What's old is new in Scotland, where malt masters are proving their traditional spirit is still evolving with exciting new expressions that are pushing the envelope in the whisky world
Posted: December 1, 2006
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It is blended whisky that most probably made the malt explosion of recent years possible. Blends can certainly be credited with subsidizing lesser malts that might have gone silent through the years were it not for their sales to blends. Moreover, it was blends, with their more accessible taste profiles, that made Scotch whisky universally popular before drinkers discovered the idiosyncrasies of malts.
Cox, of The Macallan, says that the frenetic horse trading between distilleries and blenders has become something of a thing of the past, however. So much can be sold as single malts that whisky not earmarked for a blend when it was put in the cask doesn't much exist. The Macallan has systematically dropped its contracts as they lapsed with blenders that are not a part of the Edrington Group of which it and Highland Park are members. "We only have a finite amount of stock and a small percentage of it is available for blends," says Cox. "Contracts with third-party blenders are no longer renewed."
The Macallan, of course, is at the forefront of the other great trend in Scotch whisky: the craze for super-aged trophy bottles often found only through auctions. In this era of whisky shortages, any barrels that may somehow get lost in the warehouse can easily find a home as part of a limited release that proudly crows its age.
The Macallan was one of the first to prove that whiskies aged for unheard of lengths like 50 years could be sold for thousands of dollars a bottle. Its first releases of such whisky began in 1983 and the brand felt very comfortable that that market was developing. But Cox also admits a bit of luck. In the 1960s, when Glenfiddich brought forth single malt, the people who ran The Macallan decided the future lay in those properties and therefore the company now enjoys a good stock of very old whisky. The rare and fine brands of The Macallan not only sell themselves, but help to sell the distillery's younger expressions as they draw attention to them.
Other brands are finding a market in that rare ether as well. Glenfiddich recently auctioned a bottle from 1937 for $20,000 and Bowmore typically puts out one or more expressions at above 30 years of age once a year. Why don't more do it? First, they'd have to have been prescient enough to lay down enough whisky for the purpose decades ago. Second, not every whisky is capable of attaining such age. Whisky runs the risk of becoming too tannin with age and an old barrel can self-destruct. What's more, a barrel is constantly losing volume and much of that is in alcohol content. If a spirit's proof drops below 80 (40 percent), it can no longer be defined as Scotch whisky, and then you have nothing unless you meld it with younger, stronger whiskies, but that would defeat the purpose.
Still, whiskies that reach that kind of age in good shape are ethereal, almost Cognac-like drams that have replaced peatiness—even in Islay—with flavors of Christmas pudding and ambrosia.
Highland Park has put out a number of single-cask issues that are uncut from barrel strength, not chill-filtered, very idiosyncratic and hard to find. Most of its whiskies are not worthy of such treatment, says Anderson. "It's a hell of a difficult job to forecast what a whisky is going to be like in decades to come. I don't even know what I'm doing next week," he says with a laugh. "If I knew, I would make nothing but single malts. But I don't. It's just a black art."
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