More than 100,000 rare bottles were sold at auction in the UK last year, worth over £40m.
Top Shelf was the theme for the class, a title which was wholly justified as the drams were indeed rare and justifiably expensive. Banff and Caperdonich from Cadenhead’s 175th anniversary collection, two Port Ellens, an old Clynelish and Glenfarclas Fino Casks. You know, what most of us drink each weekend… There was even a wee freebie thrown in at the start in the shape of an old bottle of Bulloch Lade’s ‘Old Rarity’ which certainly lived up to its name.
Neither Charlie MacLean (my compadre at the tasting) or I have come across such a rare aroma. ‘Tinned tomato juice that’s gone off’ was the Walrus of Whisky’s analysis. ‘Rotting vegetables in the bins behind a supermarket,’ I retorted. Like any whisky, it told a story. Filthy though it undoubtedly was, it also said do not expect every old bottle to be magnificent. When you buy at auction be prepared for the worst.
It might have been an extreme example, but that Old Rarity also demonstrated how wrong it is to fall into the trap (as many have) of believing in some ‘Golden Age’ of whisky when everything was perfect. There were some amazing whiskies from the ‘60s and ‘70s for sure, but equally there was a lot of crap as well.
Rose-tinted specs: Was whisky really better in the old days, or is it all just hopeless romanticism?
We can point to the use of different strains of barley giving their own character to these old whiskies, the wider use of brewers’ yeasts, direct fire, or worm tubs. All would have had an influence of the character made. Equally, much of that new make would have been put into knackered wood, or in ‘Sherry’ casks which had been dosed with paxarette. Some would end up being remarkable whiskies, others – to be frank – wouldn’t.
There was no prelapsarian Golden Age. The issue is more subtle than that. After all, this is whisky we are talking about and as we should know by now there is no one simple, single answer. Rarity isn’t simply scarcity. It can also mean that the flavours and aromas are rare, unusual, fascinating. Rarity means that these are the exceptions, not the rule.
Maybe I listen to too much Miles Davis and buy into the way in which he approached his music, constantly moving it forwards, never resting on one style, no matter how popular it was. Perhaps I have bought into the kaizen approach of Japanese craft, that belief in continual, incremental improvement. I believe in a constant, always changing momentum and know that no matter how much we fetishise the past, we cannot return. Life is impermanent.
It is human to resist this. It is easier – and perhaps natural – that as we get older so we become increasingly nostalgic – music was better, so were movies, or cars; the summers were hotter and winters were always snowy. Just as our noses remind us of the scents of our childhood, so our view of the world is seen through a child’s eye.
It is wrong to fetishise the past. Whisky has never been set in amber. The distillers of the ‘50s, ‘60s, ‘70s were moving the art forward as well. They too probably thought that whisky was better in the old days, while at the same time improving on what their fathers and grandfathers had done.
Evolving distillery: Bowmore’s looking to the past to influence its future releases, without stepping back in time
This doesn’t mean rejecting the past. Rather, you understand it and see how it could influence the future. So the examination of yeast, or barley, or worms, or direct fire is correct. The debate over whether to take the hit on efficiency to achieve a different flavour is a valid and vital one. Only by doing this will whisky continue to evolve in an increasingly complex and demanding market.
The questions have to be asked and the answers will be appropriate for tomorrow’s whiskies, just as the changes in production in the ‘60s were correct for the changing nature of the industry and the palates of the time. Tomorrow’s drinker is fascinated by provenance and richer flavours, and so the industry will (or should) respond to this change in ways which might see the past being mined. Just look at the way in which Suntory is using contemporary learnings to align tomorrow’s Bowmore with the flavours it produced in the 1960s and ‘70s.
It isn’t however going back to the past or believing that whisky was better in those days. Whisky was different, just as it was different in the ‘50s, and the ‘40s, and all the way back to the 15th century.
It is hopelessly naive to believe that there was a single point when every whisky produced was magnificent. It rained in summer, and snow didn’t always fall at Christmas. Move on.
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Ask the professor 20 September 2018
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The cost of rare Scotch is taking it beyond the means of many consumers, argues Angus MacRaild.