By Christopher Coates

Opinion: Debunking the myth of 70:30

Contesting the conceit undermining whisky’s key ingredients
That distillers now emphasise the importance of the cask above all else has always perplexed me. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that I don’t appreciate what wood brings to the table. The wonders of how oak species and growing conditions, quarter sawing, timber drying, coopering, toasting and charring, cask size, and seasoning all combine to influence maturation aren’t lost on me.

No, my bafflement stems from the fact that the age-old adage of ‘70 per cent of the flavour comes from the wood’ (and variations thereon) simply doesn’t make good business sense in terms of narrative – at least for any company that actually distils is own whisky. And that’s before we get to the thorny issue of whether this old chestnut is even factually accurate.

Firstly, the gross overestimation of the cask’s role in flavour development sits in direct contradiction to other hallowed whisky dogma. Rightly,
much is made of the difference between copper pot and column distillation, and the number of times the spirit is distilled. On top of that, we’re told, ad nauseam, the exaggerated story that each pot still’s shape is so pivotal that any replacement is copied right down to the ‘last ding and dent’. Then, there’s much ado about water, peat and even condenser type, before we reach the ubiquitous yet ephemeral concept of ‘handcrafting’.

All of these factors, we’re told, are key pillars of production that make each distillery’s spirit unique. There’s even a term for it: distillery character. These differences are, ultimately, the brands’ unique selling points and the only reason (bar taste preference) why anyone buys on the basis of a named-distillery identity. To condense the importance of all that hard work, heritage and uniqueness down to a measly 30 per cent isn’t just confusing – it’s absurd. By telling drinkers that it’s really all about the cask, whisky makers hand the vast majority of the credit for their own product’s taste over to the cooperages supplying the wood, or even the producers of the product previously held in a cask. Bizarrely, this shifts emphasis away from a distillery’s USPs and on to something that a competitor can easily replicate. (Anyone can stick their whisky in a sherry cask, after all.)

What distillers guilty of perpetuating the tale of ‘70:30’ really mean to say is that maturation provides 70 per cent of the flavour. However, ageing is about more than just the ‘addition’ of wood extractives: interaction of compounds present in the spirit (and those added by the wood), subtraction of ‘off notes’, evaporation of water and alcohol, and oxidation all play a role in creating the final flavour. The nature of the wood is just one, albeit important, part of that dizzyingly complex process. Nevertheless, even this version of ‘70:30’ takes focus away from the spirit character at the heart of the whisky.

To give credit where it’s due, American distillers of bourbon have, despite their preoccupation with new oak, for the most part done a good deal of talking about spirit character by emphasising the role of proprietary yeasts and, pivotally, mash bills – which brings us to the crux of the matter.

The conceit of ‘70:30’ does more than just undermine the role of distillery character; it does away with the importance of whisky’s core ingredients and where they came from. There’s a reason single malt has to be made from 100 per cent malted barley, a reason there are rules governing corn content in bourbon, and a reason that rye whiskey tastes different from, say, Irish single pot still: grains matter. More than that, the specific qualities inherent in particular varieties of each grain, along with how that grain has been grown and processed, all contribute to the ‘building blocks’ of flavour present at each stage of production. One only needs to compare Bruichladdich’s Classic Laddie with its Bere Barley, or Glenmorangie Original with Signet to taste the difference.

The only ‘benefit’ I see of focussing on wood over grain is that it distracts from inconvenient truths of the supply chain, like where grain is imported from and its carbon footprint, while allowing for yield to take priority over flavour. In 2022, let’s drop the mental gymnastics, abandon ‘70:30’ and give cereals their moment in the sun.