One of the signs of advancing years in a person is the increasing frequency of their stated belief that something, everything, was better when they were young. The world, according to the middle aged, is in terminal moral decline. What is interesting about this phenomenon is that it appears to happen with every generation, which either means that the world is indeed fixed into a permanent downward spiral, or perhaps, just perhaps, things really ain’t quite as bad as they seem.
This declinist view of history is hardly a new phenomenon. If you pause to think about it, the first record of the “things just ain’t as good as they used to be” moan can be traced back to any number of creation myths, from the Hopi to the Judaeo-Christian tradition, all of which start with a perfect world which man then somehow manages to screw up.
As with life and philosophy, so with whisky, where the argument that better whisky was made in the old days is one which increasingly holds sway. Like the existence of g/God, this is an impossible question to prove or disprove. Yes, I’ve had some phenomenal old bottlings from the 60s and 70s, but also some pretty poor ones.
"Resist the tide of blandness my friends, resist!"
There’s little doubt that things in the whisky world are different now than they were, but whether you can then extrapolate from this that changes have brought about a clear decline in quality is quite a different thing. The old ways weren’t necessarily better; they were often simply just different.
Look at what has changed (and I’m dealing in general terms here, I know there are exceptions): low-yielding barley, wider usage of peat, traditional mash tuns, low-gravity wort, brewer’s yeast, direct fire, worms tubs, higher percentage of sherry casks. All could influence flavour.
Less hygienic conditions could well give rise to butyric (baby sick) aromas, sherry casks could overpower distillery character or it could be masked with paxarette. On the other side of the coin, there was also widespread use of exhausted wood and inconsistency in character because of direct firing.
Equating 'different' with 'worse' is too simplistic. Declinist? Not me.
There is one modern trend however which I do feel could result in the homogenisation of whiskies. We are forever in the debt of Professor Kikunae Ikeda for his discovery, in 1909, of umami, the ‘fifth taste’. Thanks to his studies, chefs and bartenders have another flavour sensation to weave into their creations. The by-product of Prof Ikeda’s research, the subsequent creation of monosodium glutamate (MSG), allowed lazy chefs a shortcut in trying to replicate the full-on, mouth-coating deliciousness of natural umami. If used in the wrong concentration, MSG becomes unpleasant. Adding increasing amounts won’t magnify the deliciousness of the dish, more often than not the opposite will be the case.
You might be wondering what all of this has to do with whisky, we know there isn’t umami in it, and I reckon the SWA would frown on MSG being added. But there is an MSG equivalent at work in whisky: it’s called vanilla. It’s a taste which makes people swoon, it is the taste of ice cream and summer days, it has a similar ‘mmmm’ effect to umami.
Nothing wrong with that, but just as MSG is often overused in cooking, so the trend to overdosing whiskies with large percentages of vanillin-rich, first-fill American oak casks is becoming an issue. Delicious when used in judicious amounts, it can easily dominate. An overdose of vanilla doesn’t make the whisky better, instead it makes it bland, one-dimensional and indistinguishable from all the other vanilla bombs on the shelves. We see its overuse in rum, in wine, in Cognac and now whisky. In this guise, vanilla isn’t an exciting element, it is muzak, it’s pastel tank tops, it’s white picket fences, it's the Stepford Wife of flavour. It is everything which whisky isn’t. Resist this tide of blandness my friends, resist!