottle).
Lagavulin 12 year old The distillery bottling that predates the current 16 year old. This peat-infused whisky has always had a great reputation, and remaining bottles of the 12 year old are very rare.
Laphroaig Laphroaig is probably the most mainstream of the cult whiskies. Allegations that its peating level has diminished over time (whether true or not) have not helped its cult status of late. Still, the 10 year old (especially back when it was bottled at 45% ABV), some of the recent vintage offerings, and the current Cask Strength version are all worthy of cult status.
Longmorn 25 year old Longmorn is not a common name like its Speyside brother Glenlivet, but it is highly respected among enthusiasts. The 25 year old was a very limited distillery bottling with a gold label to celebrate the distillery’s Centenary in 1994.
Longrow Any Longrow is worthy of cult status due to its high quality and very low production levels. This peated version of Springbank combines the best of Islay and Campbeltown. Most cult-worthy are the distillery bottled vintages from its first two years, 1973 and 1974. The “last cask” bottling of the ’73 vintage and a Cask Strength Cadenhead’s bottling of the 1974 are probably the most coveted.
The Macallan Any limited production of The Macallan is highly sought after. Collectors trade older vintage 18 year old and 25 year old Macallans like baseball cards. The 18 year old is becoming more cult-like, now that supplies are limited. Of recent releases, The Macallan 1874 bottling qualifies for cult status, as does the Private Eye bottling. If you have a bulging wallet, the smoky 1946 vintage or the just released 50 year old will certainly make the guys down at the country club very jealous.
The Manager’s Dram The Manager’s Dram bottlings never were meant for retail. They were selected by the United Distillers’ Distillery Managers every year, bottled at cask strength, and offered to employees and special friends. Bottles surface at auctions every year, and collectors and enthusiasts quickly snap them up. Bottlings from cult distilleries (such as Caol Ila) are even more highly coveted.
Springbank Springbank has always been a cult whisky. Its limited production and high quality has ensured this. Because of production gaps over the years, specific ages become rare for several years and enhance the cult image. For example, Springbank 15 year old has disappeared from sight and will be unavailable for several years. When the 15 year old comes back, the Springbank 21 year old will no longer be available. I’ve already got my stash of 15s and 21s. How about you?
  Other cult Springbanks include the two simultaneous releases of “Green Springbank,” which was cask strength Springbank aged in two different rum casks. The first “Local Barley” release, where most of the ingredients and production processes came from the vicinity of the distillery, is also a cult whisky. Incidentally, that one was quite sherried, while the more recent Local Barley releases are from bourbon casks.

 

Irish Whiskey

Green Spot Distilled at the Midleton Distillery, but the label is owned by wine merchant Mitchell & Sons of Dublin. It is a pure pot still Irish that’s hard to find except at their shop on Kildare St. in Dublin.
Redbreast 12 year old Another pure pot still whiskey from Midleton, with very limited availability throughout Europe.

 

American Whiskey

Hirsch Bourbon distilled at the now silent Michter’s Distillery in Pennsylvania. Stocks are finite and consist primarily of 16 and 20 year old expressions distilled from 1974.
Maker’s Mark While the distillery enjoys general cult status, there are two cult whiskeys on enthusiasts’ minds. Neither of them was sold directly to the American public (duty-free export only). The first is Maker’s Mark Select, a more robust version of Maker’s Mark that brandished a black wax top. The second one, Maker’s Mark Gold was essentially the same whiskey as the flagship red wax top bottling, except it was bottled at 101 proof, not 90.
Old Potrero Extremely limited productions (called essays) of young, cask-strength whiskey from San Francisco’s Anchor Brewing and Distilling Co. The first essay was only sold to a handful of restaurants, and is very cult.
Pappy Van Winkle Family Reserve Rye 13 year old Rye whiskey is the American equivalent of the peat-infused Islay whiskies of Scotland. They are inherently cult-attractive, because of their extreme nature. For the past few years, the Pappy Van Winkle Family Reserve Rye 13 year old has been the oldest straight rye on the market—and the best.

 

Possible Future Cult Whiskies

Aberlour A’bunadh A new cask strength, unfiltered Aberlour aged in sherry casks. If production remains limited, it could become a cult whisky.
Ardbeg 10 Year Old This new peat smoke monster picks up where the old Allied Distillers 10 year old left off. The fact that it is not chill filtered and is bottled at 46% just enhances its complex, rich, Islay flavors. It has the potential to knock the 10 year old Laphroaig off its throne as one of the more readily available (and affordable) cult whiskies.
The Balvenie 1966 Vintage This is Balvenie’s best kept secret. They are single cask bottlings of Balvenie at least 30 years old. The depth of flavor is astonishing. More recent bottlings have been from 1967. With supplies being low and quality being extremely high, it could become a cult whisky as long as the price doesn’t escalate.
Black Bottle This is a blended scotch whose single malts only come from the island of Islay. It has enormous flavors for a blend and, as you would hope, is infused with peat smoke, seaweed, and brine. I can think of no other blended scotch quite like this one. If supplies remain elusive (it is not even available in the United States), it could evolved into a cult whisky.
Bushmills Millennium The oldest Bushmills ever bottled and only available to those who bought an entire cask. It was a one-time bottling, and the quality of the whiskey is excellent.
Jameson Pure Pot Still 15 year old Like Redbreast and Green Spot mentioned earlier, the only pure pot still Irish whiskies being produced today. It is also a limited release item, which should make it increasingly harder to find.
Sazerac Rye 18 year old By the time you read this article, a new Sazerac 18 year old Rye will be out on the market that I expect to approach cult status very quickly, for all the same reasons as the Van Winkle Rye above.

 

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