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The Age of Innocence
September 13, 2023 | article | 10 minute read

Why did the world fall in love with single malt whisky?

This should be an easy question. Thanks to its sole ingredient, barley, single malt whisky can be the most flavour-complex spirit in the world when its makers handle that ingredient in the most careful and nurturing of ways. Long, temperature-controlled fermentations to coax out the barley’s fullest complexity, slow-rate trickle distillation and very narrow heart cuts for unctuousness of texture and purity of flavour, then maturation in a profile of good wood to augment those barley flavours with an interweaving of oak.

Once this approach was de rigueur. Take a walk back through time to the 1960s and fermentations were long as standard, premium barrels from the world’s best wineries easy (and cheaper) to come by, and spirit still runs low and slow. There was far more independence in the industry; distilleries were smaller, more rustically inefficient affairs. The approach was not ‘how to make the cheapest litre of alcohol?’ but ‘how to make something individual, flavourful?’ . 

The results are a matter of easily-accessible public record. Those who have been lucky to taste single malt whiskies distilled in the 1950s and 1960s — and note, we’re not talking about hyper-aged recent bottlings, but those bottled in the eighties or earlier, whiskies available to any buyer — know that these represent many of the greatest single malts ever made.

It’s important to understand age statements here. At face value there might seem no difference between two, say, 10-year-old bottlings from the same single malt distillery. But if one was distilled in 1964 and bottled in 1974, versus a stablemate from 2012 bottled in 2022, this badge of age is likely concealing a world of difference as regards production. (Another reason that age statements, in and of themselves, tell a distinctly limited story about a whisky’s flavour and quality).

What Changed?

The OPEC oil crisis of 1973 was the turning point. The pivot. Consolidation the name of the game. Under global financial strain, distilleries began making cost and efficiency cuts wherever they could. A race for the cheapest litre of alcohol. Enzymes were invariably used to speed up malting, fermentation times — the primary determiner of how much volume a distillery can produce annually — were slashed, and yeast strains selected for efficiency rather than flavour or ability to cope with long ferments. Heart cuts were widened, stills were charged with greater quantities of wash and run at high pressure for a faster turnaround. 

Notably, at a similar time, the wine trade  changed in France and elsewhere. Before the 1970s, standard practice was to ship wine in barrel from the country in which it had been made and to do the bottling in the importing country. This is why the great old wine merchants were based in ports; Bristol, London, Liverpool. Docks would be covered in thousands upon thousands of casks — all first class oak from France and Spain, freshly emptied. It was both incredibly simple — and convenient for both parties — for those casks to be sent up to Scotland to be filled with whisky.  

Around the 1970s however, troubled by scandals and looking to shore up guarantees of provenance, wine producers began bottling at their own château or bodega as standard – taking up the mantra ‘mise en bouteille au chateau’. Supplies of sherry, ports, wines and their casks dried up in the UK and became rarer, harder to obtain, thus more expensive. In the midst of financial crisis the obvious solution for whisky distilleries was to reuse casks more often than had previously been the case, and to buy in the cheapest barrels possible.

Even barley quality didn’t escape this perfect storm. With efficiency and yield the watchwords of the new era, barley was bred ruthlessly and accordingly to these twin parameters. The result, a set of new standard varieties with near-identical parentage and genetic makeup, something we discovered for ourselves during our peer-reviewed investigation into terroir.

As Dr Dustin Herb explains: ‘when I saw there wasn’t a huge variety effect I contacted a barley researcher, a colleague of mine, Dr Bill Thomas, from the James Hutton institute in Scotland, and asked him, ‘Can you do a little dive into these two varieties?’ He found out that the two varieties are actually within one generation removed from each other. They share one wing — while they’re not sister lines there’s no real difference genetically between them.’

At the same time as the industry was being economically pushed into making these efficiency measures, the public was losing its taste for blended whisky — the engine that drove (and still drives) the finances of Scotch whisky. Distilleries, increasingly consolidated under the umbrellas of large conglomerates, found themselves with a glut of stock, and across the second half of the 1970s and the 1980s, well over twenty were closed, with many more mothballed. 

It’s no surprise that those which faced mothballing or the axe were those which had not been expensively modernised to produce the most efficient litre of alcohol. They were the smaller, more rustic affairs which still used old-fashioned methods of production; fabulous for flavour but no use for the efficiency that had come to be prized above all. It’s no surprise that these closed distilleries include many of the marques that have come to be most revered.

Waterford Whisky

A new dawn of single malt appreciation

In the mid-1980s came a twist in the tale. A small, but rapidly-growing and highly enthusiastic corps of drinkers began discovering single malts. Rich, deep, textural expressions — spirits for which there was no equivalent anywhere else in the world. Independent bottlers in Italy and elsewhere were presenting single malts rated even today as some of the greatest drinks of all time of any sort, and even cheap official bottlings were lionised as of extraordinary quality. 

This group of enthusiasts grew in number, accelerated by the advent of the internet, and by the 1990s a fully-fledged single malt boom was racing towards its modern zenith. The conglomerates which owned the distilleries increasingly cashed in, more and more expressions became available, marketing budgets increased severalfold and step by step single malt reached the seemingly-unassailable position of ‘world’s leading luxury spirit’ that it occupies today.

Perhaps you’ve already spotted the irony here. The spirits that inspired the increased enthusiasm for single malt in the early 80s through to the late 90s were made in the very methods that, by the point of their discovery, had been rendered virtually extinct. Those long fermentations, slow distillations, narrow cuts and world-class barrels belonged to a world that by the mid-80s had been effectively replaced.

Of course the whisky industry was nothing to do with the oil crisis, and could have done nothing to prevent it. They could hardly help the events of the 1970s and there’s a good argument to be made that the efficiency changes were necessary for the broader industry’s health, particularly the protection of blended whisky.

The mistake was, despite the realisation that the world was falling in love with the astonishing distillates of pre-1973, and that single malt whisky could be a peerless, premium product by virtue purely of its inherent flavours and qualities, that the whisky industry chose not to revert to the practices that made its spirits so extraordinary in the first place.

Rather than retaining efficiency measures for whiskies destined to be part of bulk blends, and re-instating the most rigorous, time-consuming, but ultimately flavourful practices for their now highly-prized single malts, the conglomerates which now owned virtually every distillery chose a largely one-size-fits-all approach for all the whisky that they made. Short fermentations, wide cuts, fast distillation and repeatedly re-filled oak remained standard practice, irrespective of how the whisky was ultimately destined to be presented and consumed.

It isn’t rocket science that whisky made with efficiency, rather than flavour, as the primary objective, simply cannot be as good as that which is made more painstakingly. It’s the equivalent of putting basic supermarket meat through a microwave, rather than slowly cooking a choice cut from a good butcher.

barrels at ballygarran
Waterford Whisky in a glass

The modern picture of premiumisation

To paper over the cracks of efficiency-driven spirit matured in cost-driven casks, the phenomenon of so-called ‘finishing’ became commonplace. A quick shot of colour and flavour; a year to six months in an active cask at the end of its maturation. An easy solution to replicate, and replicate it the industry did — before, over time, inevitably (and markedly) shortening that ‘finishing’ period. Three-month finishes are now a norm, with marketing focussed entirely on that 90-day sprint as opposed to the years that preceded it.

With little to say about how, or from what, the spirit itself was actually made, extreme age and wood type have become the twin crutches of almost all marketing of premium whisky.

New, ultra-ornate, crystal-decanter bottles at five figure sums — for liquid now distilled in the era of industrial efficiency — have become a virtually weekly sighting. No details are shared on ingredients or production. The consumer is simply expected to imagine that with enough time in oak it doesn’t matter whether the actual spirit was any good; that, paraphrasing Black Books: ‘the older a whisky is, the gooder it is also’. 

Even in the near-unique instance that an old, established distillery retained the old ways of production; the long fermentations, slow and careful distillation and so on, quality has suffered. Why? Because, again, their barley is one of the modern, efficiency-driven, less flavourful varieties, and their oak is seldom the pick of the best, fresh casks from the world’s elite wineries, once so readily available.

This was thrown into telling relief in a recent tasting by WhiskyFun’s Serge Valentin – of single malts from one of those rare distilleries who never made cuts to production efficiency. The results were stark: bottlings distilled in the 1960s earned scores in the comfortable 90s. Bottlings of exactly the same age distilled in the 1990s averaged around 5-7 points less. Their methods haven’t changed — the difference is purely down to ingredients. As Serge described the final bottling of the set: ‘A last old glory, while hoping that the distillery will manage to release such utter wonders again.’

Back to the future

This is the paradox at the heart of single malt whisky. An industry, built on spirits from a former age of innocence, which has ‘premiumised’ at an astonishing rate whilst cutting every corner in terms of ingredient and method. An Emperor marching through the crowds, desperately hoping no one will shout out that he isn’t wearing any clothes.

But people cannot be fooled forever. Today, more than ever before, they want provenance, transparency, traceability. Fundamentally they want food and drink that has been made with flavour in mind; that has used good ingredients, knows where those ingredients come from, and has treated those ingredients with the utmost care and love. The modern mileage to simply insisting that something is ‘premium’ whilst offering no evidence to back that assertion up is rapidly running down. Truths can only be hidden or disguised for so long.

We feel that an about-turn is due. That single malt needs to go back in time to the ingredients and methods that made it what it was in the first place; that produced the most flavour-complex spirits the world has ever known. The industry has marched en masse away from the drink’s agricultural origins in the grainfield; barley is barely given a passing mention, let alone championed, studied and eulogised as it should be, as the very source of the complex flavours that mark whisky out from brandy or rum or agave spirits. Instead bulk barley with virtually identical genetics and sourced from wherever is easiest is celebrated on spreadsheets, whilst the consumer is told to look in another direction.

What’s more, we’re not the only ones who think like this. The last ten years has seen a worldwide rumbling of dissent and revolution as new distilleries have opened which are interested in real, tangible quality above all else. In good grains, good process and good casks. In the most flavourful litre of alcohol, not the cheapest litre of alcohol.

Turning the ship around will not be easy, nor will many wish even to try. Many, indeed, will have active interest in seeking to prevent it and preserving the status quo. It requires a top-down overhaul of every aspect of whisky’s modern production, starting from barley varieties and the ways they are grown, through malting, brewing, fermentation, distillation and maturation. Every aspect of every one of these stages impacts flavour; all have been chipped away at; none are easy, quick or cheap to do properly. When it comes to varieties alone, it took us four years to upscale the last remaining 50g of Hunter barley into enough just to sow a farm, never mind the years it took thereafter for that barley to become whisky.

But it is through those extra miles, through reverence for ingredient and dedication to process, that single malt whisky’s most natural flavours were once found, and where we think they may yet be found again. We believe that whisky’s age of innocence can be reborn from the modern, industrial era — indeed we suspect it will prove inevitable. We hope that curious drinkers will join us in ushering it in.

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