Future of scotch
Spirits & Liqueurs Scotch

Must Every Single Malt Scotch Whisky Bottle Be a Unicorn?

Where has all the good-yet-accessible single malt scotch gone?

What happened to all the good yet accessible scotch?

Just a few years ago, 10- and 12-year-old single malts were plentiful and, for the most part, affordably priced. Even the 18-year-olds were, if a splurge, one that many people could still make.

Yet, more recently, those bottles seem to have receded into the background, overshadowed by scotch that’s much older (and pricier) or younger (and, often, not as good). How did we get to this point?

Old, Older, Oldest?

Single malt “unicorns” containing super-rare liquid and priced in the stratosphere have always been part of the Scotch whisky mix. An increasingly steady stream galloped into the marketplace during the pandemic, however, when a heady stock market and a captive-at-home audience contributed to an increase in disposable income for many scotch aficionados.

“There has never been a time like this with interest in rare and old whiskies,” says Stewart Buchanan, the global brand ambassador for the GlenDronach, Benriach, and Glenglassaugh labels. 

Much of that interest is driven by headlines or speculation among those who approach liquor as investment opportunities, says Buchanan. A secondary market ready to flip bottles has only added to the froth.

Indeed, the spate of rare, limited-edition, and often insanely expensive single malts—many housed in unusual or extravagant bottles—do seem engineered to grab attention. Consider, for example, Glenfiddich 50-year-old ($50,000, with just 220 angular decanters available) and Bowmore ARC-52 ($75,000), the latter a result of a partnership with British sports car maker Aston Martin, its 1968-vintage liquid packaged in a broad, sculptural bottle topped with what appears to be a gleaming silver dunce cap (100 bottles available worldwide).

…Or Forever Young?

Meanwhile, at the other end of the spectrum, non-age-statement [NAS] scotches rose to prominence a few years ago, in response to stocks of aged whisky being depleted by enthusiastic scotch drinkers. 

Some bottles are relatively young; others may include small amounts of older single malt. Instead of focusing on age ranges, many NAS producers lean on a unique flavor profile, such as the peppery profile of Talisker Storm, or techniques such as the three-cask finish used to make Laphroaig Triple Wood. This can result in interesting sips, though it rarely provides bargain prices.

“When non-age-declared malts were first introduced when mature inventory suddenly got a bit scarce in the 2010s, the trick for most brand owners was to price them above their standard brands,” says Dr. Nicholas Morgan, a veteran of the Scotch whisky industry and the author of Everything You Need to Know about Whisky: (But are Too Afraid to Ask). Some prices for some NAS bottles have fallen back to price parity or even below, he acknowledges, but the quality doesn’t always match up.

“Most are six-to-eight-year-old vattings from a variety of cask types, which offer consumers pretty good value,” says Morgan. “Some, of course, are pretty dreadful.” 

Interestingly, many producers play both ends of the barbell. The Macallan is one such example, contrasting multiple NAS expressions (including Estate, which emphasizes “home-grown barley”; Rare Cask, which focuses on barrel finishes; and the M Collection, which leans into M for “Mastery”) against limited editions such as The Macallan Fine & Rare 1989 ($18,500) and Macallan Horizon, another oddly shaped bottle collab with another British luxury automaker, Bentley, slated for summer 2023 (no price released yet). 

Does The Macallan have bottles in the 12-to-18-year-old range? Absolutely. But you just don’t hear about them as much.

“Dependent on the Past”

What does all this mean for Scotch whisky fans who just want the scotch equivalent of a security blanket, a reliable (and reliably priced) age-dated bottle?

Be patient, producers say: It’s coming back…eventually.

“Everything we have today is dependent on the past; that’s the nature of the beast,” says Buchanan. 

Some say it’s about long-range planning. “If strong growth [of demand for scotch] was not forecast 10 or 12 years ago, the aged stock will simply not be available,” says Stuart Harvey, the master blender at IBHL, which includes Old Pulteney, Speyburn, Balblair, and AnCnoc. That said, even those who successfully predicted today’s robust demand for single malts—as Harvey says his brands have done—have rolled out NAS bottlings “to complement and expand our collections rather than replace 10-year-old and 12-year-old age statements,” he says.

Another complication: Even venerable distilleries can have gaps in production, leading to temporary shortages. For example, Buchanan points to his own portfolio: BenRiach closed between 2002 and 2004, while Glenglassaugh was silent between 1986 and 2008. Obviously, if you want a 12- or 15-year-old scotch, “You need to look at the distilleries and see what happened to them 12 or 15 years ago,” he says.

But even the newest distilleries, or those temporarily shuttered, will eventually add to aged stocks of scotch, Buchanan notes. “Any distillery worth its character would strive for the double digits,” he says. “It just captures that element of what single malt is and has always been.”

“The Forgotten Heroes of Single Malt”

Yet, others point out that mid-range Scotch whisky is still available—if not quite as accessible as before. Morgan, for example, insists the category he describes as “the forgotten heroes of single malt” has simply been nudged out of the spotlight as drinkers have been misdirected by headlines for those splashy auto-maker collabs with eye-watering prices or marketing launches for NAS bottles.

Those 10- or 12-year-old bottlings? “They are all still there,” says Morgan, naming Glenfiddich 12, Glenlivet 12, and Glenmorangie 10, among a host of others. “Of course, they’re not quite as accessible from a price perspective as they used to be,” he acknowledges. 

“Nothing’s disappeared, but some of these whiskies that were ‘in the middle’ are certainly now out of reach due to price increases,” says Morgan. “The cheapest bottle of Macallan I could find online was still over £70 [about $80]; the majority, including many non-age-declared bottlings, are well over a hundred pounds. Whiskies like Lagavulin 16, which I always considered to be underpriced, have now gone very much the other way. Prices for whiskies over 15 years old are skyrocketing, leaving many ‘ordinary’ consumers, who might have bought one of these occasionally as an indulgence, disenfranchised. I mean, who in the real world can afford to pay £175 [nearly $200] for a bottle of Talisker 18?”

Don’t expect prices for even mid-range scotches to come down anytime soon, Morgan warns. Even as the stock market and global economy in general is on shakier ground compared to recent years, inflation has come for the scotch market too.

Which is to say, consumers can safely ignore the hype about unicorn scotches if they like: There are plenty of ponies waiting on the liquor store shelves, provided you take the time to seek them out and, in an important caveat, are prepared to pay considerably more than you did a few years ago. 

“Much of the noise around Scotch malt whisky releases focuses primarily on very expensive releases of over-aged whiskies, and maybe to a lesser extent on non-age-declared malts,” says Morgan. “But it’s the classic 10-to-12-year-old whiskies that make up the backbone of global sales, even if brand owners don’t talk about them much.”

Just don’t expect the parade of would-be unicorns to end anytime soon, since apparently they’re publicity gold.

“Sadly, producers don’t seem to have a lot of time for regular drinkers,” Morgan concludes. “Or for their regular core bottlings of 10-to-12-year-old whiskies, which are still the benchmark of quality in the industry.”