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HomeLifestyleThe World’s Oldest Whisky? Maybe Or Maybe Not

The World’s Oldest Whisky? Maybe Or Maybe Not

Gordon & MacPhail (G & M), the venerable Scottish whisky maker and bottler, has just announced the historic release of the oldest Scotch whisky ever bottled – Generations 80-Year-Old from Glenlivet Distillery. The release is accompanied by a set of seven other Glenlivet expressions being released concurrently. They span the period from 1975 through 2004.

Virtually everything connected to an ultra-aged whisky is a living testament to its great age – more so for a whisky that has been maturing for 80 years. When the Sherry butt, Cask #340 was crafted in the mid-19th century, Queen Victoria was a newlywed young queen just beginning her long reign, Nicholas I was Tsar of Russia, and a recently minted young lawyer named Abraham Lincoln was starting his legal practice in Springfield, Illinois.

The cask wood would have come from an oak that was at least a century old, and possibly more. When the components that would ultimately shape the aroma and flavor of this whisky were being created, the United States had not even been born.

The whisky itself also has deep historical roots. When it was distilled on February 3, 1940, WW II had just started. Poland had fallen, but Denmark and Norway were still free states. Winston Churchill was First Lord of the Admiralty; his first ministerial appointment since being banished into the political wilderness in 1929.

On the Western Front a strange unease prevailed as the French Army hunkered down behind and within the fortifications of the Maginot Line. Termed the “Sitzkrieg” and the “Phony War” at the time, few comprehended the devastating onslaught just a few weeks away.

Present at the filling of cask #340 was George Urquhart, a member of the second generation of the family that would lead Gordon & MacPhail, a visionary that renowned Scotch whisky writer Charlie MacLean would later dub “the father of single malt” Scotch whisky. Also present was his father, John, the first generation of the family whisky dynasty.

In 1940, blended whisky represented 99%+ of whisky sales. The single malt Scotch whisky segment didn’t exist. At best it was a curiosity, the realm of eccentrics and diehard, slightly whacky, whisky connoisseurs.

Did George imagine that 80 years later his grandchildren would oversee the release of cask #340 as the world’s oldest bottled whisky? Did he already have a plan to release that whisky as a single malt? Or was he simply doing what G & M has done for more than 125 years, matching wood to whisky and laying it down until it reached its moment of perfection?

There is an additional wrinkle to this story worth pointing out, however. Cask #340 was one of several casks from G & M that were filled that day at the Glenlivet Distillery. Is this the oldest and the last of that golden generation born that February 3rd?

I asked Stephen Rankin, Director of Prestige at Gordon & MacPhail, George Urquhart’s grandson and also an old friend, whether by chance there were any remaining members of that magnificent cohort of casks still slumbering in that liquid museum of Scotch whisky otherwise known as the G & M warehouse. “That’s a really good question, Joe,” he replied, and then he didn’t say anything more.

So yes, the Gordon & MacPhail Generations, 80-Years-Old from Glenlivet Distillery is the oldest whisky ever bottled and released. Is it the oldest whisky in G & M’s storied vaults? Is a would-be 85 YO sibling gently slumbering awaiting its own historic debut? For an answer, we’ll have to wait and see.

Gordon & MacPhail, Generations, 80 YO from Glenlivet Distillery, 44.9% ABV, 700 ml, Cask #340. Distilled on February 3, 1940. Disgorged on Feb 5, 2020.

Why is it that of the millions of casks filled each year, only a handful are capable of being matured for half a century or more? The factors that allow some Scotch whiskies to be aged for decades on end is not entirely understood. The characteristic of the whisky is one variable. Some whiskies simply have a DNA that’s more conducive to extended aging.

Warehouse conditions is another. Ambient temperature, humidity, diurnal and seasonal climate variations all play a factor. They determine how quickly the whisky is aging, how much extraction is occurring from the wood, and the speed at which various chemical reactions associated with the aroma and taste profile of Scotch whisky occur. According to Rankin, cask #340 was located at “the back of the warehouse on the bottom row.” “I passed it almost every time I went to the warehouse,” he adds.

Evaporation is another important factor. Under Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) regulations, Scotch whisky cannot be bottled below an ABV of 40%. In a multi-barrel blend, a cask that falls below 40% ABV can still be blended with a higher proof barrel to even out the shortfall. Single barrel bottlings, however, don’t have that luxury. As the ABV edges closer to that 40% limit, the pressure to bottle a whisky can become overwhelming.

The time value of money is often a limiting factor. A whisky aged for a half century or more represents a hugely valuable capital asset that is not generating any income. The temptation to cash out from what could turn out to be a very risky investment can be very tempting. Whiskies that sell for tens of thousands of dollars often have a cost basis of only a few dollars per bottle. While the margins on such bottles can be astronomical, the actual annual rate of return is typically under 10% a year.

The one factor that probably has the most impact, however, is the quality of the wood. As G & M is prone to point out, “it’s the wood that makes the whisky.” It is the ability to find optimal casks and to match each cask to the appropriate whisky that is at the root of G & M’s extraordinary success in producing ultra-aged whiskies.

In the case of the Generations 80 YO from Glenlivet Distillery, the Sherry butt was first used to hold mosto after which it was used to mature young Sherry wines called sobretables. In its later years, the butt was used to mature Oloroso Sherry.

In Spain, the term mosto is generally applied to unfermented grape juice. In Jerez, however, it can be used to describe both fermented and unfermented grape juice, as well as grape juice that has been boiled down and concentrated.

The result is that the cask wood has been able to absorb a lot of flavors from the prior cask contents.

According to Rankin, the staves from which the butt was constructed were exceptionally thick. Historically, Sherry was shipped to the United Kingdom in butts and bottled there. The requirement to bottle sherry in Spain was only introduced in the early 1980s.

Casks needed to be exceptionally sturdy to handle the rigors of shipping, and were often made with thicker staves. These Sherry butts will lose less alcohol to evaporation. They will also allow less oxygen to seep into the cask, materially slowing down some of the maturation processes occurring within.

All of these factors played an important role in making possible the maturation of an 80 YO whisky and creating its remarkable aroma and flavor profile. So too did the element of luck that saw a perfect union between barrel wood and spirit. There is also one other important factor in producing an exceptional ultra-aged whisky – patience.

The Generations 80 YO from Glenlivet Distillery is being presented in partnership with renowned architect and designer Sir David Adjaye OBE. Adjaye designed the decanter and packaging in which it’s housed. According to G & M:

The oak pavilion which houses the decanter is comprised of vertical struts which represent trees in a natural forest environment – acknowledgment that the cask which cradled the liquid for eight decades and the legacy which the release will provide.

For his part, Sir David praised his partnership with Gordon & MacPhail, noting that:

When collaborating, I am looking for like-minded partners in terms of their craft, beliefs and traditions. I loved Gordon & MacPhail’s rigour and obsession with their products and their craft – a romantic commitment that enables one to do exceptional things. Our partnership felt so organic.

According to Adjaye, the decanters were hand blown and designed to appear as a single bloc of crystal. Indentations on each side of the decanter allow it to be held sturdily when the whisky is being poured.

A total of 250 decanters are being released. The first decanter, appropriately labeled #1 will be auctioned off by Sotheby’s in Hong Kong on October 7, 2021, at 11 am HKT (11 pm on October 6, 2021, New York time). Per Sotheby, the pre-auction estimate is between $100,000 and $200,000. See Sotheby’s Hong Kong website for instruction on how to register for the auction.

In addition to the first decanter, the winning bidder will also receive one of the original cask ends presented in a glass frame and the original lithograph, the only one available, of Sir David Adjaye’s concept drawings.

Additionally, the winner will be treated to a private tasting of the whisky in London in the company of Sir David and hosted by G & M’s Director of Prestige Stephen Rankin. Net proceeds, after costs, will be donated to Trees for Life, a local Scottish charity dedicated to the rewilding of the Caledonian Forest, Scotland’s ancient temperate rain forest. The charity is growing 100,000 rare and native trees each year to replant and restore this historic forest.

I was fortunate to receive a sample of the Generations 80 YO from Glenlivet Distillery. Below are the tasting notes from a sample I shared with Stephen Rankin.

The color is a rich, burnished gold, with tints of copper and rosewood.

On the nose, it’s incredibly fresh and fruity, astonishing for a whisky that has spent eight decades in wood. The Sherry cask influence is unmistakable. There are notes of cherry, golden raisin and tropical fruit. There is a creaminess, along with a bit of dried fruit sweetness, like the aroma you get when you open a plastic bag of dried fruit.

There is a lot of complexity here, with the fruit notes backed by herbal notes of tobacco leaf, dried heather potpourri and a bit of mint. There is also a touch of anise/licorice accompanied by spice notes of ginger, clove and cinnamon, along with some butterscotch and vanilla. There are additional notes of sandalwood incense and a touch of cigar box cedar.

In 1940, Glenlivet, as was the prevailing style in Speyside at the time, would have used a slightly peated malt. There is a bit of cold smoke on the nose, but its subtle after 80 years of aging. If you weren’t expecting it you could easily ascribe it to a dried herbal/earthy aroma.

On the palate, it is remarkably dry. It’s flavorful, oily with a pronounced palate weight. It’s also spicy, with just a bit of pepper heat that fades quickly and the same wood spices that you find on the nose.

The anise/licorice flavor is more pronounced. There are dried fruit notes of fig and date and just a bit of prune. There is a layered, nuanced complexity with the fruit notes gradually giving way to more herbal/earthy notes.

The finish is long. Herbal notes are intertwined with dried fruit notes and a lingering licorice element, and just a hint of seasoned wood on the finish.

In addition, as noted earlier, G & M is releasing seven additional expressions of Scotch whisky from the Glenlivet Distillery. These range in age from 45 YO to 16 YO. These are superlative whiskies in their own right, even if they can’t reach the lofty heights achieved by their 80 YO sibling.

They are also a lot more affordable, and in some cases, represent outstanding values. Roughly 45 YO Glenlivet expressions for under $2,500 are a terrific buy. Official distillery bottlings, where there are any, would easily cost double that. The Glenlivet Winchester Collection 50 YO, for example, retails for more than $30,000.

Tasting notes, provided by G & M, are below. Prices are approximate. All bottles are 700 ml. These expressions are not available in the US, but can be purchased through UK online retailers like The Whisky Exchange.

Gordon & MacPhail Private Collection 1975 from Glenlivet Distillery, refill Sherry hogshead, Speyside, $2,450

Aroma: Blackcurrant aromas combine with rich cinnamon spice and toasted almonds. Dark honey notes develop alongside a hint of sweet fruitcake.

Taste: Dark chocolate flavors complement bitter orange, leading to a hint of mature oak. Stewed raisins come to the fore alongside butterscotch syrup.

Finish: A medium-bodied and slightly drying finish of mature oak and spice.

Gordon & MacPhail Private Collection 1976 from Glenlivet Distillery, refill American hogshead, Speyside $2,100

Aroma: Lemon peel and green apple aromas accompany a hint of smoke. Grapefruit zest comes to the fore with sweet poached pears and toasted oak.

Taste: Smooth and sweet flavors of white chocolate are balanced by soft, aged leather. Honeysuckle and aniseed lead to toasted almonds.

Finish: A light-medium finish of citrus peel and lingering cracked black pepper.

Gordon & MacPhail Private Collection 1976 from Glenlivet Distillery, First fill Sherry hogshead, Speyside, $2,100

Aroma: Rich Sherry aromas combined with Morello cherry and a hint of beeswax polish. Soft aniseed develops alongside ginger and cinnamon with subtle notes of candied orange peel.

Taste: Flavors of stewed red berries give way to toasted almonds and light cocoa powder. Baked apples accompany clove spice and a delicate herbal character.

Finish: A full finish with raspberries, blackcurrants and lingering licorice.

Gordon & MacPhail Private Collection 1980 from Glenlivet Distillery, Refill American hogshead, Speyside, $1,750

Aroma: Rich tropical aromas complement a vibrant hint of tart lemon. Sweet peaches and baked apples give way to notes of dark honey.

Taste: Smooth and creamy with Seville orange and lemon zest. A hint of fresh mint gives way to almonds and mature oak.

Finish: A soft and delicate finish with subtle herbal notes.

Gordon & MacPhail Connoisseurs Choice 1993 from Glenlivet Distillery, Refill American hogshead, Speyside, $370

Aroma: Rich, dark honey combines with desiccated coconut and dried banana. Lime peel develops alongside roasted nuts and lemon cheesecake.

Taste: Cracked black pepper leads to tropical fruit and subtle grapefruit. Green apple comes to the fore with vibrant vanilla and butterscotch.

Finish: A medium-bodied finish with lingering citrus and mature oak.

Gordon & MacPhail Connoisseurs Choice 2003 from Glenlivet Distillery, Refill bourbon barrel, Speyside, $175

Aroma: Pineapple and Seville orange zest give way to subtle nuts. Undertones of lemon peel develop accompanied by baked apples and honeycomb.

Taste: Smooth, sweet pears lead to grapefruit and soft white pepper. Subtle white chocolate notes transform into a faint herbal edge and charred oak.

Finish: A full finish with long lasting vanilla pod and citrus.

Gordon & MacPhail Connoisseurs Choice 2004 from Glenlivet Distillery, Refill bourbon barrel, Speyside, $140

Aroma: Vibrant tropical fruit and ripe green apples give way to bitter orange. Honeysuckle comes to the fore alongside cocoa powder and subtle white pepper.

Taste: Rich pineapple and mango accompany flambéed banana. Poached pears develop alongside rich watermelon and toasted oak.

Finish: A medium finish with lingering marzipan and citrus.

The Generations 80 YO from Glenlivet Distillery is an outstanding whisky. To parrot Charlie MacLean, “without doubt one of the finest malts I have ever encountered.” It’s also a fitting legacy to a fourth-generation family firm that has been crafting superlative whiskies for more than 125 years and who have taken the craft of whisky making to unprecedented levels.

Sláinte

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