In a world obsessed with young and fresh, the whiskey market goes against the grain. What is considered to be the best tasting, and most expensive whiskey, tend to be those that have aged considerably. To understand what causes the higher cost, you need to understand how age is affecting the flavor.
The whiskey world was buzzing earlier this year when the exclusive Bowmore brand announced that it would be releasing a super-premium scotch. This fifth, and final, installment in the Black Bowmore Series has been locked inside the distillery’s number one vault for 50 years.
“Black Bowmore The Last Cask” was first distilled on November 5th, 1964 at the Bowmore distillery on Islay. History was in the making as Lyndon B. Johnson was re-elected president of the United States by a whopping majority, and the Beatles invaded its shores, but no one had any idea that this small whiskey company would also have an impact on our future.
Thirty years after being placed inside of the vaults, Bowmore Distillery tapped into the casks for the first time. They continued to tap into them every few years, with the last release being a delectable 38 year-old variety in 2007. The 50 year old single malt is the last, and there are only 159 bottles of this dark and exclusive spirit to go around.
Jaws dropped at the $19,600 price tag for the specialty aged whiskey, and the whiskey drinking community went into a frenzy. Social media comments centered on the pricing, with outraged followers calling it a “rip off” and “outrageous.” However those with an in-depth knowledge of single malt whiskey, and an appreciation for its taste, expected that type of asking price for that special bottle.
The Black Bowmore 50 year edition has two key factors at work, driving up the price. The first of course is its age, and the second is the limited availability of the whiskey. There is very little left of this unique single malt, as most has either been released in earlier editions.
Alcohol is one of the few marketable items where older is considered to better. The distilling process requires that whiskey be aged over time inside of wooden barrels, and most stop the moment that they can. These are the brands that prefer high quantity over quality, mass producing cheap whiskey that can be sold all over the globe.
Keeping the product locked away inside of barrels over the span of decades is an expensive venture. The distillery is losing out on the use of those casks the whiskey is stored in, and then the use of the space where those casks are held. Plus the temperature inside of the vault must be maintained within a certain range. Despite all of this financial loss, distilleries like Bowmore still believe that these sacrifices are well worth the final product.
Another pricing point to consider is the unique packaging that a distillery will use when releasing a special edition aged whiskey. The standard bottles and labels are always put to the side, replaced by higher costing glass and accessories. In the case of Black Bowmore 50 Year Old Whisky, the distillery chose to have each bottle hand blown from molten glass, and then go through a process where every blemish is painstakingly removed. Next, it was polished and engraved before being filled and encased inside of a wooden box. The box is constructed from blackened Scottish Oak, and requires a minimum of 70 labor hours before being completed.
Once you have the whole cost picture for a single bottle of Black Bowmore 50 Year Old Whisky it becomes obvious that the $19,600 price tag is moderate, especially in comparison to other releases of similarly aged spirits. The Glenlivet Winchester Collection Vintage 1966 was marketed at $25,000 for example, and when The Balvenie Fifty was released in 2012 the distillery was asking for $32,000 for each one of the 88 bottles.
With every single prior release of the rare Black Bowman, the limited number of available bottles sold out fast. Whiskey connoisseurs who had the luck of tasting those are licking their lips in anticipation of this older version. They know that despite what appears to be an outrageous price for a bottle of booze, every penny is well spent.
All whiskey becomes more refined as it ages. The extended amount of time spent inside of a barrel affects not only how it tastes, but how it looks. Aging whiskey is a process where the distilled alcohol is placed inside of a wooden barrel for a pre-determined amount of time. During the maturation process, the harsh flavor of raw alcohol is removed and the distinct flavors that come from the wooden barrel are added. This gives whisky its unique flavor characteristics.
Oak is the wood most commonly used to store whiskey in, and in some instances it may be charred. Some brands rely on changing the type of barrel used to create a different flavor. The taste provided by oak is extremely different than what you will get with other woods. Even allowing a barrel to sit unused for a few years after it has been charred will result in a whiskey that tastes different from its competitors.
Aging whiskey also turns it from a clear alcohol into a rich brown one, but the biggest effect is on the taste of that alcohol. When it is poured into the barrel, raw alcohol is almost caustic to taste. As it ages inside of the barrel, that bite is stripped away, leaving behind a spirit that is smooth to the tongue. You can blindly discern a whiskey that has aged a long time by its remarkable smooth texture.
Only a true whisky virtuoso will be willing to spend thousands of dollars on a single bottle. While most of the world is content with drinking spirits that have a small bite, others are intent on being able to say that they have had a taste of the best of the best. So long as that class is around, distillers will continue to age some of their vaults for as long as possible.