To coat or not to coat?

17 Comments on To coat or not to coat?

In the comments section of our last post on Octomore, drJarv (who I’m assuming is on the design team for Octomore as he hasn’t denied it yet!) asked for our thoughts on the coated opaque bottle that they’ve gone for with Octomore (Bruichladdich fans will remember that both Blacker Still and Redder Still were similarly adorned with this coating).

Poster bgulien immediately responded with a fair point that these coatings make it difficult to see how much whisky you have left.  I decided to throw my tuppence-worth in and started to write a quick comment – but it kind of turned into a bit of a rant and opened up a bit of a can of worms, so I thought I’d do it as a new post and throw the floor open for discussion.  Here goes:

I have no big problem in principle with coated bottles – for me what’s inside the bottle is more important than how it looks.  If a whisky is a great whisky then IMHO what the bottle looks like is a minor issue.  I’d certainly prefer great whisky in a crap bottle than a crap whisky in a fancy bottle.

In fact, you could argue that a great whisky in rubbish packaging is the best thing of all – it puts gift shoppers off and leaves more for those in the know!  I remember the old Oddbins own label single malts from about ten years ago – just cheap glass bottles with huge blocks of colour and ‘Single Speyside Malt Whisky’ on them: but the 25 year-old Speyside was Glenfarclas – for twenty-five quid!!

Now, bgulien’s point about coated bottles is valid – if you can’t see what’s in there, how can you tell how much whisky is left?  Just feeling the weight of the bottle isn’t really very accurate these days because some bottles are heavy even when they’re empty – and Bruichladdich certainly falls into that category.

So why put whisky in a coated bottle?  The cynical side of me would reply that it’s because they don’t want you to see the colour of the whisky.  Why not?  Perception.  The industry thinks that we think that no colour = no flavour.  And it’s unfortunate, but lots of people do.

Sight is the most visceral and immediate sense, and no doubt there are reams of market research showing that shoppers make their mind up whether or not to buy something in the first few seconds of seeing it – and if a whisky has no colour, they’ll decide it probably isn’t very good.

Now this, of course, is all tied up with the “older = better” fallacy and is patently a crock of you-know-what.  We once bottled an Ardmore that was paler than an albino’s pee, but it was one of the most deceptively powerful, intense, blow-yer-socks-off whiskys I’ve ever tasted.  But it doesn’t matter, because that’s what people think.

*Engage Clarkson mode*

*Clarkson Mode On* / Picture from nissanforumsph.com

*Clarkson Mode On*

But why do they think that?  Because that’s what they’ve been told!  “This whisky is older – look at the colour – that’s why we have to charge you loads of money for it.”

The problem then, of course, is that once you convince people that older = better and colour = older you have to start putting caramel into your whisky so that it looks like what you’ve told people to think it should look like!! Thereby tainting what was once a perfectly good malt whisky – and Yes, I’m looking at YOU, D*lm*r* !!!

*Clarkson Mode Off* / Picture from thetruthaboutcars.com

*Clarkson Mode Off*

So why is Octomore in a coated bottle?  My guess is that it’s because, as a young whisky aged in Bourbon barrels, it’s probably pretty pale.  However, I reckon that the kind of people who are prepared to fork out £75-85 for a five year-old whisky are probably the kind of people who understand that Octomore will be pale.  In fact, they’d probably be suspicious if it wasn’t.

So, in conclusion, I guess what I’m saying (in a very roundabout way and I do apologise for the immensity of this post) is that Pale is Beautiful.  Drinks companies should be proud of the colour of their spirit.  Coating a bottle is frippery, it drives the price up unnecessarily and it makes cynical drinkers like me wonder what you’re up to.  It’s also inconvenient in that we can’t see how much of the whisky is left.

Pale is Beautiful.  There is no need to talk down to whisky consumers. If the industry educates people better and steers them away from older = better and colour = older, they might just find that people with no prejudices can learn to appreciate young whisky for the vibrant, beautiful thing that it is.  The industry doesn’t have to monkey around with colouring, and they don’t have to compromise quality.  The consumer gets good, cheap, young whisky that hasn’t been adulterated.  Birds sing, flowers grow, world peace breaks out.

The irony here, of course, is that this is what Bruichladdich themselves have been preaching for years – so why hide Octomore behind a coating?

Pale is Beautiful.  But I would say that, my wife looks like Kate Winslet  ; )

*Clarkson Mode On* / Picture from nissanforumsph.com

*Clarkson Mode On*

Down, Clarkson, Down!!

 

Posted in WHISKY & WHISKEY
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Comments

But the Blacker Still bottle is so damn sexy! It’s like something out of “2001”. And the liquid inside’s gorgeous to match.

(Upon receiving my first bottle I had a Spinal Tap moment – “How much more black could it be? None… none more black.”)

Serge says:

Very interesting, Tim!
Not sure Bruichladdich and their skilful designer (I know him, he’s pretty good – and we design quite some drinks bottles so I (should) know what I’m talking about) wanted to hide Octomore’s colour. If I remember well, Redder Still and Blacker Still were pretty colourful whiskies anyway…
Now, as for “pale is beautiful”, may I remind you of times when everybody was looking for pale whisky because pale was meaning “light”? And when the industry was actually using a process to discolour the whiskies? (sorry, I don’t know which process exactly).
I mean, let’s not shout we want pale whisky too much or they may well restart their old machines (provided they were machines…)

Santé, congrats for this blog.

Serge

Jeff R says:

Interesting discussion point Tim F, but in the end people can and will vote with their feet. I am not sure if it is logistically possible but if the producer places the same whiskey in both a cloudy and clear bottle, adjusting the price accordingly, the one that makes the most profit for the company is what they should go for. Not all customers are connoisseurs and each will have their own opinion on what bottle is best. Free markets will be the referee in this game – and their decision is final and unforgiving.

Angus says:

Yes but Blacker Still was a complete missed opportunity in terms of packaging. The whisky inside was gloriously sticky dark stuff why not just have clear unadulterated glass for the ‘viscus nectar’ to shine through. If you’re going to create the whisky version of a tribute band to Black Bowmore why not go the whole hog and let the dark whisky speak for itself. I heartily agree with Tim about colour. Why the SMWA hasn’t outlawed the use of caramel and had its supporters quietly put to death out back of some old bottling line by now is confusing and frustrating. Caramel suggests people are stupid, destroys a whisky’s character in anything over a miniscule quantity and displays a pointless disregard for the spirits you have spent years nurturing and the people who made them. If you want to disguise the colour of a mass market whisky fine use a coloured bottle (looking at you Lagavulin 16) but otherwise leave the caramel at a safe distance. I would say its all about opinion as with 90% of stuff regarding whisky and good booze but on this occasion I’m quite happy to say caramel is flat out wrong, end or story, no excuse. (rant rant rant…etc…arrogance…etc) Don’t worry I’m not Jim Murray in disguise, I’m not large, bearded, English or wrong enough.

bgulien says:

Angus, I wholeheartedly agree with you. caramel colouring is bad. And I assume, rightly or wrongly, think I’m able to taste it. And thus, I will stay away from it, the next time. Jura 10 yo is to sickly sweet for me, and I blame the caramel. So I stay a way from it.
The problem is, that here in Europe, the backlabel has to specify the additives by law. In the UK it is not (yet?) required.

Tim, you placed me as an enemy of the coated bottle. Aside from the practical side , of seeing the level, I am not really against it. Like Jason, I think they are sexy. I own a Blackie and a Red, and according to Dr.J, there will be more in the series.
A Golden Still is almost a certainty, I gathered from him, and I suggested a Copper Still to complete the set. He answered with: Funny you should say that.
Now, being able to assess the colour. In the Bruichladdich case, I trust them completely, not to mess with the colour.
They are, together with a few others, like Bladnoch, etc. the champions of anti-colouring, and that’s why I wouldn’t think twice, to order a Octomore.
It will however, add to the cost of the spirit.
With Octomore, being a limited (6000) run of bottles, the packaging will be expensive and will add significantly to the endcost.
So a topwhisky in a droll bottle doesn’t sound that bad.
I think people who want to have Octomore, will want it anyway, regardless of the type of bottle, me included.
What worries me more, is the fact, that by bringing the limited expressions in a deluxe bottle, is like giving the distilleries and their PR headquarters (if part of a big conglomerate) a license to print money.
They are targeting the greedy (me) people, who want to taste the latest and greatest expression. Not the average whisky drinkers.
On the spiritofislay.net forum, people flatly refuse to be swayed by the package. And they are Laddie fans.

The other extreme in the spectrum is Bladnoch.
I like the simpleness of Bladnoch. Cracking whisky in a plain bottle, with a handdrawn and a photoshopped label, probably by Raymond himself, I think.
And always trying to keep the prices in check.
I had one of the best Port Ellen ever, in a Bladnoch forum bottling. An unassuming label and a reasonable price.
I see myself turning more and more to the IB’s, who usually give me the spirit as is. No frills and no “foreign” additives.
BTW, that Bunny 28yo by Specialty Drinks was one of the best.

End of rant.

bgulien says:

Tim, DrJarv is part of the design team.
Have look at spiritofisla.net y forum, for more inside info on the Laddie from him.
We usually are pretty good informed on the Bruichladdich, although your scoop on the PC7 and Octomore pic’s had him a bit rattled. 😉

Tim F Tim F says:

Gentlemen, many thanks for your points (and apologies for not replying sooner).

Serge – Merci for commenting, I’m honoured…

Of course, I don’t mean that all whiskies should be pale – just the ones that are naturally so. IMHO, malts are like ladies – I prefer them all-natural (and au naturel, naturellement).

Bgulien, didn’t mean to make you out as an enemy of the Octomore bottle, thought I’d just reiterated your point – apologies if this wasn’t the case.

Stay tuned for a new post tomorrow – it’s going to be a busy week this week. I want to start doing a few tasting notes as well, so keep your collective eyes peeled!

bgulien says:

Tim, the enemy thing was just some tongue in cheek, but as I am Dutch, my command of the nuances of the English language are not always on the mark.

Willie JJ says:

I’m sure nether Tim, nor any of the rest of us were arguing that pale whisky is beautiful from the point of view of having all whisky made pale artificially. Especially since I understand that the way to remove colour from whisky (or other spirit) is to reduce the temperature during chill filtration so that more of the colour (and flavour) bearing compounds thicken and are then removed in the filtration process. This is the antithesis of what we want. We just want the whisky to be what it is when it comes out of the cask. Un-messed with. Pale is beautiful only because it indicates no interference.

Tim F Tim F says:

Perfectly put, Mr. JJ, agree 100%.

Serge says:

Oh yeah, Tim and Willie JJ, I was kind of joking. Agreed, ‘natural’ is the thing and what’s important, not the colour itself. But that’s already anorak matters, the general public rather thinks that dark whisky is rich and old and pale whisky is light and young.
In other words, if the general public starts to believe that any dark whisky is artificially coloured (because the press would say so and because the general public is binary-thinking), it may start to seek pale whiskies again (thinking they’re ‘pure’), which may lead the industry to discolour some batches again, like they already did forty or thirty years ago.
Which, as Willie JJ explained very well, would mean “remove” more elements instead of adding some (caramel).
But all that may remain science fiction for the years to come… Hope so, at least!

bgulien says:

I think the masses will buy the whisky’s the industry is pushing their way. When someone from the general public wants to buy a single malt they probably go for the Glenfiddich, MacAllan, Bowmore or if they are very brave, a Laphroaig.
They are advertised the most and will be bought by the masses. I have never seen someone from the “general public” choose an IB bottle or a small distillery OB.
They just don’t know them.
If they, the small distillery’s and the IB’s, keep on churning out good stuff for the more adventurous and maybe knowledgeable public, I am not afraid of the quality of the whisky in the future. And what they do with the popular stuff, I couldn’t care less, because I don’t buy them.

Tim F Tim F says:

Interesting point, bgulien, but I think it will be increasingly hard for independent bottlers, in the medium term at least. With the projected jump in demand for malt whisky in the emergent markets of BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India & China), distillers are much less willing to sell or trade casks of whisky and the independent bottlers are going to start feeling the pinch soon.

We buy casks of whisky to bottle under our Single Malts of Scotland label and believe me, prices for casks from the more desirable distilleries are going crazy at the moment. We were recently offered some casks at double the price they were going for last year.

Don’t forget that the reason there have been so many great indie bottlings in the last ten years or so is that in the 1980s the drinks companies were faced with a huge glut of whisky that they couldn’t sell because of prior over-estimation of projected demand.

In short, they had over-produced in the 1970s, based on unrealistic growth targets. That’s why so many distilleries went to the wall in the 1980s, and also why bottlers like Gordon & Macphail and Douglas Laing ended up with vast amounts of Port Ellen and Brora – which they were able to pick up for a song.

Trouble is, those casks are running out and it is not clear what will be there to replace them in the ranges of those bottlers. In the foreseeable future indie bottlers will feel the squeeze on supply as fewer and fewer good quality casks find their way onto the market. It has started already, which is why prices for IBs have really started to increase recently.

Willie JJ says:

I agree bgulien, most if not all of the bottles of Octomore will be bought by the specialist whisky buyer. This leads me to wonder why they feel the need for the fancy package. Whisky drinkers may admire nice packaging but generally (I assume) don’t want to pay money for it. Collectors might, I guess, but then that leads me to think that Bruichladdich are aiming this release at the collectors and not the drinkers. I hope this works out for them because I think as times get tougher, as they are becoming now, drinkers may be a more stable market than collectors.

bgulien says:

Willie, you are right (as always 😉 ).
I bought the red and the black not for the bottle (although they sit nice on the shelf) but for the content.
The same would be valid for the Octomore. I am going to buy maybe one. If the price was lower, because they put it in a regular bottle, I might buy more, and of course the content is good. I think of something like the PC’s is about right for the Octomore as well.
But I want to sample the Octomore, so if I have to buy it including the fancy bottle, so be it.
I am in the lucky position, that my savings are not on the Icesave bank. (need some smileys here, Tim), so I can still afford it.
Tim, when will the Octomore be released?

bgulien says:

Tim, I heard about the plight of the Indies. It’s sad that a entire piece of the industry is under fire.
Some of the best whisky on the market is by IB’s.

Tim F Tim F says:

bgulien, the best info I have is that the PC7 is due the end of this month, while the Octomore will be early November.

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