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E-pistle 2009/30 – Tripping Down Memory Lane

E-pistle 2009/30 – Tripping Down Memory Lane

By Johannes van den Heuvel, Holland

Malt whisky is a liquid time machine; when you’re enjoying a dram you’re nosing and tasting a product that was produced several years (or decades) earlier. That’s one of the things that makes single malt whisky so interesting; the gap between the ‘crafting’ of the product and its consumption. When the Coca Cola company decided to change the recipe for their soft drink in 1985, the taste of ‘New Coke’ didn’t appeal to many of their existing customers. At first Coca Cola secretly started to change the formula of ‘The Real Thing’ towards the original product and less than three moths after introducing ‘New Coke’ they announced that they would bring back ‘Coca Cola Classic’. This was actually different from the original formula, but that’s another story…

Although many corporate bigwigs in the whisky industry would love to have a similar level of flexibility, they don’t.
The legal minimum period of maturation for Scotch whisky is three years. Although many blends are released at an age of just three years, most single malts still require at least ten to twelve years to become REALLY good – although I have to admit some distilleries have already managed to release notably younger bottlings that I could confidently recommend. So, that means that the effects of many changes at the production end of the whisky industry take many years to ‘trickle down’ to the shelves of liquorists around the world. In other words: by the time we notice changes in the product it’s usually too late to turn back the clock…

For example, when farmers or distilleries decide to change the strain of barley they use, it takes about a decade to find out how it affects the mature whisky – and the customer’s response to it. That would be a problem if the main objective was making a ‘better’ whisky, but not if the primary reason for the change was lowering production costs or increasing the ‘yield’. Similar principles apply to many other changes in the recent past of the whisky industry; wood management, the availability and prices of certain cask types and sizes at a particular moment, the switch from coal heating to indirect heating, types and variety of yeast, the switch from floor maltings to saladin boxes, etc. To cut a long story short: the whisky world has changed a lot in recent decades – but was this by chance or by design?

When I was ‘analysing’ the results of this year’s Malt Maniacs Awards I noticed that a disproportionate number of gold medal winners were distilled in 1972. This made me realise that the early 70’s seemed to be a very good time for malt whiskies; the average ‘quality’ of the whiskies distilled in the the early 70’s (and perhaps 1972 in particular) seemed higher than those from the late 1970’s. And then there’s a similar ‘threshold’ around 1983 – which is of course much easier to explain because that’s when the entire whisky industry got into a crisis. When I asked the other maniacs about their thoughts about tjis, Davin came up with another interesting question; “And while we’re on the subject does anyone else wonder if the ISO movement is genericising malt whisky?”. Quite possibly! I’ve never thought about applying ISO to the Scotch whisky industry before, but I’ve been involved with a few ISO projects for employers myself. I’ve found that ISO may be useful for streamlining office procedures at large corporations, but it also is detrimental to creativity and spontaneity in smaller organisations. Craig expressed similar sentiments when he wrote: “My thesis is that the 1970s were the last decade before the number crunchers took over and I guess that means we should search for and secure malt whiskies distilled before 1983-1986 and celebrate the full glory of Single Malt Scotch.”.

So, while the introduction of ‘New Coke’ was a CHANGE that could have been turned back, most of the recent changes in the whisky industry are part of an EVOLUTION. Unlike changes which can work both ways, an evolution generally goes in one direction. Part of this evolution is driven by the sort of choices I’ve just mentioned, but there are external factors as well that exert their influence; changes in climate, government regulations, the massive drop in sherry consumption that has limited the availability of sherry casks, etc. All of these elements (both internal and external influences) have worked together to create today’s whisky world – warts and all.

Anyway – the point is that the whisky world has changed a lot over the years; partly by accident and partly by design.
Malt Maniacs has changed a lot as well since we published our first E-pistles in the 1990’s. In 1997 Craig Daniels from Australia, Louis Perlman from the USA and yours truly wrote the first articles for the forum on the ‘Malt Madness’ website – a section of the website which would later evolve into this ‘Malt Maniacs’ E-zine. In the years that followed many other malt lovers joined our cause, including Serge Valentin (who built a kick-ass WhiskyFun website) and famous whisky writers like Charlie MacLean, Dave Broom and Martine Nouet. Although we haven’t changed as profoundly as the whisky industry itself, we’ve experienced a few ‘fundamental’ changes like the introduction of an E-zine format around 2001 and the launch of a separate website in 2006. And now it’s time for another, fairly fundamental change in 2010…

When we launched a separate ‘Malt Maniacs’ website in 2006 I seriously underestimated the amount of extra work that was involved with maintaining a second, separate website. As a result, I haven’t been able to maintain and develop both websites as actively as I would have liked over the past few years. In the current set-up, the only way to make some real progress was by ‘freezing’ other sections of the site for a few time. It took me some time, but I finally accepted that I had to make some changes to the ‘format’ of Malt Maniacs. That’s why this will be the final issue of the Malt Maniacs E-zine in HTML. In the future, our E-pistles will be published as standalone articles in PDF. Members of the MM mailinglist will automatically receive the articles in their mailbox, but they will also be provided on this website.

Hopefully, this next ‘evolutionary step’ means that I’ll need less time editing issues of our E-zine.
This gives me more time to work on Malt Madness and other sections of this Malt Maniacs website. Also, I have high hopes that this new approach will produce slightly ‘heavier’ E-pistles which are a little more like ‘white papers’ on a certain whisky related topic and a little less like virtual fireplace chats, however pleasant they may be. Thanks to new developments like Facebook and Twitter there are plenty of alternative platforms nowadays where people can share tasting notes – including Serge Valentin’s excellent WhiskyFun website – or have a virtual chat about single malt whisky, From now on we’ll be trying to tackle some of the heavier stuff on Malt Maniacs…