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?
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.