Whisky from the past (Part 1)
08.05.20 by Tim Foster – Sales Manager, Lindores Abbey Distillery
After putting on my future binoculars and pondering ‘future Whisky’ it was natural that I’d eventually look backwards again. I’ll admit I wasn’t quite prepared for the rabbit hole I’d find myself down.
I’ve heard people say that today’s whisky isn’t the same as it used to be. So I asked a few industry experts if they’d had the opportunity to do a side by side comparison of an ‘old vs present day bottling’ and whether there was a noticeable difference? Surprisingly few people have, but then Mike Aikman of Edinburgh’s Mothership responded by saying yes and yes. Good start! But Mike went on to say that he doesn’t know why? Is it distillation technique? Cask quality? An effect of ‘bottle aging?’, or a combination of these (and possibly other) factors… the can lid was open and the worms were everywhere. Time to dive in.
With a wee bit of time on my hands just now, I set off in search of the answers. To be fair, I cheated a bit (a LOT) as I studied alongside Paul John Whisky Brand Ambassador – Yash Bhamre, who as luck would have it wrote his thesis on historical Whisky distillation for the Cabrach trust and went back as far as he could find written records.
Like I said, this was a real rabbit hole. So rather than try and condense it all we’ll break it down into different processes and how they might have changed over 200+ years (I’d love to compare to 1494 Spirit – but information is far from abundant. We’ll take a deeper dive into Aqua Vitae another time).
Before we even get to the type of malt, Yash’s research had looked into weather data and found that unsurprisingly it used to be a lot colder. From this we can presume that the harsher conditions had a big impact on the growing barley. In the 19th century, I’m assuming that industrialised farming was not a thing. “Things” would have been done by hand, pesticide wasn’t around and they didn’t have mechanical stuff to help them. Lots of horses, some trains and a lot of hard work.
The most common type of malt was made using a type of 6-row barley called Bere which doesn’t need fertile soil and can withstand pretty unforgiving climatic conditions. Compared with modern barley strains the yield* from Bere was around 60%, which in today’s highly efficient whisky world, simply doesn’t cut the mustard. Which seems a shame as there is plenty of mention of apple, pear and malty aroma suggesting a fruitier spirit was produced. Having had the pleasure of owning a bottle of Arran Bere Barley, I can attest that this is true. Yash informs me that Paul John Whisky is made from 6 row barley and that the same apple and pear aromas feature strongly. Rumour has it that the same is said of the Bruichladdich Bere (sadly I have not sampled this… if anyone from Bruichladdich reads this I will happily accept a bottle for comparison). Its conceivable that 19th century spirit may have been fruitier. May have been…
Along with industrialised farming practices and mechanisation, the malting of barley has changed considerably. In the 19th century, germinated malt was dried using peat or wood fires. It’s safe to assume that most Whisky had a ‘smoky’ character. With the arrival of rail came access to coal and a move away from ‘peated’ malt. Gradually over time, with centralisation of maltings, large corporations, consolidation and obsession with yield we’ve moved to crops that are selected not because of their flavour but because of their capability of producing sugar and being resistant to disease and pests.
So, how has spirit changed in respect of malt? Well, with the eradication of imperfections and selective growing programmes things will most certainly be far less varied. The barley that was grown and how it was malted, could have been pretty inconsistent batch to batch. They also wouldn’t have been as precious about moisture content (which encourages spoilage). It’s also very possible that they used some ‘green malt’, shoved in different barley varieties and will have slapped in different grains altogether. In short, it’s pretty hard to imagine ‘exactly’ what the spirits would have been like. Sorry…
It has made me really wonder how micro maltings and smaller scale barley cultivation can affect our Whisky. I know that The Dornoch Distillery and those ambitious Thompson Bros are getting stuck into it, so it’d be cool to sample their offerings once they’re ready. Look further afield to disruptor supremo Mark Reynier and Waterford for some real ‘terroir’ geekery. It’s almost a shame that our industry has focussed so much on standardisation, producing the exact same spirit each time so that each Whisky is a carbon copy. Also that yield and profit can at times trump flavour – but I get it and I respect those decisions and choices. Without the careful navigation and stewardship through times of decline, there would not be the vibrant Scotch Whisky industry we know and love today. We owe a lot to those who ensure Scotch Whisky prevails, they paved the way for entrants like Lindores – and without them I most certainly wouldn’t have the privilege of writing about it all.
*Yield is the amount of booze we’ll make from our malt
Extra Special thanks go to:
Mike Aikman – Mothership (visit their website and Bramble, Lucky Liquor & Last Word Saloon to sample some incredible cocktails when they open again – the Last Word has an amazing Whisky selection and do a breakeven bottle). Mothership also independently bottle Whisky
Iain McPherson – Panda & Sons/Hoot the Redeemer & Nauticus – Some of the finest libations available on the planet. Nauticus have a very fine selection of Single malt and have done some collaboration bottlings with Royal Mile Whiskies and The Thompson Brothers (maybe more, I don’t know).
Francisco Rossa – The Oxford Artisan Distillery & current van life vagabond
Cask Ownership at Lindores Abbey Distillery
The distillery is of course currently closed but you can still chat to Elliot, our Cask Custodian about our cask ownership scheme and what is involved. We still have a lot of exciting projects going on with different types of casks coming through – but they are all very limited so get in touch if you would like to explore different opportunities within the whisky world. You can contact Elliot on firstname.lastname@example.org or find out more at https://lindoresabbeydistillery.com/welcome-lindores-abbey-distillery/cask-ownership/