Whisky Advocate

Whisky inconsistencies: your experiences?

January 6th, 2009

Contrary to what many people might think (and what some whisky producers might suggest), sometimes the producer’s standard offerings do change. But don’t expect them to send out press releases or run ads telling everyone.

Why would a whisky’s flavor profile change? There are many reasons, but many times it comes down to having enough whisky stocks to keep the flavor profile consistent. If there are gaps in production, or if the marketing department forces the blender to bottle more whisky than they have appropriate stocks, then the flavor profile will change and the quality might suffer.

I’ll offer a few examples of recent experiences I’ve encountered. Ardbeg 17 year old kept getting older year after year until they finally discontinued it. That’s because the Ardbeg distillery was closed for most of the 1980s, making it impossible for Ardbeg to put out a 17 year old over the past decade. The owners kept the age statement on the label the same, but the whisky got older and its flavor profile changed.

Another example I recently encountered is Pappy Van Winkle 23 year old Bourbon. When it first came out several years ago, there was a lot of oak in that whiskey–too much for balance. I tried a new bottling recently and the oak was in check, the balance was impeccable, and it really was a great example of an ultra-mature bourbon. In fact, I’ll be posting a review of it up on this blog in the near future. I still have my original example of PVW 23, and it really is quite different than the newer release.

Several years ago, a master blender gave me a bottle of his new release. He pulled me aside and said to me: “Be sure to enjoy this bottle, because after the first bottling I don’t have enough quality sherry casks to duplicate it. The next bottling won’t be the same.”

So, tell us about your experiences. Have you noticed inconsistencies in a particular whisky over the years?

15 Responses to “Whisky inconsistencies: your experiences?”

  1. Martin says:

    I have noticed a horrible inconsistency in 18 year old Macallan’s. So much so, that certain bottlings like the 1985 and before have almost nothing in common with 1985 and after…

  2. Gary Gillman says:

    Very good comments and question, John.

    In my experience, almost no bottle of anything tastes like the next one, exactly.

    Two years’ successive Xmas gifts of Johnnie Walker Red Label showed one to be better than the other: softer, richer with seemingly more Highland character and less grain whisky (although the percentages probably were the same in each).

    And of course, this has to be so. Whisky is a natural product, partly. Barrels differ and therefore each batch will differ since the matrix that produced a given bottling will never exist, exactly, again. (This is why Brown-Forman selects wood from different regions to go into each barrel made to hold Jack Daniels, and indeed Jack is a pretty consistent whiskey).

    Grains change over time and yeasts too. So, even apart from issues such as periodic or permanent unavailability of a given malt for a blend, or the “age-holding” matter you adverted to, so many variables exist that mandate that some changes will occur between each bottle and certainly over time.

    I value the changes as long as they don’t detract from the overall quality. I agree Macallan seems lesser today than 15 and 20 years ago, not quite as rich (but still very good, the 12 is a staple in my bar). But some whiskies are better than they were, I have found this with Glenfiddich for example, and also Talisker (not quite as wild and wooly as it was, which I like).

    Here’s to the differences and discussing and appraising them. And by the way, those two bottles of Johnnie Red? I “vatted” them and it’s darn good!

    Gary

  3. Todd says:

    For some distilleries, inconsistency between bottlings is expected, upfront and part of the charm of the whisky, Springbank and Bruichladdich being most notable examples.

    For a dramatic illustration of changing fundamental style of a distillery, taste a vertical of Bowmores distilled between the 1960s to present. The variation is startling. The distillates of Bowmore from the 1960s-1970s are fabulous, then hit a bad patch. Bowmore is now improving from a low point of distillate dating to the mid 1980s. Other dramatic changes: taste Oban 14 now versus one bottled 10 years ago or Talisker 10 for the same eras of production- very different!

    Currently one of the most fascinatingly diverse bottlings is Ardbeg 10 yo. I’ve never tasted a bad one, but there are remarkable differences, especially in the recent bottlings. Great stuff!!

    I now assume bottle variation as a rule rather than exception, and when I find a bottle that I particularly like, I go back to where I bought it and snap up everything on the shelf with matching bottling codes. Case in point, the Lagavulin 16, which was magnificent for years (the pre-Port Ellen/White Horse bottling demarcate older high qualilty bottlings). Then the quality fell dramatically and I stopped buying it for about 5 years. I bought a new bottle last summer and it was back to top form – and I went back to where I bought it and picked up 6 more.

    The unwitting ally of the student of bottling inconsistency is the marketing department of drinks companies. Label changes, changes in the bottle style or color, and package inserts all provide clues to “eras” of high vs low points in quality. For example, Talisker 10 yo bottles in green or brown glass bottled 7-8 years ago or longer are terrific. The newer bottlings in clear glass are pallid and weak by comparison, a shadow of the former magnificence of this dram.

    I agree with Martin and Gary’s comments on the Glenfiddich (getting better) and Macallan 18 (getting worse, the sharp line of demarcation for the 18 yo is vintage 1979, mediocre thereafter). Let’s not even go into the dismal Fine Oak.

    So when you hear a marketing tale of how the whisky has not changed since when it was made in the smuggler’s glen, dismiss it as hoeey and enjoy the dram for its own merits.

  4. Michael Shoshani says:

    In the world of American whiskey, of course, inconsistency can often be the rule rather than the exception.

    The short: Kentucky Tavern has, over the past fifteen or twenty years, been made at Glenmore in Owensboro, Bernheim in Louisville (where it was made with wheat rather than rye as a “small grain”), and now Constellation/Barton in Bardstown. By contrast, Littlemill is dead. You will not find Littlemill being produced at Glenkinchie or Aberfeldy. When the last of it gets bottled by the brand owner or an independent, that’s it. Tell your grandchildren about it fondly.

    The long: Single Malt Scotch is usually labelled with the name of the distillery that produced it; if that distillery goes silent, the brand dies out when the last of the reserves are bottled and sold. With Kentucky Bourbon, however, it is not unusual for a distillery to be taken over , shut down, and have its famous old brands acquired by another distillery. The new distillery will use the brand name but the whiskey inside its bottles will be markedly different from the whiskey previously sold under that brand, because the new make will be from a different mashbill, different yeast, and different proofs for low wines, high wines, and barrelling.

    And in the cases of whiskeys whose ownership seems stable, it is still not uncommon for unannounced changes to be made. Over the past ten years or so Wild Turkey’s 101 proof bottling has gone from a stated 8 years to no age statement, and has become much drier in character, suggesting a younger bottling. Jim Beam Black Label has been reduced in proof from 90 to 86, while Jack Daniel’s (which is Tennessee Whiskey, not Bourbon) went from 90 to 86 to its current 80.

    I suspect in these cases that it’s more or less how the producers deal with a fluctuating market; sales of spirits, so-called brown spirits in particular, are higher than they were four to eight years ago when currently marketed stocks were being distilled. It’s pretty much the only way they can meet the current demand, even as expansion plans are afoot at two distilleries that I am aware of.

  5. Interesting thread – and, I must say, great website (I just discovered it, keep it up, John!!)

    I think what makes it difficult when comparing standard bottlings is that you often end up comparing a freshly opened bottle with an old one (at least that happens to me sometimes). How does the newer 2007 bottling of Talisker 10 hold up to my older (2002?) bottling? Even with both of them open it is hard to tell, since one has experienced so much oxygenation (there is a nice thread on how to store whisky, BTW).

    [However, I find that different whiskies react very differently to having been opened for a longer time. Some I even like better after a few months as they get more even in taste (can I say that here without getting lynched? I guess so).]

    I have experienced true inconsistencies, though. The most appearant one was with the beforementioned Talisker 10, where I had two very flat tasting bottles.

    Jim Murrays Whisky Bible suggests that Tobermory (and Ledaig) have run into a serious problem this year. I have not compared Tobermory’s bottlings side by side, so I can’t tell. Can anybody comment on this, has anyone tried the 2008 10yo bottling? I have the Chieftains’ Ledaig Jim gave only some 70 points, and I like it a lot (it IS extreme whisky).

    Someone made a remark concerning the Laphroaig 10yo being inconsistent, which I do not find to be the case (although you really should finish up bottles of 10yo when they become more full than empty, the body gets very heavy). If they read this: Please let me know what your experiences were! (The Laphroaig 10 is my fav bottle of Scotch these days.)

  6. John Hansell says:

    One thing I didn’t mention in my original posting is that there were some expressions where the only consistency was their inconsistency. The classic example is Springbank 21 year old.

    I have bottles of Springbank 21 that are so dark, you can tell they were first fill (or mostly first fill) sherry casks. But I also have bottles of various shades of darkness. One of the bottles I have looks like it came from an ex-bourbon cask. It’s very pale.

    Someone once told me at the distillery many years ago that the 21 Springers were single cask bottlings, even though it was never promoted as such. If someone from Springbank Distillery is lurking out there, maybe they can confirm or deny this.

  7. Louis says:

    Highland Park is a big one for me. My first 12yo purchased in 12/97, the initial 18yo released the next summer, and the 1977 were spectacular. But HP’s became somewhat ordinary IMHO, starting when they switched away from the bottles that looked like a large cone on top of a small one. A friend reports that the current 12yo is much improved, so I will have to try it again.

    The Talisker 10 year old used to have the nickname ‘Scottjish Rocket Fuel’, due to its peppery finish. That disappeared at least five years ago, although the current bottling is a fine dram in its own right.

    The Macallan 12 year ol,d ‘Sherrywood’ is slightly different from the old standard 12. The current SW is either better balanced or less rich, depending on your point of view. It also has a firmer body, probably a lighter hand on the chill filtering. For those who do ratings, I don’t think the differences would be worth more than one pint in either direction.

    Slainte.

    Louis

  8. David S says:

    With regard to Laphroaig 10, I have detected a change in style since the first bottle I purchased in 1996. This has always been one of my favorite whiskies and one that I am never without. And while I now anticipate that standard releases will change over time, and often subscribe to the same strategy of aquisition mentioned above by Todd, with Laphroaig 10 I have purchased (and consumed) at least a bottle or two each year continuously. I agree with you that it is difficult to compare a freshly opened bottle with an old one, which is why, at first, I questioned whether it was my own tastes that had changed. But over the years I have had the opportunity to taste, on several occasions, Laphroaig 10 from older (and freshly opened) releases vs. current bottles. This has convinced me that a shift has occured where the medicinal and pehnolic notes have a reduced role, with the overall effect being a much sweeter malt. At a point about 4-5 years ago I started to enjoy it a bit less, although I believe that it since has improved greatly.
    I equate this to the differences in Talisker (although the shift in Talisker was much less subtle in my opinion), where I too have noted that the older bottles with the peppery finish have been replaced with a much sweeter version. Luckily I have some Talisker in the old brown and green glass bottles and have had it head-to-head with the newer versions. There is a distinct difference to my taste.
    I wonder how much of these changes are just the results of the process of making whisky and sourcing casks, or whether there is an attempt to appeal to different tastes and markets.

  9. Rick Duff says:

    John,
    I came to whisky after being an avid home wine-maker for many many years. One time to experiment a friend and I made wine from 500 pounds of Zinfandel. We treated all of the grapes the same, and all were fermented at my house with the same yeast. We then moved it into 5 5 gallon glass jugs (carboys) and a 15 gallon carboy. My friend took 3, and I kept 3 (including the 15 gallon). We brought them all back together for bottling. Of course the 15 gallon batch tasted different.. it aged slower in a larger vessel (just like Laphroig aging faster in the half casks)… however the 5 5 gallon vessels all tasted completely different. There was a similarity in the ones aged in each house.. but just simply having a slightly different environment to age in changed the taste completely. And this is in 1 year. From this I learned that while a certain distillery or brand can try to maintain consistency, it is a very difficult task indeed.
    Of course your previous article on blending came to mind.. as this is what we did with a good percentage of the wine (although we did 4 different bottlings, including a single “barrel”.)
    I do like to pick up on occasion from eBay, and older bottling of some favorite blends.. to see how they tasted 15, or 30 years ago versus current blends of the same Scotch.
    Of course another interesting thing is how yeast will mutate.. Woodford Reserve started with the same yeast as Old Forester.. but after about 2 years due to the environment outside being different, the yeast mutated and was different. The only way to avoid this is dry commercial yeast.

    Here is a question though… a lot of coastal (Scotland) distilleries started shipping their new distillate away to be barreled and aged. I’ve noticed they still have the brine/salty flavour, so I’m assuming this is more in the fermentation and distilling side. Do you think this is the case? More flavour comes from the fermenting (wash to beer) and distilling than in aging? Of course the wood makes a TON of difference. For wine I see a huge improvement using french oak to american (for reds).

  10. Joe Maissel says:

    I was surprised by the difference between the Sazerac 18 bottlings. They’ve diminished in quality over the years. I learned from you that it’s because the stock is vatted.

    I get the occasional dry bottle of George Dickel 12, but it’s unusual. 98% of the time I get the maple-marshmellow-coconut goodness I expect.

  11. Kozlo says:

    I think David S is right on the money with his comments on Laphroiag 10…

  12. John Hansell says:

    A couple items worth pointing out. Like Todd said above, for some distilleries (Springbank, Bruichladdich) the inconsistency and variability is part of the distillery’s charm–as long as the purchaser is aware of this.

    Another thing: it is worth reiterating something the Gary said. Variability doesn’t always mean that a product is getting worse. Sometimes it means it’s getting better. He used Glenfiddich and Talisker as examples, and I have also noticed this in some Irish whiskeys (Like Jameson) over the past decade.

  13. I think an equally important point is whether or not a change in style was intended by the blender – or a product of mere necessity, due to the stock situation that year.

    David S., thanks a lot for your comments on the Laphroaig 10! Do you think the chance in style is due to the transition to Makers Mark casks?

  14. John Hansell says:

    Thomas, that’s a very good point. A distiller/blender might want to gradually change a whisky based on a change in consumer preference, or they might not even have a choice, because of a lack of stocks.

  15. Patrick says:

    Inconsistency is present and will always be.
    Springbank is and has always produced small batches of their whiskies (e.g., Springank 21, Longrow 10 etc). They mix a few casks together and once the batch is over, they will prepare a different batch with different casks (which might contain more or less sherry casks than the first batch).

    As mentioned above, this is due to the small scale of their operations. Laphroaig was mentioned, but Lagavulin is a different exemple. If you compare the Lagavulin 16 YO bottled in 2008 with the ones bottled in early 2000, you will notice that the amount of sherry has significantly decreased, replaced by a first fill bourbon cask. The Bowmore distilled starting 1990s have a different flavour profile than the earlier ones. Conjugated with a new wood policy, this difference is noticeably in the Bowmore 12 YO.

    Change in wood policy, stock availability are factors influencing the consistency of a whisky trough time.
    In addition, changes in the distillation profile, due to changes in the production process (e.g., Dufftown) or changes in the equipment (e.g., Benromach, with the new stills of different size and type than the older ones) are additional factors influencing whisky flavours.

    Inconsistency is very easy to achieve , but consistency very hard to achieve

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