Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Oban, Little Bay

stats: single malt Scotch, Highlands, 43%, $75

Back at the end of 2014 I had the opportunity to try Oban’s newest expression, the non-age-stated Little Bay – Small Casks, while attending a fairly extensive tasting. I did a short write-up but the circumstances of the sampling only allowed for a general impression rather than detailed tasting notes. I recently got to spend a little more time with this bottling. Little Bay is Oban’s first real foray into the NAS arena (their Distiller’s Edition lacks an age statement but the label notes the years of distillation and bottling, and their NAS cask strength offering was a distillery-only bottling).

The nose is extremely coastal, with plenty of brine and the aromas of a stiff breeze blowing over grassy dunes. A touch of minerality adds complexity to the pronounced sherry fruit notes.
On the palate it’s more oak and sherry fruit driven, with the coastal notes taking a back seat. Stewed berry fruits, dry spice and a touch of vanilla.
The spice notes become more dominant as it progresses into the warming finish.
It’s sort of fiery and edgy; a little bit up front but even more so as it moves into the finish, hinting at some degree of youthfulness. Well composed overall, though.

The delicate subtleties of Oban are kind of lost here – “big” and “assertive” are the first words them come to mind upon tasting Little Bay. This is an interesting expression of the distillery’s house style in its own right, but it could seem oafish if compared side by side with the flagship 14 year.

As I noted in my earlier post, the official descriptions of the maturation regime are vague, only indicating that it has been aged initially (assumedly in 2nd fill bourbon barrels, as is most Oban), then finished in smaller casks. Like the 14 year, this expression is bottled at 43% abv. The price of $75 noted above seems to be the average, but I’ve seen some pretty wide variations. In fact, in spite of whisky prices generally being on the rise, there are actually many examples that can be found at a broad range of price points.

The bottle of Little Bay that I used for this post came from New Hampshire at $63, but a store that I frequently visit in Massachusetts has it for $83. That store also sells Johnnie Walker Double Black for $60, while it can be had in NH for $42. But the above mentioned store does not have universally high prices; I recently picked up a bottle of Laphroaig Triple Wood there for $60. I’d never seen this whisky for less than $75, and $80 is the going rate in NH. I also picked up a bottle of Blanton’s there not long ago for $45, where $55 to $60 is its typical range.

In some cases a retailer (or a liquor control state) will slowly sell off old stock of a particular item with the markup based on what they originally paid for it. Meanwhile that bottling goes through several price increases in places with greater sales volume where the inventory turns over more quickly. Eventually the former will run out and have to order more, bringing along a shocking price jump. One such example can be seen here in Vermont with Aberlour A’bunadh. For quite some time its price held at $55 while slowly rising in surrounding areas, then the state’s price suddenly shot up to $80, essentially catching up to everyone else.

There are rare occasions where prices drop too. Bernheim wheat whiskey can now be found for less than $30, but many places are still selling old inventory at the former price point, which was over $40.

I’ve also learned that some producers are basically probing to see how high they can raise some of their prices before sales are negatively impacted. While talking to the whisky buyer for one of the bigger retailers in the greater-Boston area, I noted the seemingly schizophrenic pricing of a few single malts, specifically Laphroaig 18 year and Oban 18 year. I mentioned that I was surprised to see Oban 18 year recently reappear in NH at $100, which was the same price they had it for the year before, while it had appeared in VT at $156 during its absence in NH. The two states typically have pretty similar markups and if the price of a bottle goes up in one state the other state usually follows suit next time they get more of the same item.. He informed me that the importers and distributors had imposed big price jumps and that the savvy retailers then passed on those products. With fewer retailers buying those bottlings, and the ones that did unable to sell much, most of the product just sat in the warehouses. Then the prices at the distributor level came back down and the products started to move again. But the retailers who didn’t balk at the higher prices were stuck with what they had bought.

My point here is that if you’re a whisky consumer, it can be quite beneficial to pay close attention to pricing and shop around. You’re very likely to find some great deals and to occasionally avoid overpaying.