Monday, December 31, 2012

The Glenrothes, 1985 vs. 1998

Glenrothes, 1998 vintage (bottled 2010), single malt scotch, Speyside, 43%, $60
Glenrothes, 1985 vintage (bottled 2005), single malt scotch, Speyside ,43%, $120
prices listed for 750ml bottles, 100ml bottles pictured.

The grape is a fickle fruit, and as hard as vintners work to cope with the challenges of difficult weather the quality of the harvest can vary wildly from year to year. Having the vintage of a wine identified on the bottle is essential for the informed consumer.

The barleycorn is far more hardy, and the quality of the harvest varies little from season to season, regardless of the vagaries of the weather. While vintage dated single malts are uncommon, they are far from unheard of. So, when it comes to whisky, does vintage dating serve a purpose or is it just a marketing tactic? And most importantly, can the extra information on the label ever be useful to the end consumer?

As The Glenrothes uses vintage dating more extensively than any other producer of single malt scotch, this comparison/review is an ideal opportunity to explore the topic.

Most distillers reserve the use of vintage dating for special editions and limited release bottlings. One such example is the small batch series from Glen Garioch. On occasion, the practice will make its way into a producer’s standard lineup. 10 year Longrow had a run of declared vintages from 1992-1996, but the practice seems to have been given up in more recent bottlings. 18 year Macallan has carried a vintage date for more than two decades, in opposition to their10 yr, 12 yr, 25 yr and 30 yr offerings. Vintage dating is the rule rather than the exception at The Glenrothes. Instead of a standard lineup of set age statements, they rotate through a series of bottlings produced in different years. New vintages are released as others sell out, and there appear to be seven choices currently available. While the bottles don’t expressly carry an age statement, it can be easily determined as they show a date of bottling in addition to the distillation date.

With very little (if any) variance in the quality of the barley crop from season to season, combined with the fact that most distillers use grain sourced from across the UK (with many importing additional barley from mainland Europe), it would seem that vintage dating is just a marketing tool used to make consumers seek out multiple bottlings of the same single malt from a variety of production years. I feel that this is likely the case more often than not, but knowing what era the liquid in the bottle hails from can be quite useful none the less.

I’m slowly becoming fascinated with the effects that changes in the production methods employed by distillers can have on the final product. As time marches on, the process continually evolves at most distilleries, for better of for worse. The following are examples of major distillery changes that vintage dates would be helpful in identifying.

Springbank takes great pride in being the only Single Malt Scotch made with 100% of its barley malted in-house. However, this was not the case from 1960 until 1992, when the old floor maltings were restored. You never really hear anything bad about this era, and Springbanks from the 1960’s are highly revered, but that likely due to the abundance of high-quality sherry casks available at the time.

Historically, most Scottish pot stills were direct fired by coal (and rarely by peat), but in the 1960’s most of the industry converted to indirect heat, via steam coils inside the stills. A handful of distillers continue to use direct fire, but with more modern fuel oil burners. Glendronach was the last coal fired holdout, until they converted their stills to steam heat in 2005. The youngest Glendronach with an age statement is their 12 year, so in 2017 it will start to become harder to tell if a bottle from that distillery was produced in the era of direct coal heat or indirect steam heat.

For many years The Macallan was made entirely from Golden Promise barley. But as whisky production rose and farmers switched to more modern, higher yielding varieties, that became something that was no longer possible to do. In most of the years since 1994, The Macallan has been produced with between 20% and 30 % Golden Promise.

Many critics claim that Bowmore had a decade-long run of sub-par whisky. While no one knows what the distillery was doing differently, (and they deny that a difference even exists), vintage dates would help the savvy consumer to avoid Bowmore from the 1980’s.

Glen Garioch is known to have had peating levels that varied quite a bit over the last 4 dacades. This is a single malt that was traditionally lightly to moderately peated. But then a new maltster, who had been trained on Islay, joined the team in 1973 and the amount of peat smoke going through the malt increased dramatically during most of the mid 1970’s. The levels gradually eased back, until 1997 when the old floor maltings were decommissioned and the distillery began purchasing unpeated malt.

Vintage dated single malts may be rare, but it seems to be common for most brands to update their label design and/or bottle shape every ten years or so. This does make it possible to at least determine what era and older bottle has come from, in the absence of a vintage dated label.

With all that being said, I’d love to tell you that I uncovered some paradigm shift in the production methods of The Glenrothes that occurred between 1985 and 1998. Unfortunately this is not the case, but even if it was, it wouldn’t be relevant as The Glenrothes aims to put out a unique flavor profile with each vintage release. I am still pretty excited to compare these two whiskies.

nose – big, fruit (especially banana), cereal, hay that comes across in a perfumed manner
palate – light fruit and grain flavors start nicely before being joined by a blast of vanilla, but they all fade as perfumed grassy notes come to the fore and the whisky goes slightly out of balance.
finish – pleasantly warm and long but could use a little more intensity of flavor toward the end.

nose – berry fruit, candy corn, more masculine / spicy perfume notes.
palate – berry compote, slightly tannic oak, becomes less fruity and more floral as it transitions into the finish.
finish – alternating waves of heat and cinnamon spice, with the perfumed notes as a background element that gains a little momentum in the latter stages of the finish. 

The 1985 is better balanced and has more continuity overall. It is certainly more to my liking than the 1998, but I think this is another example of a whisky whose house style simply doesn’t suit my personal preference.

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