What did Scotch whisky taste like 100 years ago?

Despite all the claims made by whisky companies that it is the same as it is today, you know the kind of thing: “Consistency in an Age of Change” (Famous Grouse), “The Drink of His Ancestors” (Dewars White Label), “Born 1820, Still Going Strong” (Johnnie Walker), one wonders.

Blenders acknowledge the phenomenon they call “flavour shift”: with the best will in the world, and despite holding reference samples of their blends going back several years, it is difficult to achieve absolute consistency of flavour.And remember, that consistency is one of the two pillars upon which the Scotch whisky industry has stood since the 1860s. The other, and related, pillar is quality of product. Only when high quality blends could be created and repeated batch after batch did it become possible to market them nationally and internationally: all marketing efforts are futile if the bottle you buy in Chicago today tastes entirely different from the one you bought in Maine yesterday.

I remember once tasting a blend which had been bottled during World War II. It was the consistency of treacle: dark and heavy, much sweeter than contemporary blends, with a strong caramel flavour. The overall impression was of vintage Spanish brandy. The bottle had lost its label, so I could not compare it with a modern version of the same brand. The truth is that it was unlike any blended whisky made today. It may be that some of the fillings required for a specific blend are no longer available and have to be substituted. Distilleries go out of production, or their mature whiskies are reserved for bottling as a single malt (as happened at Glenmorangie). It may be that, very subtly, the blend is allowed to change, to meet the consumer’s changing tastes. Many of the best sellers in the U.S., J & B Rare and Cutty Sark, for example were created specifically for that market immediately post-Prohibition.

What about flavour shift in the constituent whiskies themselves? Distilling technology has altered greatly since the 1890s; the chemistry of distilling and maturing is better understood, so that distillers have a greater degree of control over their operations and are able to enhance their efficiency. Surely this will affect the flavor of the whiskies they produce?

Bearing all this in mind, I was delighted to be invited by Macallan to sample a whisky they had distilled in 1874, and to compare it with a new expression, which (they claimed) copied the original.

The company had bought the bottle at Christie’s whisky auction in April 1995, for £3,900. The distillery’s own archives speak of the 1870s as being something of a golden age for whisky-making, and when a minute amount was extracted by hypodermic and nosed by some of the top people at the distillery, they were astonished and delighted to discover that it bore a close resemblance to the Macallan they make today. Willie Philips, Macallan’s Managing Director, described the hairs raising on the back of his neck as he sniffed a whisky made in the year that Cezanne and Degas gave their first exhibition; the year Herbert Hoover, Gertrude Stein, Somerset Maugham, and G.K. Chesterton were born: the year lawn tennis was invented. Caught up in the excitement of the moment, Frank Newlands, Director of Production and Nose-in-Chief, claimed that by a judicious selection of casks he could recreate the whisky. He covered the precious sample with a watch glass and began to search his mature stocks. Within a day the sample had collapsed into an oxidised mess, so the selection had to be made from memory.

“What I was looking for was spirit with a distinctly orangey aroma-zest of orange, with a hint of lemon and an undertone of new, sappy wood,” he told us. “The 1874 whisky was astonishingly fresh and citric. My hunch is that it had been matured in a fino sherry butt, and since the label bore the name of my predecessor, Roderick Kemp (who did not buy the distillery until 1892 ) it must have been at least eighteen years old when it was bottled.”

In the end he vatted nine casks which seemed to share the notes he was looking for – the oldest at 26 years old, the youngest at 19. He married them for a month, then nosed the result: it bore little relation to his memory of the 1874!

He was very concerned. The company had gone to great expense, commissioning bottles and labels identical to the original and planning an advertising campaign to promote the new expression (to be called “The 1874″) based upon its similarity to the hundred-year-old malt.

At last, after seven weeks of marrying, the whisky began to settle down and develop the notes he was hoping for. The next question was whether his memory of the original was accurate. . . . This would be publicly answered when the old bottle was opened and the new one compared to it on July 2nd at a very smart venue in Knightsbridge, London. Poor Frank slept hardly at all on the night of July 1st. . . .

The Launch
Before a distinguished gathering of whisky experts and journalists, the two Macallans were analysed by a tasting panel made up of two master blenders, a leading perfumier, and a tea expert. We watched with bated breath as Frank Newlands drew the cork which had been driven in over 120 years ago and extracted measures with a syringe. While the panel was doing its job, samples of both the original and the remake were given to each of us. Both whiskies were clearly Macallan. Even in a blind tasting, I believe they would have been identified as such. This remarkable fact proved that the degree of “flavour shift” over the past 122 years is minimal.

The earlier sample was wonderfully delicate on the nose: a friend described the impression accurately as “old lace.” Fresh citric notes were immediately evident, and some light toffee notes. The whisky had retained its alcohol over all the years, and was probably at about 40 – 42% alcohol by volume. The flavour was delicious: smooth and succulent, with a balancing dryness and a finish like a lingering sunset. The new 1874 was very similar, but fruitier and bolder – less delicate and refined. Tom Richardson, the perfumier, summed it up well when he said he could imagine the original whisky having just that profile when it was filled. The cardinal aroma is of orange chocolate; the sherry-wood is more subdued than standard Macallan bottlings, and the flavour is saltier and generally drier than its predecessor.

Everyone agreed it was a splendid whisky, and an impressive achievement by Frank Newlands. It is magnificently presented in a specially commissioned bottle, the same as the one used in 1874, with a driven cork (a stopper cork is provided, so you don’t have to drink the bottle at a sitting!) and a label of similar design to the original. The bottles are packed in plain deal, straw-filled boxes – appropriately distressed, bound with rust-flecked wire and accompanied by a charming little booklet. All very authentic. Four hundred cases have been allocated to North America from a bottling run of a thousand cases.

Allan Shiach, Chairman of Macallan and great-grandson of Roderick Kemp, who bottled the original 1874, was not surprised by the fact that the old whisky tasted so similar to today’s Macallan: “the company devotes all its energy towards achieving quality and consistency, and always has done,” he said. I find it comforting to discover that the malt whisky drunk by my ancestors is so similar to that I myself enjoy. I didn’t expect this to be the case. The very day “The 1874″ was launched, it was announced in the press that Suntory, the Japanese giant, and Highland Distilleries (owners of Highland Park and The Famous Grouse) had combined forces to achieve a 51% shareholding and take over Macallan.

What the future holds for the company is uncertain, at the time of writing. One can only hope that Macallan’s devotion to quality and consistency will not be eroded by conglomerate number-crunching.

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