What was the last great core range whisky?

What was the last great core range whisky?

It’s official* – there’s more whisky than ever. Or certainly, it would appear that we’re living in a golden age of back bars that are bursting at the seams, laden with a literal bounty of liquid amber. We’ve easy (if pricey) access to the spirits of distilleries past and any tasting that’s worth its salt will include at least one blend from a bygone era. We’re engulfed by single cask releases, inundated with indy bottlings and there seems to be at least one limited edition hitting the shelves of whisky merchants every other day. Their sheer abundance paints the picture of a plethora of drams we might choose to sample on our merest whim, but things are never really that simple.

There is a downside to having so much choice; it’s becoming harder and harder to actually get hold of the whisky you might want to try. All of the bottles mentioned above are exhaustible. Finite. You might be able to pick up one or, maybe even two, but eventually, the well for these whiskies will run dry. It’s a part of their appeal.

We do have other options though. Good old reliable options. The core range releases that are there day in and day out, the trusty friends we can always find in our favourite haunts. Sounds like the perfect balance, no? The limited and rare alongside the ever-dependable. Well, there might be one slight problem. In the clamour for limited releases and ever-changing batches, the art of crafting something for the core range seems to have been left behind, and it got me thinking – what was the last great core release whisky?

Core ranges are hard

Think about it. When was the last time that an official core release was heralded for being an absolute standout dram? An instant classic. Bang for your buck, always there and something you’d make sure was tucked away in a cupboard at all times. When was the last time a core release joined Glenfiddich 12, Balvenie 12, Springbank 10, Ardbeg 10 and Lagavulin 16 (to name just a few) up on that whisky pedestal, kept only for those closest to our hearts? I’ve racked my brain. I’ve searched through press releases and it’s not been easy to think of many that might even come close.

Core range classics

Stone cold classics, every one of ‘em

You can see why though. A new core release, a new pillar of what your building you brand on, is not so easily forged. You either have to have total confidence in what you’re doing, or you need to feel confident in your market data to know you’re filling a gap. You need to forecast your stocks and make sure you can meet demand. It’s a statistical nightmare even before you start working on what it’s going to taste like. It’s far, far easier to choose one or two exceptional casks, give them a story and bottle them for a five-star bounty. But, as with everything that’s worth doing, just because it’s easier doesn’t mean that – in the long run- it’s the right thing to do.

As I’ve said before, I got my start in whisky at the Scotch Whisky Experience (SWE) in Edinburgh and it was honestly the best foundation I could have hoped for. Due to SWE’s unusual and unique ownership model, the bars were stocked almost exclusively with core range products from distilleries all over Scotland. There weren’t a lot of single casks. There were only a couple of indy bottlings, and the more expensive drams were a little bit more on the rare side, but on the most part, almost everything was always available. I cut my whisky teeth at this bar and soothed the aching gums with some of Scotland’s best-known drams. Through many enjoyable tastings and countless enlightening chats, I built a bedrock of knowledge of the character of many of Scotland’s distilleries. It was a good time and very much responsible for the ramblings you’ll occasionally find me writing here. So, all complaints can be sent directly to them.

The industry has changed quite a bit since then, and there have been changes to several high-profile brands core range offerings in the past few years. We’ve lost long time favourites and their replacements haven’t quite hit the mark (I’m looking at you Old Pulteney). Glendronach 15 had a sabbatical due to stock issues, and even when it came back it had been ever so slightly tweaked. We’ve seen the rise of small batch-releases and single casks, but I do think there is something to be said about having a more consistent offering in the coming years. I love a single cask as much as the next geek, but you can never repeat that experience once it’s gone. Whisky has an almost magical ability to link your senses and synapses, and a nose of a glass can stir up all kinds of fond memories. It’s comforting to know that these found recollections will always be there due to your favourite dram always being available.

Ardbeg & Laga

Possible contenders?

There have been a few bright spots when it comes to core ranges. They’ve not gone away. The one offering that immediately sprang to mind was the Benromach 100 proof. That right there was an absolute belter of a core range release and I thought I had a viable contender. Alas, it has now been replaced with small-batch cask strength variant, which (I won’t lie) I had to chuckle at due to the irony. Islay has thrown a couple of contenders into the mix in the past few years. The Lagavulin 8-year-old was received warmly after an initial launch in Diageo’s special releases, and although reviews have been mixed, I quite enjoyed Ardbeg’s new Wee Beastie when I had the chance to try it. It reminded me of very early Smokehead releases.

That’s was it though. Nothing else came to mind, which in the grand scheme of the 2020 world isn’t too important but it might be worth keeping in mind. I might have missed some, please let me know if you can think of any. I no longer list new whisky releases for a living, so there is much more of a chance something has passed me by. Which would be great, because when it comes to core ranges and it comes to having a choice, I’d much rather that it was something I could actually get a hold of. Seeing as we’re living in a golden age and all.

Jason

*This is in no way official. Nobody has announced this. I made this up.

Comments

  1. Kilkerran 12 — an instant classic

  2. Hi there,

    the core ranges are a problem in themselves nowadays.

    The standard OB bottlings suffer in general from the corner cutting from the field into the glass which means the core ranges offer less quality for higer prices. The general theme in the whisky industry of today.
    High quality whiskies produced in former times when whisky making was a craft is no longer in a market segment where we mere mortals can spend our money. Or we have to save up for a year or so.
    And you began to notice quite some time ago that the standard OB bottlings are no longer the staples they once were.

    All alarm bells are ringing when the standrad range is relaunched… not only looking at Pulteney but Balblair Arran Glenrothes Bruichladdich – you name it – as well.
    Prices up quality down.

    There are exceptions of course but I will not talk of them as not to give their owners ideas !

    Greetings
    kallaskander

  3. I thought this was a most thought provoking blog.
    Going through my records, when looking to recommend a good whisky to a colleague, I realised how many independent and small batch bottlings I had drank in the last couple of years.
    Yes they were very good whiskies, but I won’t be able to buy most of them again, which if you think about it is a bit sad.
    I think I shall now start and look at core ranges as a starting point rather than a last resort.

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