If you listen to enough punters who’ve been around a while, or read the writings of many in the whisky community (er…including here at Whisky & Wisdom), you might rapidly form the opinion that Scotch whisky being produced and released today is not as good as it used to be.
In short, plenty of people – myself often (but not always) included – assert that the whisky that was being produced and released 15 to 20 years ago was superior to what we are being served up today. It’s a divisive topic, and one that is clouded by – all simultaneously at once – fact, hearsay, nostalgia, science, memory, rose-coloured tastebuds, marketing spin and experience.
Of course, there are plenty of exercises and tests one can apply to examine this theory. For example, if you have the means, you can acquire a bottle of Glen McSporran 12yo from 2015 and a bottle of Glen McSporran 12yo from 1995 and taste the two side-by-side for direct comparison. This has been done by plenty of people, including many respected whisky bloggers, and certainly by yours truly, but the conclusions vary and – ultimately – are subjective. Everyone will happily conclude that the two releases are different, but personal taste and preference usually determine which one is deemed better.
What clouds the issue is that, even if you can find two so-called identical whiskies that were released 20 years apart (such as the Glen McSporran example above), chances are that, chemically, they’re not identical at all. And this is where and why it’s a divisive subject. The science and the tastebuds don’t compete on the same playing field.
The first thing to realise and establish is the time frame from which the whisky originates. For example, if you’re comparing two Glen McSporran 12 year olds from 1995 and 2015 respectively, then you actually have to look at what was happening in the industry when they were distilled and filled into cask – which, in this case, would be twelve years earlier in 1983 and 2003. And that, dear friends, is where some very stark differences can be found. Allow me to rattle off a few observations:
- In 1983, the Scotch whisky industry was in absolute depression. Many distilleries closed between 1983 and 1986; plenty more were mothballed; production levels dived; sales were low; and whisky was not flavour of the month. Twenty years later, by 2003, the single malt game had well and truly commenced its boom; production levels were high; and investment was occurring in distilleries and plant.
- The industry’s dire economic fortunes in 1983 led to (or continued to foster) the so-called Whisky Loch. By 2003, the contrasting upturn led to both (a) amazing, aged whiskies being released onto the market at incredibly good value (compared to today’s relative prices) and (b) the draining of the Whisky Loch. In short, you could buy sensational whiskies at amazing prices in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s. Today, if those same sensational whiskies exist, they are priced at sums beyond what most whisky lovers can afford. In 2003, I could afford a Macallan 30yo for $300. In 2015, I cannot afford (or, perhaps more accurately, cannot see the value in) $8,000 for the same expression. Is this the primary basis for why old timers assert whisky was better 20 years ago? Is it genuinely an issue of quality, or is it an issue of affordability?
- Production methods changed tremendously in the twenty years between 1983 and 2003. The list is a long one, and it varies from distillery to distillery, and producer to producer, but consider the overall impact and influence of the following factors:
- Changes in the availability and preferred choice of barley. Much was made of the merits of Golden Promise (particularly by one notable distillery, whose profile is distinctly guilty of changing character in the last 20 years), and this produced a different yield and flavour profile to the likes of Optic and Chariot.
- Advances in the science and understanding of wood maturation. Truth be told, generally speaking, whisky today is being filled into much better quality wood than was the case twenty years previously. Notwithstanding the use of sulphur candles, obviously!
- In 1983, 99% of whisky was being made for blends and many distilleries did not bottle or market their whisky as a single malt. For the whiskies that were being bottled as a single malt, the parcels of casks being used would have been a very small percentage, and thus would have represented the top tier in quality. To paraphrase an oft-used observation, in 1983, the best casks plucked out for a single malt release would have been one in every hundred. By 2003, that figure might have been the top five in every hundred. Today, for some distilleries, it might be the top 10, 20, or 30 casks in every hundred! It stands to reason, science, and statistics that as the number of casks being used for single malt release increases, the overall quality of the resulting bottled spirit must decline.
- Distilleries became increasingly automated in the period from 1983 to 2003. Processes became mechanised or computerised, thus reducing or removing the human touch; the number of workers required for production reduced; and processes became more consistent. There is no doubt that the consistency of spirit produced within a distillery is far more uniform today than it was in decades past.
- Still on the subject of production, many distilleries changed processes during this 20 year period. Direct-fired stills were converted to being steam heated (although, admittedly, many distilleries made this switch prior to the 1980’s); mashtuns became larger and more efficient; wooden washbacks were replaced with stainless steel; onsite maltings closed down; peating levels changed; and so on.
- Large changes occurred in the fortunes and practices of the sherry industry between 1983 and 2003. Sherry casks, particularly those of European oak, were far more plentiful and affordable in 1983, leading to a higher percentage of sherry casks in the vatting of many single malt releases. By 2003, many distilleries’ flagship single malt releases were “proudly” boasting 100% American oak or ex-bourbon cask maturation, selling it as a virtue, rather than an economic necessity. Today, even when you do purchase releases that feature sherry casks, a lot of it is American oak, rather than European oak. Whether that is “better” is, again, subjective, but there’s no denying the two are different. If you want to explore this in detail for yourself, try the different expressions within Macallan’s 1824 series, which feature different proportions of American oak and European oak sherry casks.
But the title of this article asked a very provocative question, so let’s endeavour to answer it:
For me, personally, when I’m asked if whisky is better or worse now than it was, say, 10 or 20 years ago, my answer is dependent on the distillery or the expression in question. Because the answer varies accordingly:
For example, take Glenfiddich. 15 years ago, the flagship expression was actually a no-age-statement, the so-called “Special Reserve”. In 2003/2004 (forgive me, I can’t recall precisely), this was replaced with the 12yo, as a response to market forces and consumer sentiment at the time, which seemed to dictate that a whisky had to be at least 12 years old for it to be any good. The first releases of that 12yo weren’t particularly all that spectacular. In fact, several commentators argued (myself & Jim Murray included) that the new 12yo was inferior to its NAS predecessor. These days, however, I’m a firm believer that Glenfiddich’s 12yo today is significantly better than it was 10 years ago. Similarly, my tastebuds tell me that today’s Glenlivet 12yo is significantly better than its counterpart from 10 years ago. (And if you’d like to read an amusing comparison of Glenfiddich versus Glenlivet, click here).
And, whilst we’re at it, Glenmorangie’s 10yo today (now sporting the tag “The Original”) is significantly superior to the 10yo expression that was available in the 1990’s up until the mid-2000’s. So, yes, IMHO, those are three examples of whiskies that are better today than they were in the past. And, surely, it cannot be mere coincidence that, globally, these bottlings are perhaps the three biggest selling single malt expressions in the world right now? There’s a message in there somewhere.
On the other hand, my first ever single malt, and thus my first love, Lagavulin 16yo, is a very different whisky today compared with what it was 20 years ago. The Lagavulin 16yo I fell in love with back in 1993 came from a time when the malt was peated to 50ppm. The Lagavulin 16yo today features malt that is peated to 35ppm. And so, as we explored earlier, the two respective whiskies really aren’t even the same beast. But I’m sure I don’t need to spell out to you from which era I reckon the whisky was better.
Looking at some other better-known distilleries: The old Johnnie Walker-labelled Talisker 12yo from the 1990’s, and also the standard Classic Malts 10yo expression of Talisker up until the early 2000’s stands head and shoulders over the 10yo releases of today. Similarly, Highland Park 12yo from 1999 to 2008 was vastly superior to the 12yo releases I’ve regularly tasted from 2010 to 2015. And today’s Laphroaig 10yo has lost the tarriness and some of the maritime character it sported 20 years ago.
When it comes to the sherried expressions, things have changed tremendously, and there is almost universal agreement that – generally speaking – the sherried whiskies of today don’t stand up to the sherried whiskies of yesteryear. The reasons are primarily as listed earlier, so it’s not really the distilleries’ fault or a conscious decision or policy change on the part of the producers. But, having personally conducted a number of A-B tests, I can state from experience, rather than mere nostalgia that…
- The Macallan 12yo from today is not a patch on what the 12yo was 20 years ago.
- Glenfarclas 15yo today is significantly less sherried and not as oloroso-dominant as it was 15 years ago.
- Aberlour a’Bunadh Batch 6 (released in 1999) was an incredible whisky that is vastly superior to any of the many batches I’ve tasted from the 20’s, 30’s, 40’s, and – most recently – Batch 50.
But it’s a two-sided coin. To counter the above observations, we are now in an era blessed with the Glenfarclas Family Casks range, and the single cask releases from Glendronach. So sherry fans shouldn’t complain too much.
So it’s not all bad news. By the same token, the choice and range available to the consumer has never been wider or better. As recently as the early 2000’s, many distilleries sported just two expressions – usually a 12yo, followed by its 18yo big brother. Today, some distilleries sport no less than six or seven expressions in their core range, not to mention numerous other special or unique releases to complement the main portfolio. Similarly, today’s whisky drinkers are blessed with the availability of numerous OB releases that are bottled at 46% or cask-strength and with no chill-filtration. Compare that to the countless insipid releases at 40% 20 years ago, and today’s whisky drinkers can’t complain.
So – is whisky worse today than it was 20 years ago? Yes and no. For many distilleries, yes, today’s releases don’t stand up to their forbears. And yet some distilleries have improved tremendously and are leading the way. For those who appreciate cask-strength or non-chillfiltered whisky, your choices and options are better than has ever been the case in the past. I’m not sitting on the fence, but the answer to the question really depends on what you like and where you find value. Consider also the resources available to whisky drinkers today: The internet has opened up untold avenues for information; insight into the distilleries and the producers; consumer feedback; and the like. It’s a far cry from the experience of the punter in the mid 1990’s who had nothing more than Michael Jackson’s “Malt Whisky Companion” to assist. The one thing that can be said without fear of contradiction is that whisky was certainly cheaper twenty years ago!