It were better in the Old Days: Scotch whisky and nostalgia
Scotch whisky ain’t what it used to be. In crude terms, writes Tom Bruce-Gardyne for WhiskyInvestDirect, that was the view, and probably still is, of the Italian whisky collector Giuseppe Begnoni.
When I met him a few years ago in Edinburgh, he had recently bought the Vintners Rooms restaurant beneath the Scotch Malt Whisky Society in Leith, partly to house a fraction of his vast collection. Some 1200 bottles lined the back bar, all of them open to taste from £5 a nip to £250 for an extremely rare Berry Bros bottling of Highland Park from 1902. Sadly this glorious liquid library is no more.
Begnoni poured me a Glenlivet 15 year-old, bottled in 1972 six years before the distillery was sold to Seagram’s, and let me taste it alongside the latest Glenlivet of the same age from Pernod Ricard. The first had a depth, richness and complexity that you just couldn’t find in the second whisky, which certainly proved his point.
Yet you could doubtless pick another dram from the 1950s that is worse than its modern equivalent to disprove it without much difficulty. More importantly, that early Glenlivet was an Italian bottling of a few casks carefully selected by an importer with a good nose. Back then almost the entire production went for blending, whereas today most of it is bottled as Glenlivet – the world’s top-selling single malt. As a result any variance between the good, the bad and the ugly among casks will be blended away.
February’s ‘Whisky Show: Old & Rare’ in Glasgow was packed with similar bottles to that Italian Glenlivet for its throng of collectors and connoisseurs to eulogize over. It was a celebration of a period when independent bottlers really could cherry-pick the best casks, but there was also a whiff of nostalgia in the air.
It’s easy to believe that things were better in the past for as the whisky writer Dave Broom put it: ‘Memory is fickle. Summers were always sunny, it always snowed at Christmas, and Partick Thistle won more games than they lost. How devastating it is to find out all of that might not have been true.’
A predisposition to believe in a golden age, also known as rosy retrospection, is what psychologists call confirmation bias. It is a powerful force that seems to grow with age as though the male of the species is genetically condemned to become a grumpy old man muttering how ‘things were better in the old days.’ And, of course this nostalgia relates to far more than just whisky.
Sukhinder Singh, who runs the Whisky Exchange and co-hosted the Glasgow event, now in its third year, dismisses the idea that Scotch was necessarily better and says there are current bottlings where: “I guarantee people will look back in 20-25 years and say ‘Oh my God, that was so special’.” However he feels: “production was a little bit more artisanal” in the past. “Today, what worries me a little bit is that everything’s about efficiency. Diageo say they’re all about quality. I disagree, it’s about efficiency. Of course, the process is tip top, but I’m sure that efficiency takes its toll on the final liquid.”
Singh may well have a point, for the bottles open for tasting at the ‘Whisky Show Old & Rare’ were more characterful and idiosyncratic than many of today’s highly polished whisky brands offered in my, hopefully not too rose-tinted view. If the new breed of small, one-off distillers adopts an old-fashioned approach for all its inefficiencies, it will widen the gap between such whiskies and the big brands. At which point the consumer will decide.
Award-winning drinks columnist and author Tom Bruce-Gardyne began his career in the wine trade, managing exports for a major Sicilian producer. Now freelance for 20 years, Tom has been a weekly columnist for The Herald and his books include The Scotch Whisky Book and most recently Scotch Whisky Treasures.
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