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by Pat Phipps
These lockdown days have given me time to reflect.
The reflection takes my mind back to the 1990s, the time when I first started to drink single malts. And I look at how far we (the consumers) and they (the distillers) have come in that thirty years.
I went back to some of my old whisky books from the 90s. One in particular stood out: “The Single Malt Whisky Companion”, by Helen Arthur. The book goes through the distilleries, and has wonderful pictures of bottlings of the era.
I found that an updated version of the book is still available for on-line purchase. But going back to my 90s copy, it is fascinating to see that most distilleries have changed not only label styles but frequently also bottle shapes as well – maybe to try and stay ahead of the competition and have Our Product stand out on retailers’ shelves. There are a few that have bucked this trend, but they are a minority.
One phrase used in the 90s was to define a whisky as “Unaged”. Today, when a distiller does not wish to declare the age of a whisky, it is known as “No Age Statement” or NAS.
Reading through the book, distillery bottlings of the time were limited in their range of offerings. However, about 20 years ago things changed. Today, the offerings of official bottlings can be confusing. When these are added to the growing range available from independent bottlers, the spectrum of choice is truly delightful!
The Golden Age
The past has been called “The Golden Age of Whisky” for the consumer. The whisky glut in the early 2000s provided some interesting marketing ploys. Bruichladdich, for example, had a huge and varied range – of which I had my fair share! Sadly now, this has been reduced to a core range.
Another was the Ardbeg experiment, with their Path to Peaty Maturity range of Very Young, Still Young, Almost There, and Renaissance. This was an amazing series of bottlings, and are still talked about in hushed tones by Peat Freaks like me.
So, even though the world has given us a greater selection of distilleries to choose from, I still pine for the long-gone great ones I drank. I wish some of them would come back. Mind you, some of the replacements are superb, too.
This was an amazing series of bottlings, and are still talked about in hushed tones by Peat Freaks like me.
Whisky discussions sometimes turn to talk about regional “styles”.
I believe this styling was valid in the past. However, pretty much regardless of location, a lot of distilleries these days have progressed: to gain market share, they will produce styles from sherried to bourbon to peated: for instance, in a blind tasting I would be hard-pressed to tell the difference between an Islay and a peated Speyside.
For example, the BenRiach distillery range has drams for almost all tastes.
I recently attended a tasting that brought into stark relief why I think “regionalisation” is not so valid today.
The tasting was titled “Islay whiskies”.
There were the usual seven blind drams. Six were known and identified whiskies from Islay (notoriously, the home of peated whiskies), with the tasting glass number unknown. The seventh was a mystery dram – origin and glass number both unknown.
We went through the usual nosing, tasting, commenting and scoring each one. When the scoring was totalled, the winner was a peaty whisky – an Irish Connemara whiskey.
So much for regional styles!
The Visitor Experience
Another recent improvement for the consumer is the distillery visitor experience. I noted that, in my 1990s book, a lot of distilleries only allowed visitors either “by appointment only” or not all.
Today’s distilleries want visitors, are glad that people are looking for more information and are interested in the tiniest detail of whisky and production. Distilleries are building Visitor Experience centres to immerse you in their dark arts – with distillery-only bottlings on sale there to complete the experience!
Because of law changes and advances in technology, small boutique distillery numbers are increasing hugely around the world – and visitors are vital to spread these new brands. The effort is helped immensely by the World Wide Web – a phenomenon which has also developed exponentially in twenty years. The increased accessibility to information allows you to learn about your favourite distillery. In some cases, they provide a “virtual” tour, even if you can’t physically get to the place!
You get to see the grounds, the still houses and, of course, the latest bottlings.
And two fantastic parts of lockdown has been the Facebook dram sessions broadcasts and the Zoom whisky tastings – all in the comfort of your own lounge.
Long Live Progress!