Drinkin' Like It's 1985

Drinkin' Like It's 1985

The phenomenon of ‘vintage' bottles of whisky

Thoughts from... | 24 Apr 2015 | Issue 127 | By Neil Ridley

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Great Scott!' proclaimed a clearly baffled and surprised Doc Emmett Brown, as he realised that his heavily modified DeLorean DMC-12 - complete with an experimental flux capacitor - had achieved its objective: To reach the heady heights of 88 mph (an achievement for a DeLorean in itself, without falling apart) and travel back in time to 1955. What delights and predicaments would a young Marty McFly discover, we wondered?

Ok, so the rest of the script for the first Back to the Future film is of course well known, as are the two superb sequels, especially the concept and consequences of altering the course of history by meddling with the past.

It's the 30th anniversary of the first film, which was made in 1985. The others were made in 1989 and 1990 respectively and it got me thinking about the concept of whiskies that appear out of time; not ancient vintages bottled recently, but simply 'old' bottles that came from previous decades, laying untouched and unloved until now. It is a growing trend in the spirits business, especially with specialist bars to find and retail vintage spirits, uncorking the secrets of the past in the process. In fact, the market for old 'attic finds' has grown so significantly over the past 18 months that companies now exist, solely specialising in finding and retailing old spirits.

Google 'vintage spirits' and you'll first find a magazine dedicated to steam trains, but look a little further and up pops the Old Spirits Co. established recently by drinks enthusiast Edgar Harden. It locates long lost bottles of gin, Cognac, whisky and other spirits from decades - and in some cases - centuries ago. His portfolio of finds reads like a perfectly timed off-licence ram raid in Doc Brown's DeLorean: Cognac from 1795, rye whiskey from 1868 and many more gems.

These chaps aren't the only ones at it. Head to Hedonism - a very swankywine and spirits retailer in Mayfair and you'll find a cabinet stocked with enough pre-prohibition bourbon and rye to make even old Capone do a double-take. The same goes for the retailer's collection of old Scotch too.

Yes, it's perhaps more prestigious to list that you happen to have several Macallan Lalique decanters on the retail books, but for me these attic finds are far more intriguing - and considerably cheaper too. The slightly torn or tarnished labels; the different styles of enclosures; the fill levels - everything about an old bottle takes the drinker on a time travelling trip of their very own, each bottle requiring a certain amount of detective work as to which era it may be from - and, in some cases, which country it may have originated from too.

Over the past few years, I have been seeking out old bottles of standard blended whisky, particularly from the 70s and 80s - especially from the White Horse brand. My interest was piqued when I had the opportunity to try a rather beaten up looking bottle of White Horse dating back to 1954, complete with a defunct spring cap instead of a cork or screw cap. Once poured, the experience with the whisky itself was truly remarkable: swathes of aroma and flavour that you just don't find anywhere in modern blended whisky.

From that moment I was hooked, dead set on trying to discover why this ancient time-capsule-of-a-bottle tasted the way it did, with all its cream soda and softly-peated loveliness.

Older bottles, as amazing as some of them are, are a law unto themselves. There is little by way of consistency in the whisky one finds inside, even when the bottles can be tracked down to similar eras or batches.

This gives the drinker/explorer/time traveller something of a lottery ticket experience. It also opens up the question of time itself: were the original recipes absolute gems (or, conversely, dogs) when they were originally bottled? Or have they altered, 'bottle ageing' over their slumbering, stasis-like years? It's a question that has been asked by nearly every whisky enthusiast I have ever met. So, in the words of Doc Brown… and all in the name of scientific research…

Altogether now: 'Roads? Where we're going, we don't need roads…'
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