this all comes down to something I tried to raise in another topic, and on which nobody could put their finger on exactly...
What is "quality" in a whisky?
1) I dare state that the "quality" of Springbank is not
superior to the quality of Talisker!!! Maybe you like Springbank better than Talisker, but does that imply that its quality is better? If you can determine quality of a whisky solely by what is in your glas, then how come the industry is not hiring people who are so sure of their perception, to improve overall quality of their products? Surely no distillery is willing to produce "inferior" quality if they could avoid it?
2) I dare state that a lot of people in the industry think that there is no such thing as decline in quality of the spirit! On the contrary, most of them will say spirit got better over the last decades!!!
So, the main question is: How come a lot of us get the impression of lesser quality, whereas the industry is claiming the opposite???
Does that imply that taste
are two different things, that only fall in the same spot occasionally?
My thoughts on the matter are these (for You to decide if they make any sense!)
1) The industry is striving (for any particular distillery) for the highest possible quality at the lowest possible cost... and these seem to be mutually exclusive. Another thing they aim for is the distillery profile and recognisability. Which is where "blenders" come in. In the old days, when single malt was a noble unknown, people used to drink blends.
Those blends strived for a recognisable taste and quality, in order to bind customers. (My great grandfather used to drink 'Haig' a nothing else, and I guess a lot of people were like that) (I dare to say that the users of this forum probably do not
fit that profile, because they are knowledgeable, and willing / wanting to try new things.) B(l)inding customers is achieved by eradicating fluctuations in taste... Which is what the main job of the blender is. "Compose" the blend so that the customer does not find out that he used 50 different malts, because the taste is always the same.
Now: How much easier would it (blending) become if "batch" variations, or even "cask" variations would be kept to a minimum... In order to achive that (don't forget, 90% of all distilleries still get rid of 80% of their production to blends) standardisation is the clue...
- Computercontrolled malting = same malt at all time
- Computercontrolled fermentation in stainless steel tanks (so no interference from yeast, bacteria or other substances out of oregon pine washbacks) = same wash all the time
- Implementation of steamcoils for heating stills = possibility to control the cutting points to the second = Computercontrolled distillation = constant and always the same middle-cut
All the above leads to a constant quality of the New Make... with no or the least possible variations ....
- Nowadays "wood-management" is the big word, with even computercontrolled infra-red heated (instead of flame-thrower, charred) cooperage.
So even maturation (this ultimate last bastion of uncontrollable natural magic) is being scientifically "enhanced"....
What it feels like, to me, is "blending" before the blending starts... distilleries are trying for a constant quality of the product, not allowing for much variation!
So yes, the quality is better these days!!! high quality = low or no batch variation! = (unfortunately) poorer taste?
Quality was deemed worse in the old days because those "erratic" old customs (stillman sleeping on the job, fire going out, and things like that) gave enormous batch variations... some batches were stunning, others probably undrinkable... which, when the good and very good batches were vatted together, gave a ritcher and/but ultimately more variable taste...mind you, they could afford passing on the "bad" batches because single malt consumption was that much lower!
Another defining thing is the very high consumtion of Single Malt these days. Take for instance Lagavulin or Springbank... They became a victim of their succes! Lagavulin 16 has been almost unavailable for a while, Springbank 25 and 30 are distant memories... Why? probably unsufficient stocks of old enough casks. If I compare Laphroaig 15 these days, with Laphroaig 15 bottled in the mid 80-ties, there is considerable difference, maybe because of changed production methods or different legal issues in some important export markets (FDA regulations for fenols are much stricter!), but that does not explain it all, i feel! Why: (and this is my assumption based on taste and nose, not necessarily a fact, mind you) The mid 80-ties vatting contained probably:
a) whisky (sometimes a lot) older than 15 years (now the 15yo is probably just that... 15yo)
b) A higher percentage of sherry-cask matured whisky.
and especially b, has changed enormously over the last 20 years. Sherry casks are much more expensive and harder to get, More stringent laws on bottling sherry, and a more available constant supplie of Bourbon-barrels that come very cheap! Older standard bottlings seem to have a much bigger sherry influence than their current siblings.
a) "blending" on production level
(=higher quality, poorer taste?)
b) higher consumtion of Single Malts
c) unreal prices fetched by older single malts (cfr Ardbeg 65)
(which makes using them in younger vattings uninteresting!)
d) predominant use of ex-bourbon casks
are some of the reasons why whisky from today differs so much from "old style" whisky...
Although I may be completely wrong!