I read something online about whisky recently, and in the conversation someone popped up with the response “We struggle to find anything decent for under £50.”
To be honest, no one argued the point; have we become a generation of whisky snobs? Are we, as more than casual drinkers, so far removed from what the average Joe drinks? I would hope I’m not; I still buy whisky from the supermarket shelves, and am always conscious of my spending, but I do like what I drink to be decent.
So how do we define the quality of whisky? For the sake of argument, I’m going to suggest that there is no definitive way to allocate quality to whisky. It is purely a subjective quantifier. If another loves to drink their £16 bottle of Famous Grouse in front of the TV every Sunday night, then for them that could be a quality whisky? Just as much as the local restaurant may pour a dram of Dalmore 15 year old and charge you £10 for the 35ml of privilege, to the restaurant that whisky is quality. So can we determine whisky quality? Whilst researching this article I found this statement of what to expect from “good” whisky:
“Dark, full-bodied, old – These are characteristics that speak of a high-quality whisky!”
Now that is a very specific statement. Apparently colour and age is relevant to quality? s I continued to look for answers, I stumbled over multiple reference to price; the greater the price the better the whisky! Further research was needed; sounding out other people, they referenced that specific brands can signify quality. So, just a name on a label makes it a quality whisky? To press the argument I’m going to have to look further at this, and perhaps debunk something, perhaps slightly, and maybe even say that all this… well, to be blunt: rubbish.
So dark, well, that’s a pretty straightforward statement that Dark colour means quality, but does it? How many people know where the colour comes from? In the very basics of whisky theory, colour should be derived from the cask maturation; the longer in the cask in contact with the wood the more colour it takes on. The reality is that in Scotch, a good amount of producers will – for apparent cosmetic appearance reasons – add artificial colouring. Before the question is asked: yes,e in Scotch production that is legal, so actually many knowledgeable Scotch drinkers will look for a lighter coloured liquid. This is perhaps more of a signifier to the consumer that the product is represented in a more natural state, thus in effect to the savvy drinker this lighter colour – as opposed to a darker colour – may promise a better quality liquid.
The next term is full-bodied. This is a horrid term to explain (and use) but if we again try to strip back to the simple stuff: what is really being talked about is flavour or aroma. Does the whisky fill your nose with hints of nice memories and some complex smells that make you think? Does it feel good on the palate and not set you on fire? Some whiskies can be too complex, and perhaps the producer tried too hard, or used the wrong casks. Other whiskies will have a very simple approach and give you hints of… alcohol. I don’t think I would use the term full-bodied, maybe opting for something along the lines “good flavour profile,” as it’s easier to explain.
As a sub section of this I’m going to throw in chill filtration, as a good number of whisky drinkers look to avoid this. Chill filtration is a process conducted by some distilleries to remove oily residue; it’s done mostly for cosmetic reasons, to remove cloudiness within the liquid, and often to the disdain of many drinkers. Have we all heard the term Scotch Mist? Well, it’s said that it comes from whisky, that when a little water is added to your dram the liquid will go a wee bit cloudy… hence Scotch Mist. In relation to chill filtration: if the whisky has gone through the process it will not turn cloudy, so if it’s not obvious on the label this is a tricky little way to test the liquid.
As for old – or to make this argument work, let’s use the term age – this is one that can really throw folk. Does being being old really make it “quality,” and what is “old?” Now, I know that a number of people will look for an age statement on their whisky, and being honest it is a sign that the producer has maybe not rushed the liquid. Of course, in Scotland whisky must be at least three years old to fit with the legal standards. In recent years it has not been unusual to find multiple bottles with no age statement, but hey: it’s going to be at least three years old, and probably older… but again, what is old? 10 years? 15 years? 21 years? Can a three year whisky be quality? Perhaps. Can a 45 year old Scotch be poor? Yes, it is said that sometimes when whisky matures for too long it loses its distillery character, and old whisky from one distillery can taste just like old whisky from another! So whilst age can be a good indicator of a quality whisky, let’s not mistake it with old (one of my favourite drams is 10 aged years.. is that old?).
So we’ve looked at colour, flavour profile (for body), and age (but it’s perhaps not as the statement in the first paragraph suggested). I’m going to throw two other elements in to the mix: whisky connoisseurs look at the alcohol level in the bottle (the ABV). A drinker will look for a bottle that is higher than the legal minimum of 40%; for many, 40% is considered weak and they want more, so perhaps for them quality is based somewhat on the ABV level.
Now here’s the one that’s been throwing me since I thought about writing this: price, Does it have to be expensive to be quality? I say no (and so do a lot of other folk I asked). Arran 10 for £38, Glencadam 10 for £37 (two natural coloured, non-chill filtered aged stated whiskies) and I know from varied sources that these two whiskies are regarded widely as being of fantastic quality.
So what I’m going to suggest is that “quality” is in my opinion subjective, and perhaps relative and perception based. Like the old saying “beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” I think that we can bastardise this and say “quality is in the enjoyment of the drinker.” In relation to expense, well, I asked this question on Twitter, drawing lots of responses, and the answer seems to be: expense is based on the size of your wallet in most cases.
With all that in mind, I went to my bottles and threw pictures of several drams up on social media; all were bought from supermarkets and all cost less than £30. One that seemed to garner good reviews from those that had made the purchase was a Bunnahabhain Stiùireadair (pronounced Boon-nah-havin stew-ra-dur). It’s a Non Age Statement dram, non-chill filtered, natural colour, and at 46% ABV… but is it quality?
Bunnahabhain Stiùireadair – Review
Colour: Amber gold.
On the nose: Bright and with sherries of some description pulling you in, with an element of coastal influence spice, the sherry makes definite hints of plums and cherries, perhaps damsons. All feel right; there is a nice vanilla sweet custard wafting at me also.
In the mouth: The fruits I taste are a wee bit drier than the nose, perhaps raisins and sultanas. The mouthfeel is cream, the taste is nutty and briny. Vanilla caramel toffee sauce; perhaps the custard on the nose is being poured over a sticky toffee pudding made with juicy dates? To say the finish is long is perhaps an understatement; it’s still there, sweet and fruity to start; that sea salt comes toward the end.
For £25 this is a no-brainer. (I’ve seen it on some sites as high as £38) It is quality. Are there better? Yes, I’m not daft enough to not recognise that there are better drams out there, but I’m also not snobby enough to turn around and say that this is not decent. It has been well made and presented. It is aimed, perhaps, at those whose pocket is not as deep as others. But, in fear of repeating myself, this is a decent dram for under £50. So, I wrote “stuff” about quality as well as about this dram, and my conclusion on the dram I suppose speaks for itself, but my conclusion on the rest is (perhaps throwing it back at you): folks, drink what you want to drink, and enjoy what you enjoy. Sláinte!