While many whisky enthusiasts are singing the praises of 1980s/1970s/1960s or even older expressions often stating that those past juices were better, had more character and/or offered a better quality/price ratio than today’s nectars, I thought it was an issue worth investigating!
As you know (not that I like bragging about my youthful age… Kidding, I totally do), I’m born in 1990 and only developed a taste for whisky in the late 2000s, I didn’t grow up within a whisky-enthusiast family in the middle of the Scottish Highlands that would have introduced me to the joys of whisky at a young age, I have therefore not the slightest idea of how was the life of a whisky lover “back then” – when Port Ellen or Brora’s stills were still spitting out some juice, or when you could buy a 1970s Ardbeg for the price of a PS4 Game.
So yes, I may be a little bit jealous (especially when it comes to the price argument), still, I feel like today’s whisky scene is more thrilling than ever before and as I once said, I prefer getting excited about the future of the industry than crying over its past glory.
But what do you guys think? What people involved in this industry think? Let’s find out! I contacted some master distillers, brand ambassadors & other whisky experts and asked them this question:
Sean Murphy – The Scotsman Food & Drink (also working at The Pot Still – Glasgow)
“In terms of production and quality? I’d say the technology and processes these days have been perfected to a stage that the whisky now, must surely be better than in the past; but then I do have a worry that many distilleries, in their push to satisfy demand may have lost a little of that original spirit character that made them their name and that by ironing out small flaws in the liquid to make it more perfect, may indeed have changed the flavour however imperceptibly.
If I was feeling slightly more cynical, I might even say the rise in cask usage reflects this, and that perhaps, as was hinted at by a former distillery manager I once interviewed, the increased reliance on wood is in many instances to mask this slight change?”
If I’m being honest though, I’d say that in some situations and with certain distilleries it has been true in my case that whisky made in previous decades has been better but I’m not convinced that’s industry wide and that mostly they have just been different experiences, each enjoyable on their own merits.”
Matthew Hofmann – Master Distiller at Westland Distillery (USA)
“I can’t say that I’m intimately familiar with whiskey releases from the 60s to the 80s but I do know the basic cycle of this business over the past century or so. The 60s to the 80s was a period of cultural transition from aged spirits like whiskey to clear spirits like vodka. It stands to reason then, with as we would call it a “lake” of whiskey forming that there were more options available to blenders and depressed prices due to oversupply, thus creating compelling whiskies at low prices. This feels especially relevant now when the opposite is true, whiskey is booming and all of the major players have run out of stock, giving them less interesting tools to play with and sending prices soaring.
I think what many people don’t really understand is how much whiskey has been treated as a commodity no matter where it comes from. In the past, and even now, companies produce as much as they can at as high of a yield as they can get. If sales are good it moves out the door, if sales are bad you gain increasing complexity through maturation over time, then when the market turns around you can sell that 40 year old whiskey for $10,000.
What Westland is trying to do is reverse this trend. We try to make the most compelling whiskey possible, then worry about yield second. We don’t rely on age for complexity because we focus on fantastic, flavorful barley varietals, malts, yeast, and wood types. It’s a fundamental shift from a commodity vision to a quality vision. I think the rest of the industry will eventually make that transition over time and consumers will have access to better whiskey than ever before in the future.”
“Whiskies distilled and bottled several decades ago display a different character to modern whiskies because the methods of production – and often the ingredients used – were notably different to today’s whisky making practices. These kinds of old and rare bottlings represent what is popularly termed ‘old style’ whisky.
For enthusiasts these bottlings are more characterful and display more personality and individuality than their modern counterparts. For drinkers and collectors alike these bottlings represent liquid time capsules, drinkable history that offers a window onto the past; how whisky used to be produced and the character of the people that made these whiskies.”
Mark Thomson – Glenfiddich Brand Ambassador
“Of course everyone wants the past – everything was different then. It’s human nature to reminisce and think of the plus instead of the negative – leading most to say everything was better in the good old days. But when you look at the number of whisky drinkers the (60-70’s) compared to now and then look at the growth of single malt (keeping in mind most glasses would have been filled with a blend) then it is clear that the industry needed to expand and progress.
With that, comes modern plant, cleaner working practice, better understanding of yeast and yield all leading to a consistent product. In turn this leads to those purists out there crying out to turn back time – but in all honesty, the average whisky drinker is happy with what they have, happy to explore the huge variety of young and old whiskies and find something they love. There are still plenty of wonderful whiskies out there for the purists to satisfy their thirst.
I think it is very difficult to compare. Whisky that is from a by-gone era that has been held in bottle for a number of decades changes in the bottle. It’s not maturing obviously, but here is a development in character. Sometimes it is beneficial, other times not. But one thing is for sure, to compare a 12 year old whisky today to a 12 year old whisky from 30 years ago, even from the same distillery is impossible.”
Steven Kersley – Master Distiller at Lone Wolf Distillery (Brewdog)
“This question has been simmering for the last few years and, for the most part, I’d say that it stems from Scotch whisky’s recent tear away success on the global stage. The global demand for Scotch and fans with deeps pockets have combined to create a skewed premiumisation at the top end of the market, which is further fueled by a burgeoning collector’s market.
The perception of many is that, in satisfying global demand, the industry has shamefully sacrificed spirit quality in favour of making a quick buck. Aye, it’s a moot point whether this is the sole reason but I think it gets us near to the centre of the debate. Having nosed and tasted whiskies bottled across different eras, there’s decent drams to be had irrespective of the year they were distilled. I don’t agree that the old school is superior but I do think that our industry has damaged its strong track record of high quality with recent releases.
Driving a fat bottom line with over premiumisation of brand and price hikes, coupled with average liquid, are not helping. A bottle will only be judged by its contents and so your leather boxes with gold leaf embroidery mean very little if the liquid’s shite. Whisky of old and new, follow the same process of creation (currently) and what fills a bottle is a decision.
The distillation date shouldn’t matter, the quality of that whisky lies with those who choose the casks from the warehouse. On current trajectory, the status quo will require realignment. Different styles are enjoying more success, the quality from fledging distillers is improving and there are increasing alternatives to Scotch.
Old vs Current vs Future is a more interesting conversation, and one I look forward to taking part in once Lone Wolf products start to hit the shelves.”