Thriving on their inherent sense of élitism, vintage malts are a self-perpetuating phenomenon, with a growing number of distilleries regularly ‘declaring’ a vintage. In fact for distilleries such as Glenrothes, vintage is currently the only way to be, while Knockando has recorded the ‘season’ (year) of production ever since 1899. Each Knockando season is bottled as it peaks, usually 12 to 15 years old, which highlights an equally important date. The year of distillation may provide the main focus, but how long a malt has actually been aged is another primary consideration. As the result of a single year’s distillation, vintage malt from a single cask could be considered the ultimate, and ‘purest’ expression of the house style, particularly when compared to a single malt comprising a recipe of first-, second- and third-fill sherry and bourbon casks. Similarly, a 12-year-old (or whatever) age statement on a single malt doesn’t prevent more senior malts from being involved. For the distiller, vintage malts provide an ideal opportunity to explore the house style, beyond the constraint of consistency that applies to a ‘regular’ malt. Both of The Macallan’s latest vintages, the 1951 and 1961, certainly fulfil our expectations by delivering familiar characteristics, but also exceed them with an additional range. “These new releases have the classic citrus signature that advocates of The Macallan expect, and a background of dried fruits. The classic Macallan house style is one of dried fruits (raisins, prunes) with resiny wood spices such as cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg and ginger,” says David Robertson, The Macallan’s Master Distiller.“The 1951 has a much more resinous, spicy character – cloves and cinnamon– with dark treacle toffee sweetness balanced with a citrus orange note, compared to the 1961 which displays a lemon citrus, floral and cinnamon spice character with vanilla toffee.”Several factors may contribute to vintage variations, particularly in older specimens, such as a different barley variety, though many distillers claim this makes no difference. How many would be prepared to prove this by switching varieties in the midst of a production cycle? Peating levels may also have varied, either inadvertently (with the traditional ‘a few spades at a time’ approach less reliable than modern monitoring) or due to a more considered decision. While now very lightly peated, The Macallan had a significantly higher peating level between 1939-50. Also significantly higher, throughout the industry, was the range of barrelling strength. Even into the 1970s this could peak at 70-75% abv, compared to the current norm of 63.5% abv, which can consequently yield superior cask strengths.Depending on how much we relish such details, they are either supplementary or superfluous to the wood management giving each year its essential character. And even with single cask vintages it’s not simply a case of whether this was bourbon or sherry oak (or American versus European oak). The Balvenie’s vintages, for instance, are always bottled from a single bourbon cask, which means individual barrel provenance is equally relevant. Whether this was a hoggie or a barrel is an initial factor; being smaller a barrel obviously exerts a higher oak influence. Depending on the source, casks may also provide various degrees of charring and different ‘residual’ influences depending on the style of bourbon previously held.Bottling a vintage from a range of casks – representing that year’s ‘greatest hits’ – also enables the distiller to give the house style a particular spin; or even to individualise expressions of the same vintage. Tasting two separate versions of the 1967 Glenlivet, for instance, reveals each to be deeply rewarding in its own particular way. The Glenlivet Vintage, bottled in 1998 at 53.2% abv, reflects predominantly bourbon oak, with some sherry influences. The soft, lightly lacy palate has smooth heather honey, apple and pear notes, extending with luscious apricots and lemon, grapefruit freshness. The Glenlivet Cellar Collection version, bottled in 2000 at 46% abv, also features bourbon oak but with a higher percentage of sherry casks than the Vintage. Now, spot the difference. The elegantly rich, mouthfilling palate has a well integrated range with butterscotch, citrus, gingerbread, stewed fruits and plums, in conjunction with a touch of vanilla crême anglaise and underlying biscuity maltiness.Assessing when each malt has peaked requires a vigilant nose. For equally diligent marketing departments, the challenge is to find a balance between fulfiling and exploiting growing demand for vintages without overdoing it and compromising the essential sense of exclusivity. While a growing number of distilleries are now acting more strategically, and laying down specific casks in order to rear the next generation of vintages, current releases can be a case of serendipity rather than inventory control.A delightful ‘discovery’ on the second floor of a Bunnahabhain warehouse, was a sherry puncheon containing malt distilled in 1965. What makes this even more compelling is the possibility that some of the barley was malted on site, which may account for the slightly higher level of peating than the usual house style. Being three-quarters full, and registering 53.9% abv, the cask yielded 594 bottles (filled on location) retailing at around £99.Details of Laphroaig’s 1960 Vintage Reserve are also a fanatic’s dream come true. It’s made from – wait for it – locally grown barley (those were the days) malted at the distillery, using peat from the island’s Glenmachrie Moss and peaty water from the Kilbride Dam. A total of 300 bottles were released at a cask strength of 42.4% abv. And the price per bottle? A mere £375 (exclusive to Oddbins). But then apart from every other enticement this is also the oldest style in Laphroaig’s portfolio.
Pricing is of course a key issue, particularly as you can take home a vintage from around £25, as well as paying several hundred, or even several thousand. For most of us, it’s simply a case of what we can afford. For the distillers it may seem like a case of whatever they think they can get away with, though extended maturation, rarity or limited edition status, not to mention the master distiller’s skill, all come at a price. So can the packaging. While it needs to be of a certain calibre to reinforce the quality of the contents, this can easily be achieved (as far as I’m concerned) by a nicely-designed label on the regular bottle. Anyone who prefers ‘added value’ packaging, with the likes of oak cabinets and gilded extras that inevitably lift the price into another sphere, needn’t worry about having to compete with me. Vintage malts also exercise the most comprehensive appeal of all whiskies, catering for connoisseurs, the lucrative gift market (birthdays, wedding anniversaries, and any other date you care to celebrate) – not to mention collectors.Particular favourites with collectors include The Macallan, Springbank Bowmore and Port Ellen, together with many other silent distilleries. Among cherished rarities are commemorative bottlings such as Queen Elizabeth II’s Silver Jubilee in 1977, and ‘The Manager’s Dram’, cask-strength single malts selected by distillery managers for employees to buy, and which are now appearing on the market. Although some rare bottlings are being released by the relevant distilleries, collectors are just as likely to be bidding against distilleries seeking to augment their own archives.Dedicated whisky auctions, such as those held regularly by Martin Green in association with McTear’s in Glasgow, are now becoming a significant channel for buying and selling malt, with vintage styles propelling the action. “People buy for investment as well as for drinking, though about 60-70% of a typical auction is going to become part of a collection. The rarer and more historic it is, the less likely it is to be drunk,” Martin revealed. This is a typical criticism levelled at collectors: that malt whisky was distilled to be drunk, not displayed as a trophy (though buying for either reason can demonstrate the same degree of passion). In fact, many collectors buy two of whatever they can. It’s not so much a case of double the pleasure, as it is covering both options. One to drink, and one to keep – but maybe not forever. “There is also a certain amount of re-sale among collectors, rotating their collection,” Martin told us, “and of course the condition of the label, having the original carton, and so on, is very important.” Similarly, while a limited edition of numbered bottles is a perfect enticement for collectors, this also has its parameters. Once you’re dealing with bottles outside the first 10 of the limited bottling, interest begins to dwindle. Opening a rare bottle is of course a major decision, though when to do it isn’t always as pressing a question as how long will the contents remain in peak condition? After all, who wants to finish a bottle against the clock? Don’t worry – the quality should be unaffected for several months, meaning you can take your time. So open up, settle down, then sip and savour.