It happens all the time. Suddenly, new information on food, health, exercise –whatever – confounds all our long-held beliefs, making it necessary to readjust. And it’s happened with whisky. For decades, scientists, marketeers – all the movers and shakers of the big brands – have assured us that their blended whiskies are the same from Birmingham to Bangkok, and that malt whiskies, once bottled, will be unchanged from here to eternity. But doubt has been cast.Actually, the world’s tasters and collectors have long realised – despite scientific assertions – that whiskies evolve in the bottle, and the Macallan Distillery has for some time been testing and teasing the collector’s market with some interesting bottle-aged whiskies. Last year came the tasting of the 1861 Macallan and its replica – and what a revelation it was. The 1861 was exquisite – with aromas and flavours of red fruits, dried apricots, heather and a twirl of peaty smoke – but what was fascinating was the evidence of ageing in the bottle, in the melting, mature, champagne-like finish with absolutely no burn.It is accepted that fine wines and vintage ports evolve after bottling, but the high alcohol level of spirits is generally held to ensure a stable, consistent product unchanging in the bottle (not that this holds good for eau de Cologne. Despite its 70% + of alcohol, users well know how it can change – and deteriorate – in time).Whisky, like most aged spirits, gathers the majority of its flavour from maturation in oak barrels, and the variables thrown up by this method defy computation; the type of oak, the size, age and previous use of the barrel, the time the spirit spends therein, the temperature and location of the place of storage all work their own magic. Even barrels that appear to be identical and have been filled and aged next to each other will deliver whisky with different aromas and flavours, sometimes even dramatically different. Distillery managers are well aware of most of the notes produced – nuts, butter, vanilla, spice, coconut and butterscotch – but not even the most qualified whisky technocrat can actually take complete control of the very complex chemical reactions that occur in this type of ageing. This is why malt distilleries with well-known brands like Glenfiddich and Glenlivet resort to barrel blending.Bottle ageing is just as complex as barrelageing. To check the difference, sample a bottle-aged vintage port and a barrel-aged tawny port side by side. There are significant differences of aroma and taste and, at a similar age and alcoholic strength, the two ports present extremely different alcoholic structures. The bottle-aged vintage is much more harmonious, melting rather than burning on the finish. The 1861 Macallan, with its extra 140 years of bottleageing, revealed just the same differences over the barrel-aged replica.Oxygen entering the bottle is a major factor influencing the evolution in the bottle of alcoholic drinks. Anyone who has cellared claret will be aware that wine in small bottles matures much more quickly than wine in big bottles, because the cork space relative to the wine is greater in a small bottle. Moreover, any wine aficionado will know that when wine is closed with an almost airtight screwcap – rather than a cork – it results in a slower evolution. The effectiveness of the closure is of paramount importance. Sukhinder Singh, one of the world’s key collectors and owner of the Whisky Exchange in London, points out that on older bottles of whisky, screwcaps tend to be less than a perfect fit, and, as they
leak more air into the bottle than one fitted with a cork, result in quicker evolution.Whisky fanatic Toru Suzuki of Japan owns the Speyside Way, a bar in Tokyo, (see Issue 19, pages 28 to 30) which is renowned for having one of the best range of collector’s malts on offer in the world. Suzuki has his own answer to bringing a whisky up to pitch. He removes the closure – screwcap or cork – allowing new air to enter the bottle, and then replaces it. This he repeats at six and 12 month intervals until the whisky has changed sufficiently to satisfy his palate. Guiseppe Begnoni from Italy, another respected whisky collector, is in no doubt that whisky evolves in the bottle. His test is to take two bottles of whisky, ideally bottled from the same barrel at the same time, drink half of one bottle, cellar them both for six months, then taste both bottles side by side. The difference is significant. Privately, independent bottlers and distillers have been very aware of this phenomenon for years, but were unwilling to rock the whisky boat. However, bottlers Gordon & MacPhail will now inform customers who ask that whisky changes through oxidation just like wine, and that this alteration accelerates once the bottle is opened.
There are, of course, no absolutes in bottle evolution. Very generally, the higher the alcohol content, the slower the change. Certainly this works with vintage port (20% alcohol) and red wine from Bordeaux or Burgundy (both around 13%). However, in very sweet wines, such as Trockenbeerenauslese (TBA) from Germany, with an alcohol level of only around 7%, the evolution is slower than in either the port or the red wine.From his experience, Guiseppe Begnoni is of the opinion that an unopened bottle of whisky will take at least 15 years to present a noticeable change. Sukhinder Singh, while agreeing in principle, thinks that the variables are such that it could take much less time – or much more. Certainly, the bottle evolution of Château Margaux, one of Bordeaux’s great wines, with as many unpredictables as any distiller’s whisky,
varies enormously: it could be five, 10 or 15 years before the wine begins to change.Mark Reynier, owner of La Réserve and Managing Director of Bruichladdich Distillery, feels, however, that the variables are too complex to be absolutely sure of long-term bottle change, he is emphatic that the massive change in whisky occurs within six months of its being bottled. This certainly agrees with the fact that the whisky’s added caramel loses more than 60% of its colour in that time. This does not fall to the bottom as sediment as it does with wine, and modern thinking sees this as the start of the whisky’s evolution.
With all these variables spinning in my head, I recently tasted five bottles of 1937 Macallan, bottled by Gordon & MacPhail. Each one had spent more than 30 years in a cask, and approximately 30 years in the bottle. None tasted anything like the rich and concentrated barrelaged 30-year-old Macallan, nor the recently bottled 1937 Glenfiddich. The bottle-aged spirits had developed almost champagne-like qualities of elegance and finesse, presenting notes of orange zest, dried apricots, hazelnuts and red fruits, with fine strands of perfumed oak. Lovers of Krug Champagne will recognise the description – for that, too, starts its life in oak barrels before ageing in the bottle. Just as with whisky, they used to say that champagne did not evolve once the bottle had left the cellar. But if you have been lucky enough to taste the 1907 Heidsieck Monopole Goût Americaine, or the 1928 Krug, you will find it difficult to ignore the testimony of that extra elegance and complexity that comes from neither death nor stagnation, but life in the bottle.