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Has Whisky Become Better, Worse or Just Different?

by Oliver Klimek on September 6, 2010

This article was inspired both by Keith Wood’s answer to my last interview question about how whisky might have changed over the years and also Steffen Bräuner’s guest post on What Does John Know? that was published just a day later.

Among whisky lovers there is a constant debate on how whisky has changed over the years. For everyone who has tried whisky expressions bottled several years or even decades ago and compared them with today’s drams, it is clear that in fact quite a lot has changed. But it is not always so clear in which direction, or if there is any direction at all.

Some old whiskies might taste amazingly good, some might not be the delight that was expected, and some others might just taste plain strange. I think it is quite obvious that it is not recommendable to generalize. And to answer the question asked in the title prematurely: “Yes, but all of it

What Became Better?

Innovative Distilleries

In Scotland we have seen many distilleries that were on the verge of being closed for good (or rather bad) but have been successfully revived by comparatively small entrepreneurs. Examples like Bladnoch, Bruichladdich, Glenglassaugh or Benriach come into mind. In most cases they belonged to big conglomerates and were producing whisky primarily for blends. As they were regarded to be not profitable enough they were mothballed and sold later on.

Under new management these distilleries now focus on single malt whisky and try to attract whisky lovers with high quality and often also innovative products.

Along the same line there are some distilleries that used to have a very low profile and try get back on track by improving the quality of their whisky. Examples are Jura, Tomatin or Tobermory.

Variety of Bottlings

Compared to earlier years, we now have a much larger choice of single malt bottlings than ever. And this is not only because distilleries release more original bottlings than beofore. A host of independent bottlers specialises in single cask and cask strength bottlings that can give you a whole different approach to a distillery as it is possible with only original bottlings.

Technology

Whisky making is applied science, and many aspects of it are now understood better on a scientific basis. The production processes can be optimized to achieve a (hopefully) better whisky in the end. You could think of better yeast strains, optimized parameters for mashing and fermentation or heating profiles for destillation.

What Became Worse

Technology

Yes, the wonders of technology are twofold. While there are certainly aspects of whisky making that can benefit from progress in science and technology, much of the optimization work in distilleries is actually not done to improve the quality of whisky but rather to improve the cost efficiency of the production process. And I have spoken to distillery workers who were convinced that modern technology was not in favour of whisky quality.

Some distilleries like for example Caol Ila have reached a level of automatization that they can be run by only a handful of workers. Some distilleries changed their wooden washbacks to stainless steel ones even though many argue that the intrinsic non-100% cleanliness of the wooden washbacks adds favourably to the quality of the wort.

It is also argued that direct firing of the stills has resulted in a richer spirit. I don’t have proof for that but perhaps an analogy can help here. Imagine frying your own hand cut chips (or french fries if you’re from across the pond). Because they will always be a bit irregular some will turn out a little to brown and too crisp while some may still be a little too chewy. But overall you will get a richer taste exactly because of this variety. Direct firing of stills means that some parts of the still will be too hot while others will be cooler than the uniform temperature supplied by indirect heating. This is bound to have an effect on the liquid in the still as especially the catalytic reactions with the copper are a key element in distilling. And chemical reactions are always temperature dependent. So it is fair to assume that with directly fired stills you will end up with a higher variety of substances in your spirit.

Barley

Today’s whisky is mostly made with modern barley varieties optimized for yield and resistance to disease, the most popular today seems to be Optic. A prime variety of earlier whiskies was Golden Promise which today sadly has only a marginal share anymore. It can be stated that most whisky produces don’t seem to care about taste differences of barley varieties anymore.

Economic Pressure

Whisky is big business. Many distilleries are owned by large conglomerates and big blend brands fight for market shares  all over the world. As a result it is often the case that “quality vs. profit” decisions are likely to be made in favour of the profit. Two prime examples are blends with reduced amount of malt whisky or less older casks used for bottling standard single malt expressions.

What Became Different

Bottling age

When you compare single malt bottlings from decades ago with modern ones you will notice that generally in the past malts used to be bottled much younger than today. You will note many old bottlings with an age statement of 5 or 8 years. Today, apart from some special releases for Italy you will hardly find any orignal bottling with an age statement of less than 10 years.

Perhaps it’s just because the whisky produced with earlier standards did not need so much time to mature. For example I tasted an old 8yo Glen Garioch and a 5yo Glenesk that were perfectly drinkable and certainly not bottled too young.

Cask Finishes

This is a fairly modern trend – pioneered by Glenmorangie – that openeed a new dimension for single malt bottlings. It added a lot of varitey – which is a good thing – but it also resulted in some very strange experimental bottlings that are not everyone’s cup of tea to put it mildly.

Conclusion

This was just a short list of examples. I am sure that there are a lot more. But I think it became clear that the picture is not just black and white. And in many cases you will find components of all three categories acting together.

But even it the answer to the orignal question is not really satisfying, one thing is certain: The whisky universe will continue to be in constant change, and this is what makes it so damn interesting.

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Roel September 8, 2010 at 11:46 am

Hi Oliver,

A great post once more. I am glad to be part of your community. Did I already tell you that I very much like the new ‘outfit’?

Cheers,
Roel

Reply

Oliver Klimek September 8, 2010 at 11:57 am

Glad you like it. You didn’t tell me yet, but of course your compliments are warmly welcomed ;)

Reply

Atanas October 18, 2013 at 3:53 pm

Hi Oliver,
It happened that just today I read this post. What I found interesting is that just over three years since you posted it some things are already different. In the “What became different” section you mention that some 50 years ago there were many young expressions of whisky being release as opposed to 2010 when the standard had become 10yo and above. Fast forward to 2013 and we have an abundance of young expressions – aged (indies) and NAS (OBs). Seems that this becomes the standard these days.

On the other hand though, despite of the unquestionable fact that some 50 years ago there were indeed release of <10yo, this is not to say that this was the standard nor the best option in those days either. I have been reading whisky books from the 30s, 50s and 60s lately and most authors concur about the notion that scotch single malt whisky should be best kept at least for 10 years before it is bottles. Not just that but also they agree that many whiskies were released way too early on the market.

Cheers
Atanas

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Patrick Leclezio October 19, 2013 at 10:50 pm

I’d suggest that changes in wood management – especially concerning sherry casks – would be a major influence. When the industry started to season its own casks (over reduced periods) this must have impacted on the quality of the casks – an 18-24 month seasoning surely can’t compare to the heavy impregnation of a Solera rotation. Also, the profit pressures are probably driving continuous reconditioning of casks in instances where in the past they may have been replaced. We’re constantly hearing how sherry casks cost 50x more than bourbon casks so the temptation to push an extra reconditioning must be intense.

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Oliver Klimek October 19, 2013 at 11:04 pm

Cask management definitely has changed, not only with sherry casks. But back in the days essentially all sherry casks were transport casks and not from a solera. Solera casks are practically dead as far as the wood is concerned because they are used for many decades. Sherry-wise, today’s custom-seasoned sherry casks may actually be an improvement over transport casks because the sherry is in contact with the wood longer. But I don’t know how the wood itself compares. I don’t know where you have the factor 50 from. A bourbon cask is about £100, that would be 5 grand for an empty sherry cask. To my knowledge a sherry cask is £700 to 800 (not sure if hogshead or butt)

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Patrick Leclezio October 20, 2013 at 10:11 pm

Sorry, sloppy on my part, mistranscribed notes. I actually had $92 to EUR 600 (based on a George Espey interview – HP website), so 9x at today’s rates; +/- in-line with your figures. The point stands though, if not as compellingly.

I just had a look at Dave Broom’s e-pistle on sherry casks prompted by your reply – very interesting. It’s inspired me to explore the subject further. I’ve drunk whiskies claimed to be exclusively matured in solera casks they’ve been magnificently flavoursome – not at all evidencing dead wood. Perhaps exceptions to the rule. Regardless I’ll have to concede based on what I’ve just read that solera cask whiskies are (and were) obviously in the minority, and so probably not a factor in this analysis.

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