The travelling drams

Gavin D. Smith, Ian Buxton and Charles MacLean compare the old with the new
Many of us have been fortunate enough to sample truly old whiskies, distilled during the 1970s and bottled recently. But what about whiskies bottled during the 1970s and not opened until now?

How do they stack up against their modern-day counterparts?

In order to find out, we chose five Scotch whisky brands, comprising four single malts and one blend, sourced a 1970s bottling of each, and asked the companies responsible for those brands to provide what they considered to be a currently available equivalent.

Each pairing was then sampled ‘blind’ by whisky writers Charles MacLean (CM), Gavin D Smith (GDS) and Ian Buxton (IB). Representatives of the brand owners were then invited to pass comment on the panel’s findings.

Glenfiddich was a ‘must have’ for the line up, because during the 1970s it was one of the few single malts widely available, thanks to the pioneering efforts of owners William Grant & Sons, while Aberlour was chosen to represent Speyside, Dalmore the Highlands, Jura the islands and Cutty Sark blended Scotches.

Inevitably, the panel was not comparing like with absolute like, as Glenfiddich’s ‘entry level’ malt is now marketed as a 12 Years Old , but was an eight Years Old in the mid-1970s. The principal Aberlour expression of the 1970s was an eight Years Old, while the current bottling selected by Chivas Brothers was its cask strength A’bunadh, which carries no age statement.

Consistent wood management policies were not generally in place during the 1960s when most of the ‘old’ whiskies under scrutiny here would have been distilled, and single malts were largely an irrelevance to many producers. It therefore seemed likely, in theory, that the 1970s bottlings would prove inferior in some respects, but, in practice, they acquitted themselves well. The overall star of the show for all members of the panel was the 1970s Dalmore. A true classic.

Cutty Sark

Blended Scotch Whisky - 1970s

86 Proof (43.0% ABV)

Both samples were pale gold in colour and very consistent. CM thought the nose “Oilier and less floral-fruity than the other sample. A heavier nose, with buttery vanilla sponge and crystalline fruits (mild ginger, greengage). Soft and attractive. An increased cereal note after a while, then (after tasting) bruised apples.” For GDS it was “Less delicate than the alternative, sweeter and maltier. Caramel and bonbon powderiness.” IB felt it was “Malty, with icing sugar. The nose breaks up slightly with water.”

CM noted a “Smooth mouthfeel to start, then a curious ‘fermented apple/bruised apple juice’ taste, which lingers in the aftertaste, slightly bitter. Short, with tinny apples, and a trace of liquorice in the aftertaste.” For GDS this expression displayed “Toffee and vanilla, and even a touch of salt. Smooth and very drinkable. Shorter in the finish than the other variant, but with the same degree of consistency.” IB considered it “More mouth-coating than the other sample, more robust and a little harsher. Smoother with water, and a relatively short finish.”

Cutty Sark

Blended Scotch Whisky – 2010

40.0% ABV

The nose was “Fresh fruity, with acidic notes – fruit salad, with lychees,” for CM. “Elusive floral scents; a trace of marzipan. Soft, appetising and feminine. Becomes more cereal-like after a while.” GDS observed “ Clean and citric, slightly smoky, with Old Spice aftershave, while IB found “Citrus notes, dusty powder, with toffee and vanilla in the background. The vanilla opens up with the addition of water.”

“The mouthfeel is smooth and the taste drier than expected,” according to CM. “An aftertaste of bubble-gum. Drying in the finish, which is short and slightly bitter.” For GDS this was “Zesty and fresh, with developing ginger notes. Medium length in the consistent finish,” while IB noted “Citrus, lemon sherbet and spice. With the addition of water, caramel and toffee notes come to the fore.”

Jason Craig, brand controller for the Cutty Sark blend, said: “We believe that North British grain distillery used wheat rather than maize in the 1960s/’70s, which could impact the flavour of the grain element, and filtration techniques could be more optimised today to retain more of the maturation flavours and contribute to mouth feel.

“Our wood policy is far more rigorous now than it was many years ago. Good American oak casks would obviously contribute to the vanilla notes that are mentioned a lot, while the sweet dusty aroma is a note often seen in Glenrothes single malt, one of the components of the Cutty Sark blend, while bubblegum/buttery notes come from the grain.”


Pure Malt (Single Malt) – Over 8 Years Old – 1970s

70 Proof (40% ABV)

The colour of this sample was significantly lighter than its 2010 counterpart, and CM described the nose as “Light and grainy, with a trace of canvas. Then more fruity (pears), with hints of steam engines. With water – dried grains, sweet and light.” GDS thought it evoked “Fresh pine and citrus fruits, plus a hint of furniture polish.” For IB it was “Thin and lightweight, with distant apple orchards. Parma violets.”

The palate was considered “Light, with traces of hessian and steam,” by CM, while for GDS it was “Mild, with pear drops. The finish is quite short and sharp.” IB’s verdict was “Spirity, with astringent mouth-feel.”


12 Years Old Single Malt – 2010

40% ABV

“More perfumed and richer on the nose than the previous sample,” according to CM, who added “Boiled sweets. Slightly waxy. With water it flattens and becomes less aromatic.” GDS thought the nose was “More rounded, fruity and sophisticated than the other sample. A touch of Sherry?” For IB it was “Richer and fuller than the first expression, with evidence of Sherry wood.”

The palate was declared “Very sweet, reminiscent of orange Spangles,” by CM, while GDS thought that it was “Quite full, much sweeter and maltier, with vanilla notes. Significantly longer in the finish.” For IB this variant was “Mouth-coating and sweeter, with malt and toasted brioche.”

William Grant & Sons Master Blender Brian Kinsman declared that “I agree with the main themes which pick up on the increased oakiness in the Glenfiddich 12 Years Old bottled today. I would say the flavour profile of Glenfiddich remains very much in the traditional style of the distillery with fruity estery notes and a particular pear character. We have worked hard over the years to preserve the distillery character throughout the various expansions and upgrades.”

Kinsman added that “It is our belief that the main difference between Glenfiddich bottled in the 1970s and today is the increased influence of Spanish Oak. We have invested heavily over the years in our maturing oak profile, including a substantial increase in the amount of European oak. This has meant a very gradual shift towards a richer, sweeter single malt with noticeably oaky vanilla character, while maintaining the distinctive Glenfiddich pear character.”

Isle Of Jura

Single Malt – 1970s

70 Proof (40.0% ABV)

This sample was slightly lighter in colour than the current bottling, and CM considered the nose “Mineralic at first, even slightly medicinal, with edible seaweed. Slight burnt notes behind. The aroma fades with the addition of water, with slight hessian or coal dust and warm wood. More complex than the second sample and with fewer cereal notes. I associate hessian notes with whiskies made some time ago.” For GDS the nose was “Comparatively light and elegant, with perfume and sweet wood smoke, while IB noted “Spices, melon and aerosol room spray.”

The palate was “Less sweet than the alternative bottling, slightly salty,” for CM, while GDS thought it “Bigger on the palate than the other sample, soft, with smoke and liquorice. More complex. Medium length finish.” IB noted “Bigger, more dominant in the mouth than the second expression, but fading quickly. Liquorice allsorts.”

Isle Of Jura

Single Malt – 2010

40.0% ABV

“Lightly oily and biscuit (buttery shortbread) on the nose,” according to CM, “becoming lemon puffs and floury pastry. Later gingerbread. Lots of cereal notes. More maritime with water. Cereal replaced by rice pudding.” GDS noted that it was “Slightly dirty, with pine and resin, while IB stated “Lots of wood and lemon.”

The palate was “Sweet and tangy, with floury pastry,” for CM, while GDS declared it “Quite sweet and nutty, relatively short in the finish,” and IB wrote “Somewhat lifeless, drying, with Brazil nuts.”

The Dalmore

12 Years Old Pure Malt (Single Malt) –1970s

70 Proof (40.0% ABV)

This sample was deep gold in colour, while its current counterpart was closer to amber. “A great, fresh, acidic fruit nose,” according to CM.

“Kiwi fruit, gooseberries, redcurrants and crowberries. Warm sand. With water it remains fresh, zesty and fruity.” For GDS it was “Luxurious, with spicy marmalade, Sherry and Christmas cake,” while IB thought it “Rounded, with dried fruits, spice, and lovely dark chocolate orange notes to it.”

CM noted a “Mouth-drying texture, soft, light sweetness and acidity. Rounded and balanced,” while for GDS the palate was “Full-bodied and satisfying, spicy, slightly meaty, with lots of Sherry notes. Smokier with water.”

IB considered it “Wonderfully warming and rich, with dried fruits and a long, consistent finish.”

The Dalmore

12 Years Old Single Malt – 2010

40.0% ABV

CM wrote that the nose possessed “More European oak influence than the other Dalmore, and more cereal. Baked pastry –probably greengage tart. With water it becomes more mineralic (sandy). Then coated card and flour paste.” GDS observed that it was “Flatter than the other Dalmore expression, but sharing same ‘DNA’ of Sherry and spicy orange marmalade,” while IB thought it “Slightly less balanced than the alternative Dalmore, with dark orange marmalade.”

The palate provoked the comment from CM “Sweet overall, with rice pudding,” and GDS thought it “Very drinkable, though a little less rounded and more spiky than the alternative expression. Dark orange notes develop in the finish.” For IB there was “Slight bitterness in the mouth.”

Whyte & Mackay’s master blender Richard Paterson, the man responsible for both Jura and Dalmore single malts, was of the opinion that “With Dalmore I think it’s very subjective, and is really about whether you prefer the modern style, with its relatively high proportion of Sherry wood-matured whisky, which gives Dalmore its Christmas cake and marmalade notes, or whether you prefer the lighter style, with its much greater use of American oak, bottled back in the 1970s.

It would probably have included only about 20 per cent of ex-Sherry wood then.

“Another important factor to bear in mind,” stressed Paterson, “is that there would have been a significant amount of component whisky which was quite a lot older than 12.

“They didn’t have 18, 30 and 40 Years Old expressions to worry about and to hold onto stock for at that time.

“I know there was a proportion of 18 Years Old Dalmore in the 1970s 12 Years Old. The same would apply to Jura as well as Dalmore in respect of the age of component whiskies. Whiskies older than 10 would be used in the vattings.”


8 Years Old Single Malt –1970s

43.0% ABV

The colour of this variant was markedly lighter than that of the A’bunadh used for comparative purposes, and CM noted “A mature, perfumed nose, with floral bouquet – gardenia – plus strawberry gum drops. Some buttery toffee. Becomes honeyed in the glass. Water raises the floral notes – natural, moorland and cough medicine.” For GDS it was “Initially somewhat vegetal, then sweeter, nutty Sherry and leather notes emerge,” while IB thought it “Sweaty, with damp leather.”

The palate was “Sweet, pleasant and uncomplicated,” for CM, while GDS considered it “Initially a little prickly on the palate, then Sherry, spices and dark chocolate notes develop. Medium in length.” IB declared it to be “Sharp and wood-dominated.”

Aberlour A’bunadh

(Batch 30) Cask Strength Single Malt - 2010

59.8% ABV

“European oak is very apparent on the nose,” said CM. “Dried out fruit cake and planed oak,” while GDS described it as
“Lovely, rich and floral, with furniture polish.” For IB this expression was “Meaty, with Bovril and dark, dried fruits.”

For CM the palate was “Sweet and tannic. European oak in spades,” and GDS declared it to be “Rounded and rich, textured, with lots of fruit and orange notes. Very long and sophisticated in the finish.” IB experienced “Initial sweetness, full flavour, liquorice, a hint of mint and cardamom.”

David Boyd, inventory & spirit quality manager, for Aberlour owners Chivas Brothers, observed that “In the late 1980s, Campbell Distillers, the proprietors of the Aberlour distillery, decided to implement a new and innovative stock lay-down policy to support the future growth and development of the Aberlour brand.

“This was designed to define the brand quality characteristics and establish and maintain over time, the key brand flavour credentials.

“Around the same time, the new distillate quality was also greatly enhanced after much work by the team on the spirit condensing and yields fronts.”

Boyd added that “In practice, a formula was devised that was based on the long term sales aspirations for the brand.
“This called for the investment in significant quantities of American oak barrels fresh from Bourbon dumpings in the United States and Sherry butts of European oak origin.”