As with most of my lazy, late reviews, by the time this goes online, the bottles in question will be long gone. So you’ll be confronted with some tasting notes and me talking about a jolly nice time guzzling some very old whisky, the likes of which the average punter isn’t going to be able to afford even at original prices, let alone auction prices.
But you’ll get no apology from me because at the time of writing this is still on sale – a steal at £399. Generally, it’s the nature of the beast: we get sent stuff and, no matter how tasty it is, we have lives; we’re not going to rush that review to the front of the queue to be part of the buzz. Apart from when we do, of course. But on this occasion, I’m still in time, which surprised me; something four decades old for that kind of price more often than not gets snaffled up right away.
Is this a sign of the times? That people aren’t as bothered about old whiskies as they used to be? Does it matter? All wild speculation that has nothing to do with reality, naturally.
Yes, today’s whisky is a rather venerable old beast. It’s from 1973, long before I was born, let alone all the jolly-come-lately annoyingly young millennials now writing entertaining stuff on Malt. Adam’s just old enough to be allowed into pubs. Back then, the whisky industry was a very different place, of course. Different, not necessarily better. That’s an important statement, as these days, many whisky drinkers have become whisky antiquarians, celebrating everything that happened approximately before the closure of Port Ellen, and despising everything thereafter. Ancient bottles have become pornography. Dicks are swung about as people reel off any number of facts about which distillery was built where, when it closed, and which single malt went into what blend, not to mention lamenting the loss of the prices of yesteryear. Nothing to do with flavour, you’ll note.
There were production differences back in the day, too. Were barley varieties more flavoursome, though not as high-yielding? Quite possibly, not that anyone’s looked rigorously. Were the casks a bit better? Possibly and possibly not; there was a period towards the end of the 1970s through to the 1990s where no one gave one iota about single malts, and there was a general cheapening or ‘efficiency’ saving period, where any old wood would do. Barrels of E150 – that curiously permitted additive for Scotch – began to be dumped into blends as the wood grew increasingly tired and offered up a weak colour. Stills were coal-fired – and let’s not forget that copper is porous – so that’s another variable in flavour. Good or bad? Hard to say. But it’s not as simple as saying old good, new bad, or even vice versa.
Generally, this is where I tend to drift apart from the whisky antiquarians. I’m not too bothered about the past. Yes, I can appreciate an old specimen. Yet I also like what the new wave of distilleries is doing more. They’ve eschewed all the industrial, historical, efficiency savings of yesteryear, because they are of the present, which is far more competitive, and they are small enough to do what they want, rather than bow down to industry trends. They have to make quality spirit, if they can, and put it into good wood from the start. So yes, it’s fun to enjoy an antique now and then, but I’m more intrigued with the future—be that in Britain, Europe or wherever—because it’s looking like there’s plenty of flavour on the horizon. As a curious drinker, it is the flavour that interests me most. (Although, that said, recently I was sitting with a copy of Barnard, reading about the past, and enjoying a dram, and thinking: arse, I’m being dragged into the allure of the past again. I wonder what it is about whisky history?)
But back to this old thing. It’s a special edition released by European bottler the Whisky Agency, but in partnership with The Whisky Exchange, which rarely chooses a dull bottle. It’s lived for 43 years in a refill sherry butt. Refill – perhaps a relic of the recycled wood era? Not the best cask? Now, many a bearded table thumper will kick off at this point and say, yes but 43 years in a first-fill barrel would be too strong, to which I would say get back in your box. Much of the maturation—that spirit-wood interaction—happens in the first few years, so after a while, you’re not getting the same intensity in the slightest. It’s more intriguing to wonder what this would have been like with a vibrant interaction at the start.
Anyway, it’s bottled at 47.4% ABV and sets you back £399. The only thing I can’t work out is if it’s a single cask, which the press material implies (‘from a refill sherry butt’), while it also has a ‘blended malt’ in its name, suggesting whisky from more than one distillery. Is it teaspooned? If someone wishes to garnish me with the truth, I’ll amend.
Speyside Region Blended Malt Scotch Whisky – 43 Years Old (1973)
Colour: yellow gold. Fair to say, not much cask influence on the colour at least.
On the nose: intensely sweet at first, floral notes – jasmine and honeysuckle, with the vanilla eventually overwhelming. Lime marmalade. Slightly oily and waxy (candle wax). Pears in syrup. Earthy: black tea (Assam), coal dust. Peaches. Apricots. Floral honey. Back to tea again.
In the mouth: citrus, citrus, slight charcoal and mineral note. Mango. Pears. A chestnut, mushroom, truffle-y earthiness starts to undermine that citrus sweetness. Lemon and limes again, with a custardy note. Baked apples. Stem ginger in syrup. Very full in the mouth, and towards the end there’s some chilli pepper heat.
Very pleasant indeed. Yes, they don’t make ’em like this anymore, which is to say that it’s not necessarily better than modern whiskies, but it is a fine example of days gone by. It’s there in the spirit, but the maturation wasn’t quite there. I wasn’t moved, but I was pleased. If you find yourself with a spare £399 in your pocket, there are at least a couple of bottles of Chichibu, Smogen or several from the Cotswolds Distillery, which I’d be more inclined to steer you towards.
Lead image from the Whisky Exchange and the links are commission based, but we’ll let you decide whether 1973 is the greatest year ever for whisky?