You've never had it so good?

You've never had it so good?

Is whisky produced today as good as it used to be? Richard Jones hosts this months' philosophical debate

News | 23 Feb 2004 | Issue 37 | By Richard Jones

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Ultimately, it all boils down to a question mark. One of the liveliest and most contentious debates in the world of Scotch whisky divided by the
Riddler’s favourite grammatical symbol.On the surface everything might appear tranquil, but delve beneath and it’s right up there with caramel, chill filtration and‘straight, on the rocks, or with a dash of water’ when it comes to topics most likely to send your average whisky lover spluttering into his or her Springbank.We’re not talking ‘do you prefer Laphroaig 10 year old or 30 year old’ now.This cuts right to the heart of everything the Scotch whisky industry stands for at the beginning of the 21st century.Are the bottles produced and released today better or worse than they were 10, 20 or 150 years ago?In short, are we living in a golden age or golden glut?In the red corner, fighting for the modern face of Scotch whisky, we meet the ‘halcyon days of whisky’ brigade.Here, in the complete absence of the voluptuous curve of the interrogation point, ‘you’ve never had it so good’ can be uttered loudly and enthusiastically, with maybe an exclamation mark thrown in for good measure.“There has quite simply never been a better time to be a whisky drinker!” they proclaim. “You should all be thanking your lucky charms the next time you crack open that Quadruple wood (ex Bourbon, ex Sherry, ex Croft Original, ex Jacob’s Creek cask), Cask Strength, Individually Numbered, Special Edition, GTi, 4x4, February 3rd 10.37am Vintage bottling of your favourite dram.”Flippancy aside, in terms of sheer volume of choice, the modernists’ argument is a persuasive one. Particularly if your poison is single malt.There have never been so many distilleries releasing so many different age statements, wood finishes, limited editions and the like.
In the mid 1890s there might have been considerably more distilleries per se, but at a time when blended whiskies reigned supreme, bottles of single malt were rare beasts indeed .Even as late as 1960, individual distillery bottlings were pretty thin on the ground.Today, it is not only established producers who are vying for the increasingly cramped space in your average whisky section.We also have reopened and revitalised distilleries such as Bruichladdich, Bladnoch and Glengyle, plus brand, spanking new operations in the form of Isle of Arran, Ladybank and Blackwood.Moreover, by virtue of the internet, you no longer need to live on the Royal Mile in Edinburgh to access this remarkable range of whiskies.Petty bureaucracy permitting, a credit card, a couple of clicks on your mouse and a delivery charge later, unlimited limited editions can be yours.“Ah, but…” counter-punch the dissenters, “genuine choice might be a positive, yes, but is this anything more than the illusion of choice?”Representing the good olde days of yore, the whisky traditionalists don’t just add a question mark when they say “you’ve never had it so good”, but generally finish the sentence with a ‘you what?’, a sigh and a dismissive shrug of the shoulders.‘Old is gold’ might be the motto of these boys and gals.Yes, they drink, enjoy and recommend bottles of whisky released in the past few years, many of them might also retail and distribute the stuff for a living.Yet, for them, nothing can beat the taste and flavour of a dram produced and bottled 20, 30 or more years ago.“Fans of older whiskies come from all over the world,” observes Sukhinder Singh of“Malt whiskies produced and bottled before 1970 are difficult to find, but blended whiskies from the past can also be superb.”As a self confessed enthusiast of older bottles himself, Sukhinder currently sells Ardbeg 12 year old (1960s) and Glen Mhor 10 year old (1960s) as single malts, plus blends such as King James VI (probably pre 1900), Dimple (early 1970s) and a bottle of White Horse from the 1940s, which will currently set you back a cool £500.“I’m convinced these whiskies taste different to more recent releases,” Sukhinder continues.“At the time, the blends probably came with quite a high malt content and they all have bags of character, complexity and a musty quality that I love.”Without taking sides, Jim Beveridge, master of blending at Diageo, believes that Scotch is undoubtedly a more consistent and reliable product today.“Over the years whisky production has become more refined, more controlled.“We now understand far more about the actual process and how we can avoid variation in character at every stage.”In particular, Jim highlights distillery floor maltings and direct fired stills as stages where inconsistency might have occurred in the past.“The water and yeast would be basically the same as today, but the small batches of malt that were produced and the challenges operating a direct fired still provided plenty of opportunities for problems.“The skill of the workers helped to minimise this problem, but the chance was always there.”Keir Sword of Royal Mile Whiskies picks up the thread.“There is the odd disappointing whisky nowadays, but there were probably many more several years ago,” he remarks.“Having said that, I’ve enjoyed some stunning older bottles – very peaty Laphroaig from the early 20th century plus a Mortlach distilled in 1936, bottled by Gordon & MacPhail as a 36 year old.“What is certainly true is that whisky was certainly less manufactured and styled back then.”Sukhinder Singh, however, recalls remarkably few substandard bottles from the past.“You can normally tell if the whisky has been oxidised by its level, but if the cork has done its job properly and the fill is still high, then I’ve rarely been let down.“I think it’s a positive thing that whisky production was more hands-on and less technical in the past.“Many of my finest ever whisky drinking experiences have come from older bottles. The Macallan 1874 was simply out of this world and a Dimple 12 year old from the 1940s also sticks in my mind.”Talk of older whiskies inevitably leads to the thorny question of bottle development. In short, is it possible to enjoy whisky as it tasted in the past, or has it actually improved (or degraded) in the bottle over the decades?The myriad of complexities involved in this debate are too extensive to cover here, but suffice to say, a number of tasters report musty aromas similar to those mentioned by Sukhinder Singh in bottles released even as late as 1970.Described by Richard Joynson of Loch Fyne Whiskies as ‘old leather’ or ‘old attic’, this extra dimension of complexity may explain some people’s passion for whiskies with a few years under their cork.Richard also believes that the additional time spent marrying in bottle is important – allowing the hundreds of component whiskies in a blend, or the large numbers of different casks that typically make up a single malt, to merge seamlessly together.Like all the best and most heated arguments, really there are no right or wrong answers.Ultimately we live in a golden age of whisky for no better reason than today we possess a choice – drink a bottle produced using the best 21st century knowledge and expertise, or splash out and enjoy a dram from whisky history.Of course when you venture into the past, you’re not only enjoying a distilled liquid made from cereal, yeast and water.Recently I was privileged to taste samples of Dimple blended whisky from 1944 and an ‘Islay Liqueur Whisky’ made by ‘D Sandeman’ in 1937.Although both drams were spectacular, and could comfortably have passed for single malt with their smoky, Cognac-like tones, my experience was seriously enhanced by the realisation that the same Dimple could have been opened by my granddad to ‘wet’ my mum’s head when
she was born that year.Or that at the time my Islay whisky was bottled, the phrase ‘our people have never had it so good’, usually paraphrased as ‘you’ve never had it so good’, would not be spoken by British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan for another two decades… 
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