I was fortunate enough to be invited to join a number of other bloggers to taste the new Glenlivet Alpha as part of a twitter tasting hosted by Steve Rush of The Whisky Wire and Ian Logan of Glenlivet. Thank you for inviting me and sending me a sample of Alpha.
Also part of the tasting were the 12, 15 and 18 year old expressions. I will save notes on these for separate posts because, firstly, they deserve their own spotlight, and secondly, I have things to get off of my chest with respect to Alpha (see the verdict at the bottom).
The Glenlivet Alpha is somewhat historic. 50% ABV Glenlivet…. and that’s all we know about it. It comes in a black bottle with minimal labelling. This is supposed to be a product that encourages consumers to “let taste and smell lead their experience” (quoting the press information that accompanied the sample). I say “all” we know about it, we know something else: it is a very limited worldwide release with only 600 bottles for the UK for example.
The release of Alpha has certainly caused a stir, particularly online. I have to say the general mood of this stir has been one of indignation. The Glenlivet are asking £100 for what is essentially a bottle of mystery whisky. Can this be value? Is this really aimed at whisky drinkers? Is all of the “let yourself be led by taste and smell” for real, or is this release really just one for collectors and investors? Can £100 possibly be value for mystery whisky? I will offer my take on this at the end in what is my longest verdict yet. Here are the dramstats:
Nose: Desiccated coconut, big pineapple, Lilt, a biscuity pastry note, rhubarb and custard boiled sweets. With water this shines. Tangerines and satsumas with vanilla custard and sticky toffee sauce.
Palate: My first reaction was “this tastes like 50% ABV Lilt!” There is an undertone of creamy buttery hob nob biscuits whilst tart tropical citrus sings above it. Water makes this 46%, 44%, 40% (or whatever you reduce to) ABV LILT. It has, what a fellow blogger termed “the nomnomfactor”.
Finish: Pepper and oak with biting pineapple cubes, grapefruit juice and gooseberry fool. It leaves the same Lilt taste in my mouth I remember from childhood.
Verdict: I love it. I really do love it. One of the tasters on the night said, “it’s nice but is it really twice as nice as the 18 year old”? I think a more pertinent question is: would you rather have 2 bottles of the 18 year old or one bottle of this. For me, I’d take a bottle of the alpha every time (and I like the 18, but that’s a story for another review).
Part of me admires The Glenlivet for this move. The value of the liquid in a bottle of whisky seems, at the moment, almost entirely driven by it’s age and the distillery it came from. Old=expensive. Certain brands too, such as limited release Ardbegs and anything from The Macallan sell for higher prices. But why should we judge what a good price for whisky is solely based on its age (and provenance)? Surely it’s what is in the bottle that counts. How is the nose and taste? What is the experience like?
I’ve had quite a few drams in their late 20s and 30s recently and yet the Alpha is one of 2 that I would be happy to pay £100 for. I was in a conversation the other day where someone was raving about how cheap a certain 40 year old was at around £250. They hadn’t tasted it though, yet it was great value! How do we know what the age of the liquid in the bottle is? It could be a blend of 30-40 year old Glenlivet with some younger spirit added to wake it up. At the end of the day, the master blenders at the big distilleries are good. In fact very good. And maybe they know better than us how to get the most out of the casks that they have. When the secret is finally out, if it turned out that Alpha was 30 year old Glenlivet, the online whisky community would be singing about the great value of the product.
I don’t like this. The value should be judged on the experience offered by the nose and taste. Taken at face value, the marketing for Glenlivet alpha seems to agree with this sentiment. I also have to say they’ve produced a cracking whisky to illustrate their point. Thus the part of me that admires this marketing move. I also have to say they’ve produced a cracking whisky to illustrate their point
However, there is another part of me. A cynical part that understands the way the single malt whisky market works at the moment and that understands that PR machines know what they are doing. Let us be realistic. On average, what type of person is going to buy a mystery whisky from a well known distillery for £100 without any tasting notes being published anywhere, any knowledge of the quality of the whisky in the bottle or any other information other than there are very few bottles available?
Will a large proportion of the customers be the rank and file whisky drinkers who don’t have unlimited funds? The customers who enjoy Glenlivet and want something for a special occasion perhaps? Or has this product fed the investor beast? By making this so unique, advertising it as “making whisky history”, making the bottle black and mysterious, and setting a high price tag have they not just guaranteed making the whisky collectable?
What’s more, you’d have to be completely naive to believe that the marketing teams don’t understand the investment grade whisky market nor factored it in to their marketing strategy for Alpha. Put yourself into a marketing teams shoes. There is a whole market out there for collectors and investors. You can’t ignore them. A good business needs to sell to them. But how do you advertise? “Buy this product, we reckon it will treble in value in the next ten years”. Ha! No they have to sell to them without mentioning investment or collecting.
I love the sentiment behind encouraging drinkers to taste blind and judge a whisky on the quality of the liquid itself. However, if the goal was only to encourage as many drinkers as possible to undo the shackles of age labels and tasting notes and to explore new mystery whisky, they could have produced more bottles of something interesting at a lower price. I doubt at this price, with such a limited run, many people will be converted. I doubt a large percentage of the bottles bought will even be opened.
And that is the real shame of it. Because inside the black collectable exterior is a wonderful whisky and nosing and tasting it blind was very exciting. I always comment on value, and very very few £100+ drams make it onto my “yes I would pay that for it” pile. The Glenlivet Alpha does. I would buy it (though it’s sold out in the UK), and if you have bought one and intend to open it, I’m jealous. I really loved it.
This experience has taught me a valuable lesson. Sometimes, with the right master blender, it can be worth taking a punt on relatively expensive whisky you havn’t tasted. These guys really do know how to put excellent whisky together. I’ve never, ever, had a disappointing Glenlivet, and I wish I’d have trusted their master blender whilst I still had the chance to buy a bottle. Because, I really loved the whisky and, at the end of the day, that is the only important thing for me.