Variety is the spice of…controversy?

A persistent “complaint” levied against Bruichladdich is that there are too many expressions. Let’s ponder that for a bit. It’s a repeatedly and consistently posed question, and it’s worth thinking about this from many angles. The folks at Bruichladdich have consistently said that they like making lots of different kinds of whisky. This is clearly their prerogative.

It doesn’t matter whether you are a consumer, a retailer, or a distributor, you will at some point wonder: Why are there so many expressions of Bruichladdich? Personally, I love it, but I can see why people would ask. I certainly used to be in that camp.

Consumers

It’s easy to see how a consumer could be overwhelmed by choice. The first problem is that for the most part the names give no clue as to what might be in the bottle. Of course, more broadly the consumer has the exact same issue in any whisky shop with even a moderate offering. There are about 100 active distilleries and each has many expressions (Bruichladdich is probably the most prolific, though). In the end, you ask your retailer for advice, you share with friends, you try new things at restaurants if you’re lucky, you can go to a place like The Feathers pub in Toronto), and you gradually learn more. That’s what I try to do. I know a lot more about Scotch today than I did 3 years ago, but I only know enough to know that I have a LOT more to learn! Ultimately, Scotch is very personal. You won’t like only one malt. There is a malt for every mood, every kind of food, every occasion, etc.

Retailers

What do I buy? When a single distillery makes so many different expressions, how do I choose? Partly this is answered by availability, since many of Bruichladdich’s expressions are limited editions and may not be available in all geographies. But even when they have multiple to choose from, how can they tell which to acquire? They must rely on the distributor and hope they have a good knowledge of the latest expressions and can help them differentiate similar (or dissimilar) expressions along a variety of dimensions (price, peatiness, ABV, etc.). Some distributors are better than others, and a retailer with a good distributor can balance their stock with a representative variety of malts so they have a broad spectrum and can satisfy a wide cross section of the market.

Distributors

The only way that whisky gets from Scotland to your local retailer is via a distributor. The US is really 50+ individual markets (it’s worse than just state-level legal differences; some states have dry counties or towns…). Distributors vary from those that are just pushing product and really don’t add much value to those that really know their products and can optimize where they go, to retailers, restaurants, bars, etc. They are the most important link in the chain between the producer and the consumer, since nothing gets to the consumer until it has gone through the distributor.

My personal point of view is that the plethora of expressions of Bruichladdich is actually hardest on the distribution channel. How can they tell what to buy (and where to place it?)? Unless they are really paying attention to what’s sold well in which retail outlets, they have no idea which future expressions to place where they are likely to sell well.

Conclusions

My personal viewpoint, which I have gradually developed, is that I like the chance to explore lots of expressions. I don’t just drink Bruichladdich, though you might get that impression from this blog! But there is an artistic aspect of this endeavor that is worth appreciating. I am NOT suggesting that distillers that produce fewer expressions have less art in the bottle, or even that just because Bruichladdich produces a lot of expressions that they always create perfection. I just like variety.

I think it goes with being a malt lover: There is, as I said, a malt for every occasion. What I wish was that someone would make a map of all the expressions so I could tell which were similar. I can only cover the few I have actually tasted, augmented with reviews collected from multiple sources. Despite my lack of ability to taste all of them (some are no longer available), I will be trying to make that map, right here. I welcome comments to help me, or to argue with me, as I develop it.

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