What did great-great-grandpa’s dram taste like?

Quality and consistency are the twin pillars upon which the Scotch whisky industry rests. Only when high quality products could be created and repeated batch after batch did it become possible to market them nationally and internationally. But, in spite of all the familiar claims about, unchanging quality’, ‘the drink of your ancestors’, ‘the same as it ever was’ etc etc, one always wonders whether the whiskies enjoyed by our forebears tasted the same as today’s dram.

When compared with today’s top Scottish malt whiskies, experts reckon that Highland malts were much more smoky, 150 years ago. Peat was the universal fuel in the Highlands, and barley malted over a peat fire takes on this smoky character. Many drinkers preferred it to the thinner, fierier whiskies produced by large distilleries in the Lowlands.

With the arrival of blended whisky – a mixture of full flavoured malts and lighter grain whiskies – in the 1860s and 70s popular taste began to favour the lighter bodied, less smoky dram. Many of the great blending houses – Johnnie Walker, Dewars, Bells, Ballantines, Teachers – made it big by producing whiskies which had the character and complexity of malt whisky, but the lightness of grain whisky. They sought less assertive malts for their blends; malts which would sing along in harmony with others rather than dominating the choir.

The arrival of the Strathspey branch line of the Great North of Scotland Railway in 1867 made it possible for distilleries in this, the heartland of malt whisky production, to import coal and coke for malting their barley, and thus achieve a less smoky spirit, while retaining all the sweet richness of flavour that the region is famous for. Such whiskies were known generically as the ‘Glenlivets’ – a description of style rather than place: only one distillery (out of the 18 which adopted the name) was actually in Glenlivet itself. They quickly became the darlings of the blenders.

But what did they taste like, these famous whiskies?

I had the pleasure of finding, out recently, thanks to The Macallan distillers, who had bought a bottle of their wonderful whisky at auction. had been made in 1874 and bottled it) 1892.

When they got it back to the distillery, they couldn’t resist drawing off a tiny sample with a syringe, to see what it was like. They were astonished and delighted to discover that it was in very good order and that it quite clearly had the character of The Macallan. In other words, in spite of all the technological changes that have taken place in making malt whisky, there has been very little change in the flavour of Macallan in 120 years.

This is perhaps less surprising – than it seems, in the case of Macallan – a distillery which sticks scrupulously to ‘the old ways of doing things’. They insist on using only Golden Promise barley, for example – a species with a low yield, difficult to grow and expensive to buy – in spite of the given wisdom that the species of barley makes no difference to the flavour.

Macallan use unusually small stills, and heat them directly from below. just as they have always done. This not only makes distilling more difficult, it reduces the amount of spirit they can produce in each batch, but they maintain it is essential for the quality of that spirit.

And most of important of all for the flavour of The Macallan, they mature their malt only in ex-sherry casks – which cost over ten times as much as the ex-bourbon casks used by most distillers.

So close was the 1874 bottle to the present day Macallan, that the distiller’s Director of Production, Frank Newlands, claimed that by carefully selecting individual casks he could create a whisky which, to all intents and purposes, was identical to the original.

At the launch of this new expression of Macallan, named simply “The 1874” the cork was drawn on the original and we were all invited to compare it with the new version. It was astonishingly similar – fresh and slightly orangey, with a trace of soft fudge. A comforting reminder that quality does not change, even in 120 years, so long as you do not compromise.

Charles MacLean
(Whisky correspondent for Decanter, and author of many books on Scotch Whisky)