Are today’s single malts the same as the sort created centuries ago?
Over a month ago, I went to a whisky dinner at Bombay’s Trident Hotel. Most whisky dinners tend to be boring affairs, where pompous middle-aged men who know nothing about whisky brag about their knowledge of single malts, drink far too much and then stagger out of the dining room, with their embarrassed wives helping guide them to the lift.
This one, however, was slightly different because, as good as the whisky was, many people in the dining room were left agog by the spectacle of Vikram Seth, the evening’s star turn, read his poetry out aloud. The notion of jowly whisky-drinkers, with ears red from far too much malt, turning into poetry lovers is laughable in theory.
But that evening, I saw it happen. Partly it is because Seth is such a great poet and such a terrific performer that he had the audience in the palm of his hand (Brunch’s very own Rachel Lopez was so taken with the poetry that she refused to even drink her whisky). And partly it was that Vikram so entered into the spirit of the proceedings that by the time he read his last poem, there was so much frenzied energy in the air that the whisky actually cooled passions.
Earlier this year, I went to Scotland to shoot a TV film on malt whisky and my co-host was Peter Prentice who now heads the Keepers of the Quaich, the famous whisky society. Peter is an old pal and has long been aware of my disdain for single-malt bores, so he took me to the Glenlivet distillery (among other places) to try and persuade me that beneath all the pretension and snobbery, malt whisky represented an artisanal tradition. (Full disclosure: Glenlivet was among the sponsors of the telecast.)
So, having done the rounds of the Glenlivet distillery, I was intrigued by the whisky they were launching at the dinner. And by its history.
Whisky production was a largely illicit activity in Scotland for many years and the complex relationship between the Scots and the ruling English led to the development of a bootlegging culture. This lasted till a royal visit to Scotland by the British king who asked for Glenlivet, a whisky whose reputation had spread to England.
Glenlivet – then illegal – was procured for him and the process of legitimising the Glenlivet production began. In those days, Glenlivet was owned by a man called George Smith and he became the first distiller on Speyside (a part of Scotland) to get an official licence.
Soon, what had once been an illegal trade became Scotland’s most famous product. In 1824, Smith established his first official distillery to bottle Glenlivet. Another one followed and eventually Glenlivet went on to find global fame.
But what kind of whisky did Smith make? We don’t often realise it but even so-called ancient liquors have changed dramatically in style. Till the middle of the 20th century, for instance, most champagne had so much sugar added to it that it was sickly sweet. The dry style is of relatively recent popularity. It is the same with fine wine. Château Haut-Brion is mentioned in 16th century texts, but the style of wine was so different that most of us would not be able to drink it today.
So it is with whisky. In the old days most of us drank blended whisky, that is whisky made by blending various malt and grain whiskies. But, in the very old days, before the fashion for blends caught on, it was single malts that predominated.
Now, we have come full circle. Blends still dominate the whisky market – and many are excellent – but more and more whisky drinkers are going back to single malts.
Except, what most of us don’t know is this: are the single malts we drink these days the same as the sort of whisky that George Smith used to distil illegally?
The situation is further complicated by the age factor. These days, nearly every good whisky comes with an age statement. Once upon a time, a really outstanding blend (say, Royal Salute) was so top-of-the-line that the name alone was enough. But now, even Royal Salute comes with more expensive older variants.
The same is true for malts. In George Smith’s day, it was enough for him to make one version of his Glenlivet. But today, there are innumerable age variants. The basic Glenlivet is 12 years old, which you would think should be enough. But no, there are at least five other variants going up to 25 years old. And that’s not including the Cellar Collection and limited releases.
So how much does age matter to whisky? In the case of wine, we know it does. Wine depends on grapes and there are good years and bad years. Moreover, wine keeps maturing in the bottle – it changes every year. So a wine bottled in say, 1996, will taste very different today from the way it did when it was put in the bottle.
This is not true of whisky. For a start, there are no good years or bad years. And more crucial is this: whisky does not age in the bottle. A whisky bottled in 1996 will taste much the same today as it did when it was bottled. (This is true of cognac also so be wary of all the claims about really old bottles of cognac).
This is why there is a divide within the whisky world on the age issue. Most people reckon that age is a determinant of quality. But many others disagree.
I am on the side of the age-does-matter lobby now that I’ve seen the distilleries. The key to the taste of a whisky is the cask. When the spirit goes into the casks, it has little by way of great flavour. But, over time, as the liquid comes into contact with the wood of the cask, the flavours develop. That’s why, all quality whisky companies will spend a fortune on the casks. Often they will use casks that have been used before to make something like sherry so that the wood is already flavoured.
An age statement for whisky does not tell you when the whisky was bottled (as it does with wine). It tells you how long (12 years, 15 years etc.) the whisky has been in the cask and how long it has spent maturing in the wood before it was put in the bottle.
So yes, age does matter. But nobody is sure how much and there are concerns. If you age a whisky in a cheap cask, it will actually get worse not better, over time. And after a point, does the ageing process stop improving the whisky? And anyway, just because an older whisky tastes different from a younger one, is it necessarily better?
What is clear, however, is that the aged malt whiskies in the market today may be wonderful, but they are made in a very different style from the stuff that George Smith distilled and sold. He had no time to age them. And then he did not have access to the many fancy casks that Alan Winchester, Glenlivet’s current master distiller, usually uses.
The Founder’s Reserve, the whisky that got Vikram Seth going at our dinner, is an attempt to go back to the roots and to try and create a whisky in the style of George Smith.
I interviewed Alan for my malt whisky film and he was in the process of overseeing the bottling of the new whisky then. What he has done with Founder’s Reserve is unusual. He has matured his whisky in a variety of casks. Some are the traditional aged oak casks used for malt whisky. But he has also used first-fill casks made from American wood. A first-fill cask is one that has never before been used to make whisky, so it has no whisky flavours already embedded in the wood.
Alan says that he reckons that George Smith made whisky the same way. He had no old casks of ancient whisky to rely on. So he drew on a variety of casks of relatively young whiskies and blended them to create the smooth single malt that attracted royal visitors from across the sea, drawn by its fame.
So finally, what should you remember?
Well, firstly, that there’s no point cellaring your whisky or storing it. Whisky does not improve in the bottle. So drink it soon.
Secondly, age statements are useful, but they are not the only criteria when it comes to whisky. Many younger malts are better than older ones. Don’t take the easy way out and conclude that the older a whisky, the better it is.
Thirdly, remember that all malt whisky is not the same. Even within a single brand – say Glenlivet – there will be many different expressions. Age is now a distinctive feature. But the cask may be even more important.
Fourthly, do not buy into the current snobbery that says all malts are better than all blends. Both are different kinds of Scotch and both have their strengths.
And finally, the next time you come across a single malt snob holding forth about the age of his favourite whisky ask him about the provenance of the casks in which it was made.
That should end the conversation fairly quickly!
From HT Brunch, December 20
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