I've been hearing a common question lately: "With so many products becoming scarce and with demand higher than ever before, are we going to ever run out of whiskey?"
No. That's the short answer. The long answer is quite a bit more interesting.
Sometimes a few of my students who don't like taking notes or documenting their work flow will give me a sheepish smile and say, "I'm saving trees." I usually tell them, "Kill as many trees as you like. Trees are a renewable resource. When we use a lot of it, we plant more to replace what we cut down." (Most kids frown at this response, incidentally, as do a lot of people when you answer a question that wasn't really asked.)
Whiskey isn't entirely dissimilar to a ream of paper: we can always make more of it. The problem is that the market for whiskey has historically been a boom-and-bust kind of situation. Right now, we have a renaissance of consumers used to craft brews, cocktail programs, and aged spirits. It's fashionable to drink well, and people are liking the taste of good things. Awesome! Let's hope that continues.
Here's the thing, though: from a producer's standpoint, it's hard to forecast whether these people are still going to be around in ten years. There are murmurs that maybe gin will be the next thing if people get bored of whisky, or maybe they'll switch back to vodka, or maybe we'll all settle for nothing but Tiki drinks. It's hard to say.
However, in the meantime, two general trends seem to be prevalent as stocks of older whisky become strained.
1. price Hikes
Free market economics to the rescue! You say you really want age statements on some of your favorites like Booker's, Hibiki 17, or Lagavulin 16? Well, dude, so does everyone else. Whenever demand threatens supply, higher prices are always an easy answer. Traditionally, this always seems to be in the interest of businesses—after all, now they can charge more for the same thing without any further effort on their part.
That said, those price increases always have to be weighed against the invariable grumbling of people who will become sore at the brand. There's a lot of hyperbole that can follow too stiff a price hike, such as loyalists claiming they've been stabbed in the back for their years of dutiful patronage, and how could anyone pay so much for X when it's clearly only worth Y, at best. And so forth.
However, if watching the price of Pappy Van Winkle has taught me anything, there's a lot of man children who will spring to their feet and start waving wads of cash as soon as you tell them that they can't have something. Reverse psychology is a strange thing.
Also note that if the distiller doesn't raise the MSRP, usually retailers will. Even my very good liquor store is charging about twice suggested retail for Rhetoric, a bourbon aged for about 20+ years. And I don't blame them, because someone will come in and want it, and they'll be willing to pay for it.
2. Dropping the age statement
That idea you have as a consumer that older is better is a bit of a constructed concept. Lots of blenders and distilleries convinced us that a big number on the side of a bottle was an inherent sign of quality. Chivas Brothers gave—and continues to give—a particularly hefty push in this direction.
Of course, that marketing message was shouted at a particularly high volume when producers were in a bust cycle and looking to move barrels of older whisky before they turned into over-oaked catastrophes. Now, we've absorbed that marketing message so fully that I don't think there's any way for distillers to get the genie back in the proverbial bottle.
To be honest, it's very possible to make excellent whiskey in less time. I mean, there's a lot that's good in the NAS category that I would wholeheartedly recommend. However, all things being equal, most whiskies that are good at a young age tend to improve with additional maturity—it just becomes a question of how much better they become and how much more we're willing to pay for the privilege.
3. So where do we go from here?
The burden on whiskey manufacturers, I think, is to embrace change and innovation where aging is concerned. At the end of the day, it's my opinion that most consumers don't care about the number if it doesn't produce a better effect in the glass. I think good whiskey will always move off the shelf. If producers can make it better in less time, I'm all for it.
Maker's Mark is doing a bit of experimentation at the moment with adding additional oak staves into a barrel, a lot of producers are trying different cask finishes we wouldn't normally think of, and I honestly wouldn't be opposed as a consumer to trying something where some kind of chemical wizardry has been used to accelerate the aging process, so long as it doesn't produce a drawback where taste is concerned.
So long story short, we aren't going to run out of whiskey. But, whiskey will inevitably become younger and pricier so long as people like us continue to purchase and care about it.