The Last Yamazaki 12

yamazaki-12-year-old

Very soon, the last bottles will be purchased from a retail store. Yamazaki 12, an exceptional Japanese malt that is no longer being produced by Suntory, will only we available at auction. But I have a secret…I know a place where you can walk into a store and find some sitting idly, quietly, on a shelf waiting for a collector, or better yet someone eager to open a bottle to taste a dram, or someone who is both and will buy two bottles! Someone who will come by and take them to a good home. Yes, this place exists and if you live near there or are luck enough to live close to there can take advantage of one of the last stashes available in the world. I was even passing through Narita airport earlier this year and for some time now you can’t even get them there. So, where you might ask, is this place?

This of course comes down to the argument I have been making for some time now about local supply and demand. Locally, there is not a deep appreciation of Yamazaki and as a result it has languished on shelves now for years. I have slowly taken advantage of this but the stocks are now low and the price rising quickly. That said, would you pay $USD 84.95 for a bottle of Yamazaki 12? I was lucky to have been buying at $74.95 but just this last week the PLCB has bumped the price to $84.95 as global stocks quickly vanish.

Yamazaki12

True. Only $USD 84.95!

Yes, the same Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board I have written about previously. For some reason, Yamazaki does not appear in their whiskey, whisky or scotch lists so it’s kind of hidden on their app. Only by searching specifically for Yamazaki does the inventory make itself known. I’m not going to list every bottle available in the state of Pennsylvania, but the city of Erie shows 15 bottles available, a veritable treasure trove! There’s a few scattered bottles around Pittsburgh, and Harrisburg as well. But, similar to our LCBO, the PLCB does offer an inter-store transfer service, so if you are in PA, or can drive to a PLCB, call and reserve a bottle, or however many you feel you need.

This is it guys. If there are other states, provinces or countries out there that do NOT show ‘Currently Out Of Stock, Next Availability Unknown’ under their image of Yamazaki of any age statement, please share. I’m doing my public good for collectors by sharing this source, but if there’s others out there, by all means grab what you need then share with us. Yoichi is gone, Taketsuru is gone, Hakushu is gone. No more age statements on these malts will be found outside of pubs and bars. But for the collector who craves this wonderful malt from Suntory, this is it.

Happy foraging!

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Fickle, Fickle Prices and the LCBO

I travel to Miami frequently, and usually stop in at Total Wines to browse their fine selection of single malts and to pick up a bottle. My past couple of trips I’ve brought back an Ardbeg Uigeadail ($70 US) and a Port Charlotte Scottish Barley Heavily Peated ($60 US) that were great buys and wonderful additions to the collection. But I also noticed something odd. More than a few bottles were priced significantly better back home at the LCBO.

Yes, I realize that most Canadian readers will balk at such a preposterous notion. Yet it’s true. Even after Canadian import duties and alcohol taxes, the prices were better at home (adjusting for the currency exchange rate of course). I’m truly lost for an explanation. Here’s just a couple that I noticed:

Aberlour a’bunadh

LCBO 95.05 $CAD

Total Wines 116 $CAD (87.99 $US) (Exchange rate of 1 $US = 1.32 $CAD used 10/14/2015)

That’s  20% difference, advantage LCBO. And what’s most peculiar here is that the import duties into Canada are partially based on alcohol content which means that anything cask strength will necessarily include a larger tax cut.

Compare that with something much more in line with how we would expect the price differences across the border to look:

Laphroaig 10 year

LCBO 80.95 $CAD

Total Wines 65 $ CAD (48.99 $US)

Here we see a 25% difference on this one, advantage Total Wines. And while I have Laproaig showing, why the hell is Laphroaig 10 priced higher in Canada than Quarter Cask? The rest of the world (and I mean absolutely everyone, without exception) prices the 10 year less than QC by 10%-15%. Hello Revenue Canada: You’re doing it wrong. Ugh.

And then there’s this one, utterly egregious and not in the way you would first expect:

Tobermory 10

LCBO $CAD 67.25

Total Wines $CAD 92 ($USD 69.99)

Huh? Sure, Tobermory is a nice enough little dram, but really? A 35% premium in the US? Can I really, truly conclude that the LCBO is giving us good pricing? I won’t go so far as to definitively say so, but in some cases, yes. Taking these three examples, nearly every store outside of Canada that I’ve been to in the last year has Aberlour a’bunadh priced in the 95-100 $CAD range so on this one LCBO is pretty much on point. At the other end of the spectrum, the LCBO pricing for Laphroiag 10, as mentioned above, is consistently  and completely out of whack. But, occasionally, and for reasons completely mysterious but not quite profound, the LCBO pricing is both fair and reasonable as we see with the Tobermory. I don’t really expect to be saying that very often.

Happy foraging!

Duty Free Part 3: By Land

Last week I was in Pittsburgh for work. It’s about a five and a half hour drive from Toronto so I elected to drive rather than fly as the total travel time is about the same either way. Two days in Pittsburgh afforded a couple of opportunities: the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board (PLCB), the state run liquor monopoly, and Duty Free Americas (DFA), a chain of stores which controls ninety duty free outlets across North, Central and South America.

First up, the PLCB. Like our beloved LCBO, the PLCB is a government monopoly that controls supply and pricing. Again, like the LCBO, the PLCB offers monthly discounts on a limited number of bottles but as far as deals go for the Canadian shopper, the competing forces of lower state taxes (compared to Ontario) wrestle with the unfavourable exchange rate between the US and the Canadian dollar. Prior to the dramatic decrease in the loonie versus the greenback, the PLCB prices on a lot of whisky were very, very appealing but one needs to look more carefully these days, noting especially the sales.

So, what did I see? A number of great deals.No picture for this one, but a fantastic deal at the PLCB is Laphroaig 18 year.

Laphroiag 18 PLCB $US 79.99 ($CDN 107)

Laphroaig 18 LCBO $CDN 179.95 (when available, provincial inventory has been at ‘0’ bottles for months now.)

I’ve tasted the 18 year old at a couple of Friends of Laphroaig events here in Toronto and it is an unbelievable expression; definitely on my ever growing list of bottle to add to the collection. Trust me, get a bottle, put it on your top shelf.

Next up at the PLCB, a pair of fantastic Irish whiskies, the ‘Spots’. I know a number of devotees of the Spots, and I’m sure the pricing here will have them consider a quick weekend trip to PA.

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Green Spot PLCB $US 59.99 ($CDN 80.39)

Green Spot LCBO $CDN 85.25

Yellow Spot PLCB $US 89.99 ($CDN 120.59)

Yellow Spot LCBO: nope

There are other gems at the PLCB that I’ll be happy to share in future posts, but for now, go get that Laphroaig!

Duty Free Americas on the other hand, doesn’t have a tremendous range of whisky at their stores. Their outlets are typical duty free store that besides spirits, wine and beer, also offer cosmetics, tobacco, hand bags, sunglasses, etc. Liquor prices tend to be a little cheaper than at state or provincial stores, with a few notable exceptions. As well, all DFA stores use common pricing so that each store sells for the same price regardless of which state you are entering or exiting the US. They have one website for all stores so a little research ahead of one’s trip can give visibility as to what they are offering and for how much, despite the limited selection.

This trip, at DFA is where I chose to make a strategic buy. Expanding the collection is rewarding and fun, but it needs to be protected otherwise the very good bottles tend to get eroded by a lethal combination of curiosity and thirst. This is where ‘buffer’ bottles come into play: ‘every day’ drams that keep me from breaking into all of that good stuff all the time. Today’s buffer: Monkey Shoulder.

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A liter for $ CDN38?!? An easy decision considering the quality of this vatted malt (a marriage of Balvenie, Glenfiddich and the elusive Kininvie; no grain liquor in this one) and comparing the LCBO price of  $CDN 54.90 for a 750 ml bottle.

My Springbank, Yamazaki and Octomore can all rest a little easier now that the Monkey Shoulder is there to take the hit.

Happy foraging!

Duty Free Part 2: Shiny, Sexy Bottles

The open sarcophagus holding a millennia-old mummy. The complete, gigantic but not entirely authentic T. Rex skeleton. Rocks brought back from the Moon. Suits of armour. All fond boyhood memories from a trip to the museum. Items of age and wonder that capture the young imagination, turning the frenetic youngster’s mind to one of awe and contemplation. Sure, museums are still pretty cool but there’s somewhere else that similarly fires the mind…

For all the disparaging I did last post regarding the state of duty free, there is one thing that the outlets in the larger airports excel at, and that’s ostentation. The busier the airport -translate as ‘the greater the amount of money flowing through it’- the fancier the bottles, the softer the lighting and, exponentially, the higher the price tags. It’s almost like they’re trying to outdo each other by showing off whose is bigger. Ahem. Whose age statement is bigger.

The bottle envy aside, a good, extensive duty free shop can in many ways be just like a museum. Priceless (we’ll, certainly out of my price range but up to a couple orders of magnitude) antiquities put on high-security display for the world to admire. Cultural artifacts that capture the imagination of those who appreciate whisky, evoking awe, wonder and a fleeting mental image of how one of these bottles might look centered on the top shelf of our collection.

So, in no particular order, here are a few gems I’ve seen in the last six months.

 

A lovely 40-year old Balvenie. Note the soft lighting.
A lovely 40-year old Balvenie. Note the soft lighting.
A heavy-weight in a Lalique crystal bottle.
A heavy-weight in a Lalique crystal bottle.
Older still. Only 30 bottles of this one.
Older still. Only 30 bottles of this one.

And the pièce de résistance, seen at Changi airport, Singapore:

Whoa.
Whoa. Click to enlarge.

Are any of these a good deal? I mean, that’s why I’m writing this blog, right? Considering that some of these bottles have a world-wide inventory of less than 50, I hardly think that price comparing is relevant or appropriate. Just to keep things on track though, at Changi where I saw the epic Highland Park display I bought a Hakushu 12 for $SIN 90 or about $CAD 82. For a bottling that is both a Suntory whisky with an age statement, and perpetually out-of-stock in Canada and the US, this was a good deal.

Happy foraging!

Duty-free Part 1: A Bittersweet Relationship

Duty-free is, generally, not the friend of the collector. Not really. The allure of Duty Free is that items sold there will be tax-free for use or consumption outside of the country in which it is sold. Sounds great but it doesn’t always translate into a good deal because the stores are free to set their own pricing. This often results in pricing just the same as if the product was being sold, with tax, at a regular retail store. Yes, I’m looking at you, Schiphol Duty Free.

Perhaps I shouldn’t be so negative here…duty-free is more bittersweet than unfriendly. The bottles offered to the collector are stunning, the prices though for these bottles, appalling. More on that in Part 2.

There is always plenty of shiny at these stores, which for the whisky collector usually takes the form of a dazzling and often bewildering array of mysterious and nigh-unpronounceable Gaelic names, warm enticing colour-names, or titles that feature words like ‘Reserve’, ‘Select’, or ‘Cask’. Oh, and then there’s the lines of bottles with rather banal references to ‘exploring’ or ‘discovering’. Feh. This so-called ‘travel retail’ market is obviously thriving, as evidenced by the amount of product gracing the  shelves, but the fair questions to ask here are (a) is the price worth it, and (b) how do I know if it’s any good? That (a) depends on your appetite for collecting, not mine, and (b) on your palate, not mine. Personally I stay away from these bottles.

Here’s why: a few years ago I was enticed to buy a liter bottle of Bowmore Enigma at duty-free in Schiphol Amsterdam. I thought that it was a perfectly good every-day sort of dram, so much so that I bought another bottle my next time through. Turns out that I was quite obviously incorrect in my assessment of its quality because this product line was quickly discontinued, replaced by three new Bowmore travel retail ‘exclusives’: Gold Reef, Black Castle and White Sand. Note the adherence to the colour theme I mentioned above…ugh. What are these, I asked myself, and how do they relate to my Enigma? Or is there any relation at all? I love Bowmore but seriously, Et tu, Brute?

The short lesson here is to stick with the numbered, age statement bottles. The consistency of both the quality and the availability of the age statement products are assured. Bowmore 12 now replaces Bowmore Enigma in my permanent rotation. Not exactly the same, but close and I have confidence in what I’m getting and that I will be able to continue to get it.

So what to do? My suggestion is to buy your ‘good’ bottles elsewhere, like the local shops, to take advantage of the local markets. There are often bottles available in local shops that are priced for the local market but due to geographical variations in demand, may be significantly cheaper than buying at home. The bottle of Yoichi 10 I shared a couple of posts ago is a great example. A second strike here against most duty-free shops is that they do not post their full selection online (and some not even their prices!) so making an informed decision before getting there is nearly impossible. Hmmm…maybe they don’t want to be price compared.

But since I was through Schiphol (Amsterdam) and Munich last weekend, I’m happy to share some pricing with you!

(As always, the disclaimer here is that if I think a price is good, it is in terms of what I would be paying for a comparable bottle in Toronto. Your local market pricing will obviously vary.)

First, Schiphol, Amsterdam.

Schiphol. Lots of nice age statements here. Approved.
Schiphol. Lots of nice age statements here. Approved.
No age statements. Not approved. Highland Park, you should know better...
Schiphol. No age statements. Not approved. Highland Park, you should know better…
Approved. Approved?
Schiphol. Approved. Approved?

Oh yes, this is definitely approved. Sure, no age statement but Corryvrekan is a core bottling for Ardbeg rather than a ‘travel retail’ bottling, and a fine, fine one at that. Especially at 83€!

On to Munich.

Munich. Also very much approved.
Munich. Also very, very much approved.

Even better, we see Corryvrekan’s little brother here for a remarkable 59€!

Munich. Last bottle!
Munich. Last bottle!

A sad and  lonely last bottle of Yoichi 10, the only one on the shelf for a mere 67€. Won’t someone please take it to a good home?

Approved. Octomore 7.2
Approved. Octomore 7.2

And a big finish with the Octomore 7.2. Or Monkey Shoulder. Your call, but I’m leaning towards the Octomore.

Happy foraging!

Leiden, Netherlands: Deal or no deal?

Ah, Leiden. This was the first place I ever visited in Europe and remains one of my favourites. Leiden is a charming Dutch city of just over 100,000 people about half way between Amsterdam and The Hague. It is rich in culture, canals and the love of whisky. There’s the annual ‘Whisky in Leiden’ event, and there’s the North End Pub, a must visit for whisky drinkers.

Leiden April 2112 249

The pub’s whisky menu, which is actually a binder, is in itself a wonderful thing to peruse. The last page of the menu is a picture of whisky writer Michael Jackson sitting at the booth beside the doorway with a dram in his hand. And if that in and of itself wasn’t enough to lend credibility to the establishment, the SWA awarded the pub recognition of being one of the top whisky pubs in the world; the plaque announcing this hangs proudly above the door.

During my most recent visit however, I discovered another one of Leiden’s treasures, De Druiventuin. A magnificent shop in the north section of the city that claims to hold stock of 1800 malts! They offer samples, private bottlings, and a truly stunning selection of rare and unique bottlings. Plus, they love to chat about whisky. Again, finding this store was one of those things that you kick yourself for not know about; all this time it was right there waiting patiently for you.

Their stock is, it pains me to say, too large to do a price comparison that in any reasonable way would approximate thorough.

De Druiventuin - Leiden

Some of what I saw was more or less in line with other shops in Europe, some was more expensive (the bottle of Yoichi 10 I just bought in Poland for 80 Euro was 99 Euro here) but what they do have is rotating discounts. While I was there they had marked down Octomore 6.1 to 95 € (VAT included in the price). Please, find me somewhere, anywhere, that one can get such a great bottle for this price! Or even at De Druiventuin’s regular price of 115 €, for that matter. If you’re reading this in the Netherlands, order a bottle on line. They will deliver and even taking into account the delivery charge of 8 €, I can’t possibly imagine anyone selling this remarkable and highly collectable bottle for a better price.

De Druiventuin’s line of 6 cl sample offerings were from some nice bottles too, a great way to test out a more expensive whisky before deciding to take the plunge to buy a bottle for drinking, or collecting, or both. I opted for a sample of Kavalan Soloist Sherry Cask. A rich and rewarding dram that made me appreciate what Kavalan is offering and why they receive the accolades they do. The rich cherry and caramel notes would have made this dram a brilliant pairing with the right cigar.

To be fair, there is another apparently excellent whisky shop in Leiden, WhiskyDock.com (in English) that unfortunately I did not have the time to visit this trip. I promise to visit it next time I’m in Leiden.

Now go get that Octomore.

Happy foraging!

Nikka Yoichi, with an age statement!

From Japan to Poland. Yeah, not a connection often made for most people, let alone whisky drinkers, but it’s an opportunity that I want to share. In future posts I’ll share some secrets about where to find Nikka and Suntory bottles with numbers on them in the US, but today I’m in Poland so that’s where we’ll start. The city of Poznan is one of the larger cities in Poland, a wonderful, slightly gothic city close to the border with Germany. Full disclosure: I lived here for two years while working so I know the city reasonably well but that said, I had never in that time been to either of the stores mentioned below.

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There’s been plenty written already about the Japanese TV show Massan so I won’t go into details suffice to say that it has, inadvertently and single-handedly, reshaped the global market for Japanese whisky.

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Nikka and Suntory announced they are moving to NAS bottling exclusively. The horror! The horror! I’ve tried Yamazaki and Hakushu with and without numbers and, well, numbers are better. Your mileage may vary of course, but I truly think that something has been lost with the introduction of the vague and ubiquitous ‘Distiller’s Reserve’ releases. Don’t get me wrong here, they are still good whiskies, just not as full of character and uniqueness as the age statement bottles. Which brings me to today’s post: Nikka.

I had never tried any whisky from Nikka until this week. There is a cigar bar here in Poznan that has, in my opinion, the best whisky selection in the city and they have both Yoichi 10 and 15 available. I tasted both and loved both (deliciously paired with an H. Upman Majestic). I had done a little research about the liquor stores here and was planning on buying a Springbank 15 but after trying the Yoichis I thought I would, just to be sure, check the local supply of Japanese whisky because you never know where a gem of a deal might be hiding.

Joy.

While the Whisky Shop linked above only had the Yoichi NAS (but did have Hakushu 12 as well as numbered Taketsuru and Hibiki) there was another major whisky shop in town that did have Yoichi with an age statement. The website is in Polish but the numbers don’t lie for Yoichi 10, 12 and 15. Sure, 850zl/~$300 CAD for the Yamazaki 12 year is completely out of hand, but for the Yoichi? Look at the prices. I felt the forager’s rush, like discovering something that no one else appreciated for the value that was right there. Right in front of me.

Hiding in plain sight.

Of course Canadian duty free protocols and the patriotic imperative to import no more than 1.14 litres of liquor into the country prevented me from buying any more than a single bottle so I chose the Yoichi 10. It, to me, after trying both the 10 and the 15, seemed like an exceptional price/quality ratio. So the lesson of the day here is: shop for whisky where the demand is uncertain. The prices here in Poznan clearly reflect the global situation for Suntory products, but, oddly, not for Nikka products.

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Happy foraging!

Edit: Wow. A mere 48 hours after I bought that bottle for 359 zloty, the store has bumped their price to 449 zloty, about $30 CAD more than I paid on Saturday. It’s still not an awful price for Yoichi but, damn, finding deals and sharing them with other collectors is going to be tougher than I thought!