Vintage malt doesn't come cheap, but distillation is a lengthy process. The final results more than justify the cost, says IAN WISNIEWSKI as he selects some of the best.
Of course I said ‘yes’. The invitation from WM Grant & Sons was to join a tasting panel at The Glenfiddich distillery, and assess several contenders for the next vintage release of The Glenfiddich and The Balvenie. What an experience. I sniffed, slurped, swooned and swallowed (no spittoon required). With an integral sense of superiority, vintages have evolved over the past decade into a dynamic style of malt. The inevitable comparison with vintage wine is valid, as only outstanding malts are given a vintage ‘declaration’ – otherwise this term would soon be self-defeating. But the definition differs significantly between the two. While vintage malt wines reflect the varying nature of grapes, depending on weather conditions, distillation yields a consistent spirit, and it’s the maturation that essentially accounts for vintage variation.
As vintage malts enable distillers to explore the perimeters of house style, it’s a prime opportunity to showcase familiar characteristics with some idiosyncrasies. That’s a totally different philosophy to malts bearing the usual ‘xx years old’ age statement, when the distiller is confined to a consistent expression, year in, year out. Although the year of distillation is the most prominent fact, the bottling date is more pertinent, confirming how long the malt has actually been aged (three years is the minimum for Scotch whisky) – up to 60–70% of the eventual flavour is derived from the cask. The standard choice in the industry are casks that previously aged either bourbon or sherry, with some vintage malts bottled from a single cask. Alternatively, a vintage may be a marriage of various bourbon or sherry casks, or comprise a ‘recipe’ of malts from both types of cask.
The influence of residual alcohol within the staves was traditionally considered to be paramount. But recent research concluded that the bourbon or sherry ‘wood-extractive liquid’ (a fairly accurate term, as it contains additional flavour compounds derived from the oak) is actually a minor influence. In fact, a ‘release’ of this liquid from the staves is essentially limited to the first few years of ageing. It is the nature of the oak that really counts, which means American oak for bourbon or Spanish for sherry, although some sherry casks are also made from American oak.
Spanish oak has a looser, more open, porous grain than American, enabling the spirit to penetrate the oak and access flavour compounds more readily. It also has a far greater level of tannins than American oak, which adds astringency, balance and structure. Moreover, an individual flavour profile means sherry barrels yield the likes of rich fruit, fruit cake, raisins, resin, fortified wine, almond and walnut notes, while bourbon barrels lend a wide spectrum including vanilla, honey, fruit, almond, hazelnut and coconut, spices such as cinnamon and ginger, and a lighter, drier sweetness.
But it’s not simply a case of whether a bourbon or sherry barrel was used, as even two identical barrels filled with the same make of spirit and aged for the same period, next to each other within the same warehouse, do not produce identical results. The Macallan 1961 demonstrates this, being a marriage of two sherry casks. While each cask yielded an individual flavour profile, as a double act the freshness and intensity of one integrated with the range and body of the other creates a supreme result. Among other factors that contribute to vintage variation, some distillers make a case for the barley variety used, which frequently changes as newer varieties of barley are constantly developed. Peating levels have also changed significantly. Bruichladdich, for example, was heavily peated until 1961, when the level was brought right down to create a lighter style. Meanwhile, until the 1970s it was not unusual to fill casks with spirit at up to 75%, compared with the current norm of 63.5%. This meant a different rate of ‘absorption’ of flavours from the cask, as well as a different maturation rate (the lower the strength, the more rapid the maturation). So such malts are typically bottled at a relatively higher cask strength.
Specific ageing conditions are generally considered a supplementary but significant influence. Laphroaig’s 1960 vintage was aged in the distillery’s No 1 warehouse on the island of Islay, which is battered by waves. Indeed, standing among the casks you can taste sea salt on your lips – and this comes through in the malt’s complex and deeply rewarding repertoire. Whether such details help justify the price depends on your priorities and, of course, your budget. A vintage malt can be yours from around £21 a bottle. Then again, you could spend a couple of hundred – or even thousand – pounds, with extended maturation commanding a premium, along with limited edition status. Various vintage malts are only available through equally limited distribution, though whisky auctions are growing in importance, including those held in Glasgow by McTear’s in association with The Martin Green Whisky Consultancy.
If you’re a big fan of vintage malt – and a big spender – then the current world record for a bottle, £14,300, may seem reasonable. This was an amazing whisky, an 1890 Bowmore, sold in 2001 by McTear’s. Produced to commemorate James and William Mutter’s ownership of Bowmore Distillery, from 1852 to 1890, this is believed to be one of the last bottlings under the Mutter family, and the beautiful, hand-blown, dark green bottle was personally engraved for James Mutter. A dram would work out at around £510. Luckily for the rest of us, there are plenty of excellent and less expensive malts around which won’t break the bank.
Ian Wisniewski is a specialist spirits writer and the author of Classic Malt Whisky