Are Whiskies Getting Worse?

This question was raised by a customer email. So, we want to investigate the question: How do Whisky bottlings change over the years? We choose the examples of Macallan and Ardbeg.

In principle, the method of production has not changed over the years. The wash is heated, then the Whisky goes into the second still, finally the spirit is ready to be matured in casks. But what has changed over the decades? Heating is one example. In the past, a fire was lit under the still and things could burn. Or when the barley was germinating on the malting floors, the temperature was not optimal. Mould and other contamination from stray animals such as cats and mice might have developed. The raw material did not enter the spirit as cleanly as we know it today. And finally, any casks were used for maturation, whereas today there is a proper cask management. Meanwhile, Macallan switched from direct firing to gas firing and Ardbeg was closed for years and then resumed.

So, we would even say: Whisky used to be worse! Because the production processes are far better today. And there are certainly really good bottlings today.

Was Everything Better in the Old Days?

It can be explained with psychology! We glorify what used to be positive, we suppress the bad - that's important for survival. The human brain embellishes a lot, and we do the same with Whisky.

When it comes to Whisky, many people want original, natural, unadulterated enjoyment - not some modern Blending-Whisky. But even 100 years ago, the master distiller wanted the best possible result, only his technical possibilities were different, or we could say limited. Many things could still happen during the production process: A power failure, the mash could be spoiled, vinegar bacteria could get into the yeast, resulting in a sour Whisky!

Nowadays, in the USA for example, the fermenters are cleaned with superheated steam to combat vinegar bacteria before the next mash is put on. In addition, the malting process is usually no longer carried out by the distilleries, but the malt is deliberately produced in large-scale factories. Furthermore, the casks are made from specially selected woods.

The 'Quality Drop' in Whisky

Let's take Lagavulin. It used to be 5-10% of the Lagavulin Single Malt that was bottled as Lagavulin - the rest went into a Blend. Today it is actually the full 100% of the production. So inferior casks are also used for the Single Malt. In the big mixture, that gets lost! And if there is no single cask bottling, customers don't get to taste it.

The question might be, how could you detect a drop in quality? You would have to buy two bottles from the same distillery with a big age difference and compare them. This has been done, but the comparison is flawed. In fact, there is a change in taste in a bottle that has been stored for a long time. This takes place through the oxygen that is in the area between the Whisky and the cork. Oxygen also enters from the outside through the cork. There it oxidises and makes the Whisky milder and softer. This is a flavour that many customers like.

To actually compare two identical Whiskies that are decades apart in their bottling, you would have to freeze one bottle to stop oxidation and then taste in comparison.

Overall, the difference between two bottles is not statistically significant, because it is only about two bottles of one batch. Moreover, the comparison is only ever made on one bottle of a particular year. However, there have certainly been fluctuations in Whisky production over the decades. Cask suppliers changed, the ratio of Bourbon to Sherry casks changed, and so we are dealing with snapshots in each case. Perhaps this fact could be circumvented by buying a bottle of the same Whisky every year, then one could compare between batches. It will be difficult in any case. Equipment changes also play a role in terms of taste. Often distilleries were closed and reopened years later. So, process changes and improvements were made with the goal: better, cheaper, more alcohol. Let's take Ardbeg again as an example. Here, new condensers and a lid on the mash tun were installed when the distillery was reopened.

We offer taste descriptions for our Whiskies. You, the user, can give a taste rating. A Whisky observed over the years will get an average from the customers and some drift to 'better' or 'worse'. Or it may simply be a trend. had supported a thesis on how sales of Whisky change when certain personalities praise it or not. For example, Jim Murray's Whisky Bible has a measurable influence on sales. Whether Horst Luening's assessment in German also has a measurable influence remains to be seen. 

One Insight Remains

Improvement or deterioration is in the eye of the beholder. There is a lot of psychology in this topic: when we treat ourselves to old bottles, we tend to look for the memory of the old days in the bottle rather than the taste. The Whisky is produced the way the customer wants it.

Conclusion: Overall, whether ’better’ or ’worse’ is a matter of taste!