Monday, July 30, 2018

Great Drams: Old and New

The line-up!
For July's meeting of the Manchester Whisky Club we were in the highly capable hands of friend of the club Greg Dillon, better known as the whisky expert behind Great Drams. Greg had lined up six whiskies from three different well-known brands for us to try: modern and older versions of similar products from Dewar's, Johnnie Walker and Glenfiddich.

The old and the new.
And it was Dewar's White Label we got started off with. One of the top selling blends, particularly in America, we began by trying the drink as it was the mid-1970s. This was, said Greg, a real "old school whisky" including distillate dating from the 1960s.

A very smooth whisky it was. Smooth has always been a key characteristic of Dewar's so that wasn't a surprise, but perhaps more telling was the wispy, smoky sort of taste, distinctive of the Speyside whiskies of that era. The chemists in the room were getting a bit of Windolene, too. This left some of the rest of us a bit baffled, but perhaps that's just because we don't clean our windows often enough.

Dewar's White Label as it was.
The second version of the White Label was the contemporary one. Dewar's has been owned for two decades by Bacardi, and in turn runs five Scottish distilleries including Aberfeldy and Aultmore, much of which ends up in blends such as White Label.

This particular whisky is strong on the nose but a bit low key after that. There's certainly a bit of a family resemblance to its ancestor, and the core 'DNA' of flavours was undoubtedly similar. But we thought the older blend was just a bit more interesting all round. A nice blend, but perhaps not one any of us are going to be rushing out to actually buy. It's only £20 though.

Dewar's White Label today.
The next pairing pitted two versions of Johnnie Walker Black Label against each other. Possibly the most familiar whisky in the world, Greg drew our attention to the extraordinary similarity in the labels between the old and new bottles, the hallmark of what he described as a "brutally consistent" brand.

The older bottling that Greg had for us dated from 1981. This era was a great time for blends, as a fall in consumer demand led to a general surplus of whisky and the so-called 'whisky lake' which in turn caused, sadly, the closure of several distilleries (including most famously Port Ellen, but there were plenty of others). So, lots of better quality malts ended up in blends when they might not otherwise have done.

The 1981 Johnnie Walker Black.
As for this particular example, it certainly tasted quite sweet. Perhaps too sweet for us. Although it undoubtedly went down easily enough.

The same could be said for the modern day equivalent. An easy drinker to be sure, but it didn't leave a particularly lasting impression. Not that this is necessarily a bad thing. As someone suggested, Johnnie Walker Black might be best described as a "sessionable whisky". Another word you might use would be "forgettable" though.

The modern Johnnie Walker Black.
There's no doubt it is a good quality, consistent (that word again) product, which is why it's so popular and can probably be found in just about any bar in the world you care to walk into. It's a 12yo and will cost about £30.

After a half-time break we were back for the final pairing, and a visit to Glenfiddich. It's run by Grant's, by far the largest player in Scotland's whisky market that remains family-owned. A big expansion is on the way at the Glenfiddich distillery too, another sign of the strength of the industry at the moment.

Glenfiddich Pure Malt from 1979
The older Glenfiddich that Greg had for us was from 1979 and originally appeared under the 'Pure Malt' brand. Glenfiddich pioneered selling single malts back in the 1960s, albeit mainly as a way of shifting excess stock, so this was a good opportunity to taste a relatively early example of this kind of product.

An example of how the value of single malts has exploded is that this bottle was sold for the equivalent of £30 back then, whereas we paid £242 for this particular bottle. It was well worth it though. Very mild, with a distinctive toffee aftertaste, this was widely described as "beautiful". It had a much longer finish than the blends we'd tried earlier in the evening, too.

Glenfiddich 12yo from the present day.
The modern equivalent is a 12yo Glenfiddich, the key product in a range of single malts which shifts about 13 million bottles a year worldwide, making it the number one single malt brand around.

By this stage it's clear the night had progressed well because checking my notes I see all I actually wrote for this was "we liked it but number five was the outstanding dram of the evening" so if you're looking for a more detailed summary of the strengths of this titan of the whisky industry, you might have to look elsewhere. It's known for being a soft, elegant sort of dram though, so not too far removed from the qualities of its 1979 predecessor.

Oh dear.
Before we wrapped up the evening, Greg had a surprise for us. He produced a mysterious bottle which he said had been sat in his office staring at him for some time, about which he knew almost nothing. Was it produced in the 70s? Possibly. Anyway, here it is!

Called Old Oak, the label reveals it's a blend made in that whisky hotbed of Limassol in Cyprus. It was produced by Loel, which a basic Google search reveals is better known as a winery and maker of fruit juice. It seems doubtful whether they still make whisky and, frankly, after a taste of this, it's not difficult to see why.

The nose was part vanilla, part vomit, while the palate had an overwhelming note of carpet. Or possibly paper. If you think I'm exaggerating, well, I'm not. This may be one of the worst whiskies in history, for which Greg apologised profusely: "I honestly thought it was going to be alright!"

The rest of the night, of course, was, so thanks to Greg for expertly taking us through such a well-chosen selection of whiskies. Thanks also to all club members old and new for another great turnout, and to the Briton's Protection for putting us up once again. As predicted the dram of the night was number five! It was very much nul points for Cyprus.

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