Bottle where's the science?

Bottle where's the science?

In Issue 27, Martin Isark argued that whisky aged in the bottle. His views have provoked a storm of opposition. Here Peter Wood makes the case against Isark's theory

Production | 24 Mar 2003 | Issue 29 | By Peter Woods

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So, Martin Isark has uncovered an industry conspiracy to conceal from us drinkers the fact that our malt changes in the bottle? He is in good company, if a little late in the piece, for back in 1967, Professor McDowall had the following to say; “It continues, however to improve in the bottle … but for some reason, which I do not understand, the idea that a change takes place in the bottle is not generally approved of.”Then why have we been gulled for so long? Because, I suspect, this whole matter revolves around the possibility of sensory changes close to the limit of human detection. Hence there will be those who claim that whisky does change in vitro, and those who say it does not.Martin Isark asserts that tasters have long realised, despite scientific assertions, that whiskies evolve in the bottle.Which scientists are these then? To find out what scientists say, you must read their formal publications, in arcane journals such as Food Quality and Preference, and the proceedings of the Aviemore conferences on malting, brewing and distilling.I’ve searched through tens of seminal papers on whisky flavour development, and none deny the possibility of change in the bottle. There is, in fact, a complete blank on the topic, suggesting that in vitro changes are of trivial import as an area of research.But I doubt any chemist would claim that a mixture containing hundreds of possible reactants is immune to change merely because it is in a glass bottle.Granted, some change may occur in the bottle, but what evidence did Martin Isark provide to justify his theory? Precious little. And let’s be clear, we are talking about change in a well-sealed, unopened bottle.Once a bottle is opened or the seal damaged, the whisky mixes with air, oxidation is enhanced and volatile aroma congeners escape differentially, so change can be expected. It follows then that the anecdotal evidence for in vitro change attributed to Guiseppe Begnoni and Toru Suzuki is irrelevant, because in both cases, these connoisseurs had opened their bottles.As for the tasting of the original 1861 Macallan alongside its modern replica, how could the comparison possibly provide evidence for bottle ageing? The replica 1861 is exactly that – an attempt to match the flavour profile of the ancient whisky using modern matured stocks.The replica is patently not the original 1861 whisky, so it is false to assume that any differences are the result of 140 years in a bottle. Unless of course, there was a taster on the team who was about 160 years old and had an immaculate flavour memory.Martin Isark’s comments on port and 1928 Krug champagne are interesting, but shed no light on whisky ageing; likewise his unhelpful observation that a 1937 Macallan after 30 years in a bottle doesn’t taste like a recently-bottled 1937 Glenfiddich.I might have predicted that, but now at least I needn’t die wondering. The hardest evidence for dramatic in vitro change was quoted from Mark Reynier of Bruichladdich: “massive change in whisky occurs within six months of its being bottled.”Mark has since let it be known that he was actually referring to a phenomenon wine-drinkers call ‘bottle-shock’: the temporary dumbing-down of flavour in some wines as a consequence of mixing with air during bottling.I suggest it is damn near impossible for us ordinary drinkers to test objectively for ageing in a sealed bottle. We would need a case of bottles of identical malt straight from a single bottling run. We would then progressively taste through the bottles over the next decade or two. That’s the easy bit.The hard bit would be to take consistent tasting notes under controlled conditions, whilst not being biased by the fact that we know we are looking for change.Frankly, I’d say that was impossible. Such an experiment could only be carried out at a research institute by trained tasting teams whose sensory ratings on the samples were subject to statistical analysis or neural network modelling, and backed by chemical analyses to detect actual congener changes.Till such experiments confirm significant in vitro flavour change, I remain sceptical, like Thomas Paine in The Age of Reason: “it is hearsay upon hearsay, and I do not choose to rest my belief upon such evidence.” Admittedly, he referred to virgin birth, but the question of ageing in malt whisky is equally serious in my opinion.
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