Access to bottles of old-style whiskies requires a secret initiation, substantial backing from a major sponsor (such as a hedge fund), a recognised award for services to your country, and the ability to lick your own elbow. If these criteria are met you must then sign a Non Disclosure Agreement to confirm that your exclusive access cannot, and will never be, shared beyond the guarded walls of a select few cellars and offices in the most inaccessible echelons of today’s global elite. Thus protecting the substantial investment of your esteemed peers. Right?
Codswallop. Put quite simply, whisky, and that’s ALL whisky, whether it’s acquired off-the-shelf at a supermarket, or at auction, in an airport, as an inheritance or at a distillery, was made to be enjoyed and shared. The only thing needed to instigate access to bottles of old-style whisky are people who care enough to actually do something about it.
In this case, let’s rewind to two years ago. Angus MacRaild and Jonny McMillan, friends and advocates of old-style whiskies (not to mention longtime friends of The Whisky Lounge), decided to take on the task of bridging the gap between the owners of these rare and sought-after bottlings, and the whisky-loving public.
In partnership with The Whisky Exchange, they now have two Old & Rare Whisky Shows under their belts. Their absolute conviction that these whiskies are of higher quality (and in some cases, more affordable) than some modern drams, has led not only to a great event but to a public gathering of a group of people which I don’t think could happen otherwise. And luckily for me, they let me go and give them a hand!
So, the mechanics. How does it work?
From the outside, much like any whisky festival. There are two sittings, one each on Saturday and Sunday. You pay an entrance fee, which this year was £75 per day or £135 for both days. This covers general admittance, a tasting glass, a meal and, most importantly, the opportunity to buy yourself 1cl drams priced between £1 and £200 from a wide range of exhibitors over a six-hour session at Glasgow’s Grand Central Hotel.
So, let’s get the engine started. The Grand Ballroom, along with the entire Glasgow Grand Central Hotel, underwent refurbishment in 2010. It’s a large, airy and brightly-lit room in the traditional Queen Anne style.
On entering the Ballroom, the untrained eye could be forgiven for thinking that the exhibitor stands around the outside of the room were the same that you might bump into at any whisky event. No doubt the room initially quietly echoed with:
“Oh, is that Colin and Dave from Diageo?”
“Excellent, Gordon and Macphail are here!”
“Look, there are Helen and Julie from The SMWS”
But look a little closer and you’d see and feel that something was different…
“Hold on, there seems to be a lot of specialist Whisky Auctions here.”
“What the……? Why would so many Whisky Bar owners from around the world be exhibiting?”
Then, the turn and face the audience. Conversations about “Vintages” and “Spirit Production” (as opposed to “Age Statement” and “Maturation”) are rife, and it’s quite clear that this is a level up in terms of historical and practical knowledge on the subject (yes, even for me!). Attendees from all ends of the industry. Not only the glowing faces of the much adored “whisky celebs”, but distillery production staff, brand ambassadors, vloggers, writers in abundance. If not instantly recognisable, even the least talented social commentator would notice the flow of people towards certain individuals.
Don’t get me wrong, this wasn’t like some kind of queue for a Bros signing (They’re still popular youth culture, right?). But there was an air of calm expectation about the place that suggested a certain amount of reverence for what was going on.
So what, indeed, WAS going on? To some of these people, Tyson v Ali was on the card, The Beatles were headlining (and other such gubbins). You see, lovers of old-style whiskies argue that modern methods of production and an over-emphasis on the maturation process, while providing greater consistency, have stripped the spirit of character and made for an altogether more bland product. The opportunity to see some of these old bottles – never mind try them – is therefore a scarce one.
But is the memory better than the reality? Have these old-style whiskies been committed to history for a good reason? And surely the usual cries of “Bandwagon/Money Grabbers/Snobbery/Elitism etc…..” from the online naysayers can’t all be from jealous, unqualified nitwits, can they?
Time to take it up a gear, what does the stuff actually taste like?! Well, overall, with the admittedly limited experience that I have (and not forgetting, I was supposed to be working!), my overall opinion is that there most certainly are characteristics of old whiskies that are far more interesting and arguably even better than their modern day equivalents.
There’s unctuousness with these vintage whiskies, a kind of fuller, more robust, bigger promotion of fruit flavours with more rounded peat influence: a generally more pleasant and satisfying drinking experience. Notably, I was lucky enough to try the famous Sheriff’s Bowmore and Highland Park Dragon 1965. Both were exceptional, and comfortably lived up to their hype.
That being said, it’s not all tap-dancing over rainbows. It’s not as easy as just picking up any old vintage bottle and assuming you’ll love it. Not all old-style bottlings are examples of some of the best old-style whiskies ever made. The lack of consistency means that, naturally, some of them were not so good. For whatever reason: the bottle has not been sealed properly, the spirit become tainted in the bottle etc….. One Glenlivet 49yr Sestante bottling was more reminiscent of lemon washing-up liquid than whisky. On the whole, though, I’m all for the old style whiskies!
So, here is the real conundrum with these old-style whiskies. On one hand, they are arguably some of the finest spirit humankind has ever endeavoured to produce. On the other, there’s a gamble on getting inferior swill. So, what do you do? Research? Engage in the subject with like-minded enthusiasts? Expand your knowledge and palate until you have a stock of experience to draw on in choosing vintage bottlings? Or do you settle for the current off-the-shelf offerings?
These are questions you need to ask yourself. Along with your whisky budget, availability, proximity etc….And I’m not going to answer them for you. What I will say is that Jonny and Angus, along with Sukhinder Singh, Andy Milne, Leonora Mellish and The Whisky Exchange team have created a platform for you to continue your whisky journey beyond the realms of the shop shelf. The only hurdle you have is yourself.
Personally, I’m not sure if the word “Melancholy”, quite covers my feelings in retrospect of Old And Rare. Maybe “Post-Triumphal” is closer. But whatever the word for – “The afterglow you get from revelling in efforts and achievements of other people, and wishing they’d do more of the same sort of thing”- is, that’s the one I mean [Slap-Happy? -Ed.]. But I’m glad I was involved at all, and grateful to The Whisky Lounge for okaying me to “work” an outside event.
Cheers to all involved!