Back To The Future

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Scotch whisky from the good, old days is much better than that of today. Discuss.

And that’s kind of what we did at our last tasting; comparing three single malts from the 1980s to their counterparts of today.

The 1980s was a bit of an odd time for Scotch whisky. The ‘whisky loch’ had emerged (as a result of continued production despite a downturn in demand) and it could be argued that this was when the single malt market started to truly emerge too.

Of course, Scotch whisky had been bottled as single malt prior to this. However, it was such a minimal amount given that the market at the time favoured blended Scotch whisky. Draining the loch meant that more single malt bottlings started to appear on the shelves.

The element I find most interesting here is how, over time, the marketing powers that be decided on how to distinguish the two products. If everyone had been drinking blends, then why would they suddenly move towards single malts? What was the incentive? Well, being told that single malt whisky is a superior product, of course. And for a product to be superior, there has to be an inferior product. Hence the relegation of blended whisky.  

It is, of course, true that today’s blended whisky, in general, is nowhere near as good to drink as that of yesteryear. A combination of good marketing and a self-fulfilling prophecy, I guess.

With Scotch whisky, the ‘good, old days’ of yesterday were also the ‘inconsistent, old days’. So, in comparing these three single malts from Tamnavulin, Glenallachie and Talisker distilleries, bottled in the 1980s, there were likely to have been batch differences over time. This tasting just gave us a tiny snapshot, really.  

In each case, participants knew the distillery for each pair but not which whisky was today’s and which was from the 1980s. We tend to let nostalgia take over when assessing whisky from the past; despite this past being one that most of us never really inhabited. So, participants tasted each pair ‘blind’ with only their palates to trust.

First up was the pair from Tamnavulin.

Tamnavulin, I explained, was the Gaelic for ‘caramel colouring’. OK, I jest. It’s actually ‘mill on the hill’. Built in 1966, the distillery was more or less closed from 1996 - 2007 which might go some way to explain why today’s core range, proprietary offerings don’t have an age statement. So, in attempting to find the best match for the 1980s’ bottling (which has an 8 years age statement), I chose the Sherry Cask Edition. I had a hunch that Tamnavulin weren’t using ex-German Pinot Noir casks back in the day. First up was the Sherry Cask Edition; the whisky’s initial maturation was in American Oak barrels and it was then "enhanced by a finesse in three different sherry casks”

The consensus was that, although it was lacking in any real complexity, it was perfectly drinkable. The impression I got was that everyone ‘finessed’ their drams.

Next, was the Tamnavulin-Glenlivet 8 years. Details on the bottle explain that the whisky had been ‘matured and mellowed’ in oak casks. Surprisingly, the information doesn’t state whether or not those were the finest oak casks; let’s just assume they were. However, from the information on the bottle, we know that the barley was plump and the craftsmen were skilled and dedicated. At least it wasn't the other way around. Oh, and it states that the water was pure. Phew!

In comparison, most found the 1980’s Tamnavulin extremely harsh with a bitter aftertaste. Needless to say, the majority of the group preferred today’s bottling.

Next up was the pair from Glenallachie. Or GlenAllachie. Or even GLENALLACHIE. Whichever variation you prefer, this distillery was also built in the 1960s (1967, I believe).

The distillate from the 1980s’ Glenallachie 12 years bottling was from 1969; just two years after the distillery opened. I know this because it states as much on the neck label. The distillery was acquired in 2017 by the J.K Rowling-esque Billy Walker and The GlenAllachie Consortium and the bottling from today up for comparison was the 12 years.

There were quite a few differences here. Firstly, strength: 40% (1980s) versus 46% (today). Also, looking at the difference in colour, either Tamnavulin got in first and bought up all the E150a leaving nothing for their neighbour or the cask make up is very different. Today’s GlenAllachie 12 years was matured in virgin oak, oloroso and PX casks; the 80s whisky was matured in...well, it was matured; that’s all I know.

On the nose, the 80s Glenallachie was great with some lovely, fresh peach and apricot notes. On the palate, though, it was disappointing. Bland was pretty much the general opinion of the group. Today’s GlenAllachie received a thumbs up from most, especially from those who love a sherry bomb or two, and it was the preference of most folk on the night.

The final pair came from Talisker distillery. The only distillery of the three which wasn’t built in the 1960s. Although parts of it were; there was a fire there at the start of the decade which caused enough damage for them to be rebuilt. Some say that that investment was the only reason such a small, remote distillery survived the cull of the early 80s.

The comparison on the night was between the two Talisker 10 years. The Classic Malts logo, which normally appeared on the carton or bottle after the range was released in 1988, doesn’t appear on this 1980s offering. So, having spoken to someone who joined DCL just before the six Classic Malts expressions were launched, we concluded that this was one of the first batches of the 10 years to appear on the market.  

What was surprising here is that there was very little difference between the two bottlings. The Talisker 10 years from the 1980s came across as less peaty but that could simply be due to the levels dissipating over time in the bottle. The difference between the two was very subtle though and, therefore, it proved difficult to decide on a preference. When pushed, the 1980s Talisker was the choice of most but the consistency of the spirit was remarkable (in comparison to the previous two pairs).

My favourite? Well, I really wanted to like that Glenallachie but it’s not to be. The 1980s Talisker was the winner for me.


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