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Are the Glorious Dead?

John Hansell, editor of American whisky magazine Malt Advocate, prolific blogger via the What Does John Know? interface and whisky connoisseur for longer than my own personal tenure on this earth, asked this week what has happened to the truly great whiskies. Evidentally this was something John didn’t know and he solicited the opinions of his readers.

This question, and the responses to it, make for fascinating contemplation. That it is on one level merely a reincarnation of the “What whiskies are ‘the best’ and who is allowed to say so?” debate, one that really makes my blood boil, is not even important. Whether it is sycophancy or long memories and deep pockets, others have noticed the same thing: new whiskies just aren’t floating their boats.

For a number of reasons, chiefly financial means and age, I am not in a position to be able to lament the passing of Springbanks and Balvenies from the 1960s. Having never drifted into the orbits of these meteors, their craters have not appeared on the relatively virgin surface of my whisky experience, denying me their context and reference. So I should probably just shut up, then, and go away: I don’t know what I’m talking about.

Except I left my own comment underneath John’s polemic suggesting another side to the story, as did other new whisky converts. We have been drawn into the same discursive and appreciative environment, inhabitted by these old malt stagers where we seem to embody similar passion and dedication, not by those Springbanks and Balvenies but by these newer, slighted, whiskies. As John himself confessed: “If you’re relatively new to whisky drinking and all you’ve tasted are “80s” whiskies, then that’s the perspective you have on whisky in general. Maybe you think they’re all great? I suspect that I was like that when I first started out.” Of course you were, John. We all must start somewhere. Mr Hansell’s impressively long list of encounters with the astounding, the mediocre, and the downright hideous, accumulated over the thirty years since his first dram, has created a playing field of such breadth that any bottling, released in 2010 or any other year, is increasingly unlikely to be capable of expanding its touchlines.

But this doesn’t necessarily mean whisky is sliding into mediocrity. He has simply been fortunate enough to sample malt that has been as good as it is possible for a whisky to be. To his tastes. He came by whisky that had realised its full potential. So profoundly can such an encounter with what our past experience would suggest is perfection act on us, abide with us and hold our hearts, imaginations and memories hostage, that of course any whisky that fails to reproduce the amazement, euphoria and desire of that unprecedented malt moment is destined to disappoint; it might not be a bad whisky at all, but because it isn’t as awesome we grow despondent. Had we tasted the latter dram prior to the former, it might have occupied that berth of Exalted Benchmark. We must remember that how we appreciate and favour whisky is deeply personal and unpredictable. It seems to me that these battle-scarred old whisky aficionados are hankering after their adolescent first loves. They miss the rawness, purity and breathless hedonsitic excitement of the new discovery. Well sorry, guys, but we all evolve and move on. It’s obligatory. To don our rose-tinted spectacles and reminisce from time to time is not wrong, its human nature. John will say that he still has his 1974 Longrow and 1966 Balvenie kicking around to decimate the field of challengers. But eight years separate those two malts. I would say it is a little premature to condemn the whisky industry after only twelve months with nothing to match these individual drams, no doubt paragons of their generations and regional styles. ‘Lagavulin 1967′ is right, we must “re-tune our expectations”.

I also believe that whisky is like anything else in the scope of human achievement: there will come a point when we cannot run the 100 metres any faster; cannot express love any more powerfully; cannot travel any farther in space. There will come a time when we reach the ceiling of how good barley, yeast, water and oak married together can taste, and we can bump our heads against it as much as we like, the limits of excellence have been set by the capacities of nature.

I think this explains our ambivalence towards all this recent distiller tinkering. We know that greatness can be charmingly simple and isn’t predetermined by ppm and an exotic finishing wood. In my mind, this is the industry attempting to recreate the singularity and diversity which characterised the dram from the past, before each facet of the production process was analysed, modified and controlled to death. Prior to the 1980s, the quality, yield and character of batches of malt, made on-site, varied; conditions in the wooden washbacks varied; stillmen’s judgements as to when to take the middle cut varied; casks varied. You could be unlucky and the resulting whisky could be loathesome. Or each little inconsistency could conspire and add up to something extraordinary.

However, this “winging it” approach to quality control is not how you maintain market share. Whisky’s apotheosis over the last two decades is astonishing. It is no longer just the fanatical connoisseur who buys malt, it is now a product bankrolled by the masses. Whether it is a lifestyle purchase or an interest in trying something different, the requirement is still that it tastes good.

Encouraged by the popularity of their distilleries’ single malts, to make the maximum returns Head Office increases the proportion of annual production bottled as single malt to quench the thirst. We have seen almost a complete reversal of policy in this regard. Whereas once 95% plus of production would go to blenders, there are now some distilleries not a drop of whose spirit can be found in a blend. Previously it would be easy to hold back five from every hundred casks which were really exceptional and bottle them for the cognoscenti who knew about single malts. Times change, and now everyone knows about malt whisky. Suddenly fifty casks from every hundred must end up in a bottle with only the distillery’s name on the label, and the greatness of a limited number of individual casks must be sacrificed to pep up the majority of plainer spirit. Despite all this “wood management” business, the reality is that some casks yield better whisky than others. You don’t have to be an economist to see that the master blender is obliged by his bosses to throw the majority into a vatting for the next ten- or twelve-year-old, then bottle the tiny fraction of what is left in a fancy wooden box with a smart label, a natty little scroll and a price tag of £400. Whisky is a business now. If we don’t like the sea of pleasant but unexciting drams in our local supermarket and that truly artisanal and antiquated nectar comes at a premium, we only have ourselves to blame.

Whisky, like the British monarchy, has been re-modelled for the 21st Century. For mainstream survival, both have had to appear more moderate, more civilised, more uniform and more approachable. That doesn’t mean that Lizzie, with her stamps and corgis, doesn’t have the bombastic blood of her forebears running in her veins. It is quite simply that the Alfred the Greats and Henry VIIIs are difficult to market these days. Constructing empires and reforming churches is all very well, but beheading a lot of women and being quite insane is not a reputation quickly brushed off. Single malt is no longer single-minded and must appeal to a broader range of palates. Those iron-fist-in-the-velvet-glove whiskies are not gone forever, just the world in which they first came to prominence has. The good news is that there is every likelihood the consumers will, like each and every one of us at some stage, start to demand complexity and greatness, and by then the distillers should have the stocks to satisfy them.

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July 27, 2010 um 4:16 pm
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  1. Marc Castermans

    You couldn’t be more right James. I’m in a slightly better position as you concerning the financial aspect and must admit I got cought in a older is better frenzy which cost me a bundle but a good friend of mine who has been drinking whisky for 20 years brought me back with my feet on the ground and let me taste lots of good stuff from the new age at decent prices. I turn a lot to the independent bottlers who deliver great products at a decent price. Just bought a 20yo Highland Park at 39 euro’s and it’s soooooooo fine.

    #1 Comment vom 31. July 2010 um 7:13 am

  2. saxon

    Fantastic to hear from you again, Marc. How have you been keeping?
    It was a topic that really took me by surprise: I would estimate that 95% of the whiskies I have tasted were bottled from 2000 onwards and while that includes a handful of 25-plus-year-olds, I’m only really familiar with whisky from the “new” expanded age. The thought that whisky had lost something had never crossed my mind.
    The Independent Bottlers are a vital and positive trend. They, too, have benefited from the whisky boom, and can offer those limited, idiosyncratic bottlings at a fraction of the price. And that is the key battle ground: yes, there are single cask or batch release official bottlings popping up all over the place, but as I said above, their price tags are as heady as their strengths.
    I’m looking forward to sourcing my IB Mortlach next month and discovering more of this distillery’s character than maybe the Diageo blenders choose to display.

    #2 Comment vom 31. July 2010 um 10:12 am

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