Whisky Advocate

Guest blog #6: Whisky improved

September 6th, 2010

The guest blog, “What Do YouKnow?” rolls on with Steffen Bräuner of http://danishwhiskyblog.blogspot.com/. Steffen explores the changes in whisky over time in “Whisky Improved”.

 I have a range of favorite distilleries. 

Everybody does I guess. For me this has clearly been affected by what’s available out there on the open market for us whisky consumers. When I started with malt whisky I was purchasing the major brands, but as I got in the know about where to find bottlings and located strange bottlings in speciality stores my preferences became more nuanced. Unless you live in a place where the available selection is very limited, I guess this goes for most of us.

I also have a range of distilleries I don’t like and have been avoiding. I tried their whiskies and found them not to my likings (Bad whisky?) or maybe the whisky I tried was just very very forgettable.

Well, avoiding distilleries as a principle might not be the best idea. The last couple of years I did decide to be more open-minded and retry whiskies I had a very set opinion on as being BAD! or BORING!

And I didn’t regret that!

Quite a lot of distilleries has improved their products a lot. Bowmore lost what seemed to me like perfume characteristic and has become “normal” a few years ago. I did look upon Isle of Jura, Ledaig/Tobermory and Fettercairn as producing a whisky more similar to sour socks than anything drinkable, but my recent retries of these malts has proved me wrong. I’d like to single out Tobermory/Ledaig which by going to 46.3%, 10yo age statement, unchillfiltered and probably also a change in production methods lifted their whiskies up to a much higher level. Burn Stewart did a similar thing with Deanston that improved a lot as well.

I didn’t have that high thoughts about Tomatin, but that changed dramatically when they revatted their bottlings last year (with higher ABV as well). Arran wasn’t really my favourite either, but this is an ugly duckling amongst the distilleries and as it has been coming of age, I have started to really enjoy their whiskies. It’s no secret I regard the Arran Peacock as one of the best malts of 2009.

Balblair, BenRiach and also Imperial has impressed me a lot the last years. Balblair due to their vintage series, BenRiach with a change of ownership and Imperial due to Duncan Taylor’s extra attention. (Duncan Taylor thought they were gonna buy Imperial so I stocked up, and what fine malts, quite young even, they released recently).

And who wasn’t surprised by the things BenRiach has been releasing since Billy Walker took over?

Moral: Be open-minded. Whisky changes, distillery changes, the people bottling the whisky changes. Things do improve.

Any distilleries surprised you lately ?

17 Responses to “Guest blog #6: Whisky improved”

  1. WhiskyNotes says:

    Interesting point Steffen. A few random thoughts:

    - Whisky has become more popular. There’s a general boom – higher interest attracts makes place for product improvement I guess.
    - Some distilleries you’ve mentioned were plain awful, no wonder they’ve improved. Otherwise they wouldn’t have existed any more.
    - When looking at young standard malts from the 1970′s or earlier and comparing them with young standard malts from 2010, I’m afraid I don’t see much improvement.

    I’m not sure I agree on the general idea, but I do agree on your conclusion: we have to be open-minded. Every distillery has some good and bad releases. You simply have to find the jewels.

  2. Ethan Smith says:

    As much as everyone talks about Buffalo Trace’s products being amazing, I’m just not seeing it. A few I even dumped down the drain after getting half way through the bottle. I’ve been debating whether or not to wait a few years and try them again to see if the products have changed or if my taste changes. I’m hoping the improvement in products also translates into American whiskeys. I’ve heard that the current bottlings of Elijah Craig 18 are some of the best (I bought a bottle from ’91 and it is VERY good) and I hope this trend continues not only for that product, but for other whiskeys. It seems like distillers are in a little bit of a race right now to get product to the market to fill the demand, but they’re also in a race against each other to get products to market that are higher-quality and what the consumer wants.

    • sam k says:

      I’m with you, Ethan. I agree with Steffen that bottlings improve or decline as time goes on. In fact, I’ve had a change of heart on single bottles that I initially didn’t like after tasting them again under different circumstances I find that whiskey sometimes tastes different today than it did just yesterday.

      On the Buffalo Trace thing, I don’t like their standard bottling at all. It contains, to my palate, a musty note that I just don’t like. I find that carrying over to the Thomas Handy rye, which just sets me off. I know that I’m in a small minority here, but I like rye better than anything else, and that’s where I stand. The Handy doesn’t do it for me. George Stagg, on the other hand, is outstanding across the board, and I like a lot of other things from BT just fine.

      Once again, one man’s meat is another man’s poison. Nobody’s right, and nobody’s wrong, we just have a different calibration on what each of us likes.

  3. Texas says:

    I agree about Tomatin. I never had the older expression, but the new 12 year is darn good for the price.

  4. Hi Steffen, I think you cannot really generalize this trend. The examples you gave are quite correct, but do they imply that whisky in general has improved?

    The quality of young blends has eroded over the past decades because less malt and more grain whisky is used. Some distilleries had to problems to cope with rising demand and included sub-par casks in ther bottlings.

    I guess for each improved whisky you will also be able to find one that became worse.

  5. B.J. Reed says:

    Interesting and what I liked about your post is how you noted the shift and change in the industry and how distilleries can ebb and flow depending upon leadership and commitment – We also have to remember that those changes may not show up for awhile in the product unless they can do something with existing stocks that increase the quality.

    A couple of cases in point. Ben Nevis I have found to be an under performer when it comes to single malt but that may simply be because they do not care about that market – They did release a 25 YO this year but while pleasant, it doesn’t change my view of the distillery. I also worry about Bunnahabhain now that John MacLellan has left for Kilchoman.

    I think a # of the distilleries you mentioned are on the way up. Deanston under Callum Fraser is a good example. I expect much better things in the future. Same is true of Isle of Jura if Richard Patterson and White/Mackay continue to focus more heavily on what Willie can do there

    Tullabardine is producing some very interesting whisky and I have hopes that Balmenach and Simon Buley will be given a chance to shine.

  6. George Jetson says:

    Steffen, Tomatin for sure is one of those sleeper whiskies that has improved dramatically. They seem to have tamed down that aldehyde character and the new 18yo and 25yo are very good indeed.

    BenRiach is another one that in spite of their twee marketing campaign has raised the bar especially with their vintage releases, likewise, Benromach. My concern with those two is the same as the other distilleries pumping out a range of a dozen or more bottlings. Not all of them are good, so it kind of dilutes the reputation of the brand when hit upon a dud.

    I also think that Glendronach is producing a fine series of the re-released mix of sherried and traditional whiskies after many mediocre years. Their new single cask series has some really stunning examples.

  7. I can remember when Four Roses was the low end garbage my dad would give to company he didn’t like (the other guest whiskey!). I love their single barrel and small batch stuff now. Also, I think Jura is heading in the right direction with the Superstitution and Prophecy. I also agree that Glendronach (the 15 yr.) is turning out some great whisky. On the flip side, I am very disappointed with Crown Royal’s most recent offering, the Crown Royal Black, especially after the Cask No. 16.

  8. kallaskander says:

    Hi there,

    hi Steffen. Interesting subject.

    Generally I would say the quality of whisky (in Scotland) has deteriorated. Not that the Scotch has become impalatble over night.

    But many distilleries have changed their standard OB bottlings. Downgraded them is probably most correct.
    Many standard OBs 12 yo used to be lifted by casks much much older than the youngest whisky used for this bottling which gives the age of the bottle.

    20yo or even 30 yo casks were used to prep up a 12 yo OB in the past. No wonder those casks were readily available.

    That window has considerably narrowed. Understandable as customers are suddenly prepared to pay zillions for very old single cask bottlings. A trend nobody could have forseen 10 years ago.

    The older the better the more expensive the more covetted. The more expensive… the circle never ends.

    At the same time you find more and more NAS bottlings, vattings of older casks with very young whiskies in some cases for ridiculous prices.

    Blended Scotch in one or two cases used to carry an age statement – not anymore.

    I do not say that young whisky can not be good or at least acceptable – if the price is right. But all in all I would say that the base of Scotch whisky the standard bottlings have lost quality.

    I am not very deep into bourbon but as far as I can see that category has very much improved. And as far as I can judge it did that simply by letting the bourbons become older before bottling.

    Greetings
    kallaskander

    • I have the exact opposite feeling. I think that a lot of destilleries have upgraded their standard products. In the nineties everything was 40% and chillfiltered, today quite a lot is 46+ and ucf.

      Unless you look at big market contributors like Macallan, Highland Park etc. I think OB’s quality has improved quite a lot

      Even big boys like Glenfiddich has gone from NAS to 12yo (been a while now) but also Glenkinchie going 12yo

      I still remember approx 8 years ago when scanning a random bar for whiskies just revealed an endless set of 12yo 40%’s. It’s a lot more exciting today. BenRiach, AnCnoc, Blablair, Nadurra, Ardbeg’s, IB’s, Glencadam, Laphroaig QC, etc etc, I think the examples are endless

      I think it’s an discussion if the quality of the whisky itself has deterioated, but I think that the way it is bottled is a big big improvement, even in the last 2-3 years

      /steffen

    • George Jetson says:

      kallaskander, I’m not sure exactly what you mean about blended scotch carrying an age statement. If you mean there are more blends with an age statement lately, I’d agree. If you are implying that there are nothing but young blends on the market, I’d say you’re off the mark.

      In fact the trend seems to be leaning toward cutting into the high-end single malt market. Whyte&McKay is a good example of a blend tha has gotten much, much better lately and have released some older dated expressions.

      Slainte!

  9. Peter says:

    Since I started drinking whiskeys as an alternative to beer (and I love beer) or as a general preference over it about 12 years ago I find that there are more and more whiskeys I like as time goes by. But I’m not convinced that Whisky/ey has generally improved as much as that my palate has come to appreciate whisky/ey much more over time. Because I haven’t saved any unopened bottles, and my taste memory isn’t that good, I don’t have a qualitative opinion, but I do know that there seems to be much more variety in finishes and/or choices across the board and maybe its in that increased variety where I find more whisky I appreciate.

    But I have feeling its that the more I come to know this spirit friend of mine, the more I appreciate it. I hope that the experimentation continues, because while it means more variety, I have found I like most of what I try these days, no matter what the specific finish is.

    When I started drinking whisky 12 years ago I do remember it was quite easy for me to identify why I may not like a particular dram. Today dislikes don’t even cross my mind when I’m drinking whisky, rather my palate just picks up things I like.

    Whether its the whisky industry or my palate, I can only hope it continues the current trend.

  10. kallaskander says:

    Hi there,

    some have others don`t :)

    Here an answer in a slightly different context.

    http://thestar.com.my/lifestyle/story.asp?file=/2010/9/9/lifeliving/6994811&sec=lifeliving

    Greetings
    kallaskander

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