In search of the sweet spot
Whisky from the 1960s is often revered as reaching a pinnacle in terms of character and depth of flavour. SMWS ambassador Lee ‘Connas’ Connor asks what made drams from that decade so special – and if it’s ever going to be possible to reproduce them
The 1960s are remembered for many reasons: the rise of a new consumerism, the birth of a radical counterculture, waves of socially aware protest movements, man landing on the moon.
All of it was beamed directly into the public’s living rooms via the magic of the great technological advancement known as television.
But for many whisky drinkers, the decade stands for a unique ‘sweet spot’ in the history of distillation, a moment in time when traditional methods collided perfectly with an increasing acceptance and embrace of scientific analysis – but before production became overly homogenous. As a result, there is huge interest in examples of whisky of the time – and for some new distillers, the pursuit of a ‘1960s-style’ dram has provided a huge motivation.
But what was that ‘sweet spot’ and where does the motivation to encapsulate the spirit of the 1960s from?
Pictured: Jonny McMillan
“In my opinion the key difference is essentially that old-style whisky character is derived mainly from the distillate-driven flavours, rather than wood,”
says Jonny McMillan, co-founder of The Whisky Show Old and Rare and assistant reserve spirits manager for Berry Bros & Rudd.
“I’m thinking here of that big, luscious tropicality often found in 1960s distillates. Old-style production – with longer fermentations, lower yielding barleys and yeast – gives more character to the distillate and in turn it absolutely shines in a simple refill cask. “You could argue that much of the modern trend for active wood finishes comes from modern spirit production giving a more homogenous whisky, which relies on wood for interest.”
Jonny’s perspective on spirit-driven flavour can be borne out by the lack of emphasis distillers in the 1960s had on maintaining the kind of rigorous ‘wood policy’ you witness in the modern industry, or indeed access to the level of wood science and analysis on a cask’s influence on maturation that is widely available today.
SMALL STEPS AND GIANT LEAPS
Perhaps we can attribute an acceptance of science and analysis as partly responsible for this historical sweet spot in production. Consider that Alfred Barnard made 57 separate references to laboratories or analytical equipment in his four-volume series The Noted Breweries of Great Britain and Ireland, published from 1889-1891. I’ve not been able to locate any such references in his sainted The Whisky Distilleries of the United Kingdom.
The first record of any on-site laboratory at a Scottish distillery is at Hazelburn in Campbeltown in the 1920s, so it’s fair to assume that distilling was somewhat behind the curve when it came to embracing technology. But by the 1960s scientists had become commonplace, there had been huge steps in pneumatic malting, and research into yeast strains and barley varieties was proving a great success. It’s not too far of a stretch to conclude that the balance of academic learning and historical craft required for excellence had been struck – while still allowing for flavour variation across the industry.
Pictured: Phil and Simon Thompson
“There was still a lack of established knowledge on elements of the whisky-making process, such as the potential for barley to be infected with native lactose acid bacteria or differing yeast strains being used across the industry,”
says Simon Thompson, head distiller at Dornoch distillery.
“We now know the impact that can have on the final flavour of the whisky, making for a broader and, in my opinion, far more interesting overall product.
“This was a result of the shift to new proactive scientific analysis merging with established production traditions at individual distilleries, and of course, the reliance on human analysis for quality and consistency back then. I wouldn’t underestimate the influence that the now deceased practice of ‘dramming’ at distilleries had on this. One way of looking at it is that they had an internal quality control. If people on the workforce were drinking new make, I’d imagine that employees would make sure that any decline in quality was noted!”
YOU CAN'T ALWAYS GET WHAT YOU WANT
So, what happened? For all the retrospective lording of spirit produced in the 60s, the fact is that the nature of varying product quality means that it’s difficult for any industry to set solid long-term foundations. The rise of consumer rights and minimum quality demands inevitably led away from broad variations in flavour and yield, towards a more consistent approach.
And it worked. Much of the success we are currently experiencing in Scotch is undoubtedly down to individual distilleries harnessing the ‘scientific method’ to produce a more consistent product in the decades following the 60s. The industry also funds bodies such as the Scotch Whisky Research Institute and the Institute of Brewing and Distilling, which were initially tasked with tightening up all areas of production and, eventually, upscaling output for a global market.
To the more commercially-minded among us, a more homogonous methodology is a small price to pay for relative international success. Isn’t all this nostalgia just ‘a bit much’?
“There’s certainly a risk of romanticising old bottles,” says Jonny. “In some cases they can be disappointing, especially with low ABV bottlings where the fill level has dropped and the original liquid is corrupted. I must say, however, that in cases where the spirit is well preserved, old-style whisky nearly always has another dimension, a whole flavour spectrum that’s entirely lacking from modern whisky.”
Pictured: analysis underway at the Scotch Whisky Research Institute
Pictured: Glen Garioch’s direct-fired stills
WHAT NOW MY LOVE?
Curiously, the advancement of academic science has not only informed those responsible for making the whisky, it has also played a part in educating a loyal customer base. That has led to something of an “age of whisky enlightenment”, where educated consumers are well aware of distillery processes and how they are likely to impact the eventual whisky.
Some distilleries are reacting with deliberate nods to procedures of yesteryear. Kilchoman’s inclusion of on-site floor maltings, Bruichladdich’s focus on differing barley varieties, and Glen Garioch’s new extension including a return to direct-fired stills all spring to mind.
Academic research has even gone as far as to publish papers on how advancements may have impacted the whiskies’ characters. So, are we on the verge of a new-wave of old-style whisky on our shelves? Simon Thompson clearly hopes that this can be achieved, but cautions about what it would involve.
“Although a lot has been learned in the intervening 60 years, and as much as I’d love to, it’s unlikely that we’ll be able to decode or reverse-engineer the precise conditions in which these whiskies were made,”
he says. “For instance, we know that spent brewers’ yeast was widely used and transported in uncontrolled conditions, over unknown timescales, back in the 60s. The likelihood is that it would have changed multiple times before it even arrived at the distillery. There is huge potential for precursors to flavour being created in that process alone but it would be ridiculous to try and recreate the exact varying temperatures and movement it was subject to.
“We are very proactive in experimenting with different yeasts and longer fermentation times as an antecedent to flavour creation. We’re finding this experimentation results in an increased need to monitor our spirit cut thoroughly. There’s just no way of guaranteeing that the heart of the spirit will emerge at the same point in every batch, and every batch has its own individual personality.
“Also, there’s a distinct inconvenience in that older barley varietals are difficult to come by, and some simply no longer exist. We’ve been lucky in that we’ve managed to resurrect two Scottish barleys not seen since the 1920s, with the help of Crafty Maltsters. This was no small undertaking, we literally had to plant, harvest and replant, harvest and replant, until we had enough to make whisky with. It’s an expensive and drawn-out process, but hopefully it will result in some really interesting and unique single malt.”
Pictured: floor malting at Kilchoman, Islay
BACK TO THE FUTURE
One of the beautiful things about whisky is that we always have to wait for it, it cannot be hurried, and it will not be rushed. Change comes gradually, if it comes at all. We have no idea if we stand on the precipice of a revolution in the category, or if we are simply going through the motions.
What we do know is that there is a growing awareness around the potential for even more flavour exploration within the confines of Scotch whisky. And, if smaller independent distilleries are having even a modicum of success, it would be naive to assume that the bigger players of the industry aren’t watching with keen interest.
Further reading for the curious-minded…
Brewers and Distillers by Profession: Raymond Gale Anderson
Whisky Science: A Condensed Distillation: Gregory H Miller
The influence of malt and wort processing on spirit character: the lost styles of Scotch malt whisky: George N Bathgate