From grizzled industry legends to shiny new liquid, here’s this year’s Whisky Show in microcosm.
There is nothing sadder in whisky terms than a closed distillery. It is not just that a building has shut its doors, not just that a community has lost a focal point, but that a small and very precise point of difference in this complex world has been lost forever. Every sip which you take of a dram from one of the members of this club drives it closer to extinction.
Have you ever wondered, however, why they were closed on the first place? The standard response is that they were surplus to requirements in the 1980s when the industry got its calculations regarding supply and demand badly wrong (that would never happen again, would it?).
It’s the right answer, but it doesn’t actually answer the question – why were these specific distilleries chosen? What was the process which chose that one over its neighbour?
Size played its part. When the industry had to contract, it made more sense to concentrate production in larger plants than across a multiplicity of smaller ones. Sounds brutal? Believe me, it was – and was not a decision which was taken easily.
There is another reason, though, one which is rarely articulated. As a blender said to me once, sotto voce: ‘When it came down to it, the whisky wasn’t that great.’
Now I know this flies in the face of received wisdom that every single closed distillery was actually a precious gem, only culled by flinty-eyed accountants and heartless corporate types to try to maintain their share price, but what if there is something in this idea that the whisky didn’t pass muster?
Remember that the cull took place before a single malt category had formed. The make of each distillery was being assessed in terms of what was needed for blends. Some of these plants could have blossomed as single malts, were there an outlet, and had they been suitably set up in terms of maturation profile. I’d have loved it if Convalmore could have remained in production, for example.
Golden?: Brora distillery was closed down in 1983
Many of the whiskies from the 1980s cull are magnificent (and are among my top whiskies of all time) because they were filled into refill casks. The original intent was that these would be used, in blends, when young and fresh. There never was a plan to release them 30-odd years later.
What has happened in that period is relaxed maturation, where oxidation has played a more important role than oak – how many times have you had an overcooked example?
We, however, are guilty of approaching these whiskies with undue reverence. Our eyes go misty when the cork is pulled, our critical faculties disappear. It must be good – it’s from a cult distillery, there’s hardly anything left.
As well as the great relaxed examples, there are plenty where there has been no influence from the wood at all. There might be smoke, for example, but it barely covers the fact that the whisky is thin and lacking in complexity. Is that interesting aroma of baby sick a fault? It can’t be. In fact… it’s not there at all!
My advice? Taste with your mind open. Don’t be dragged into this assumption that not only are older whiskies automatically better, but those from closed distilleries are better again.
Life, and whisky, is far more complicated than that.
- Whisky legend Dr Jim Swan dies
- Bowmore Small Batch axed amid brand overhaul
- Rachel Barrie to leave Bowmore for BenRiach
- Can grain whisky ever be truly great?
- John Walker Private Collection 2017 unveiled
- Obituary: Dr Jim Swan (1941-2017)
- From the editors: Thinking outside the whisky box
- New whisky tasting notes: Batch 82
- New whisky tasting notes: Batch 83
- World Whisky Forum 2017
Rare bottlings 27 April 2016
In preparation for the Speyside whisky fest, Dave has chosen three rare Speysiders from the vault.
Latest news 09 December 2016
The Sutherland castle’s out buildings will be transformed into a Scotch whisky distillery.
Rare bottlings 30 January 2017
A rollercoaster ride with a duty free Aberlour, a beautiful Brora and a disappointing Talisker.
Rare bottlings 18 November 2015
Verdicts on a release from mothballed Convalmore, a cult Bowmore – and a Talisker Oddbins special.