There’s a disconnect somewhere. Whilst producers continue to make subtle (and not so subtle) pronouncements of the importance of, and their strict adherence to consistency, enthusiasts continue to note changes to quality and bottle profiles. Master Blenders near famed for their abilities to create an identical product from an ever-changing inventory of casks – some generations apart. And drinkers swearing by their lives that their bottle of X possesses quite different qualities to its previous incarnations. They can’t both be right can they?
Consistency is frankly misunderstood. And sadly becoming more so. I’ve seen more than a few new (in many cases less than 5 years in) whisky fans posting up long-winded rants where they seek to compare distillery bottling A with different distillery bottling B and conclude that their preferences for one of them is a sign of a lack of consistency. A laughably flawed approach – and indeed a dangerous one in terms of the signalling which this might send back to producers. At the same time though, those longer in the tooth have indeed noted changes in the composition and character of expressions over longer periods of time – and questions arise as to why this might be the case.
From a producer point of view it’s important to always remember that distilleries are commercial entities. They’re don't exist to be your friends. There’s a wealth of things which distillery’s do and say which are rightly in their own commercial interests. We all know the regularly rolled out tall tales; gentle peat smoke derived from a nearby stream (never); age statements being important….and then seemingly now being unimportant, and of course, the wood being the primary driver of whisky’s flavour (often touted, never proven…..anywhere). The use of E150a is a fantastic case in point in terms of how producers manipulate our perceptions of consistency. But, the simple fact of the matter is that most consumers don’t actually care about these romanticisms – they enjoy the product and the marketing is designed to heighten this general, surface-level appeal further. Simple as.
But start to move from the occasional consumer into the enthusiast corner of the market – us – the people who by no means define the success of the sector (though we like to think we do) and you’ll find a generally deeper understanding, at least in some quarters, and a recognition that regardless of the yarns spun by distilleries, little changes make big differences to the eventual product.
I remember a few years ago listening with incredulity to one Distillery Manager who was claiming that the changeover of all of the distillery’s washback from pine to stainless steel would have no impact on the flavour of their new make spirit. An unbelievable claim. As many of you likely already know I’m a firm believer that the ingredients used and the methods employed (particularly when it comes to fermentation regimes) inherently shape the underlying profile of what will become spirit character. As such, a fundamental change such as the replacement of washbacks will, in my opinion, have an indelible effect on the eventual whisky. We’ll see if I’m correct in time. But to simply deny that major alterations to production won't affect the profile and consistency of whisky is to be trying to pull the wool over our eyes.
Production changes occur for many reasons – upgrades, replacements, changes in personnel or even simply a desire to repitch the style of spirit being made. Throughout all of these changes - distilleries will have you believe that consistency is king – but the truth of the matter is that many of the larger producers view consistency not in terms of the reliability and uniformity of their spirit, but in terms of the bulk volumes being produced. A consistence of yield.
Similarly, regardless of the industry’s proclamations of consistency, variance is inherent – you only have to take a look at the world of single casks to understand how broad a canvas whisky has to play with. And whilst blenders might seek to bring all of these elements back into harmony in a single recognisable product, over time it *will* change. Differing production regimes, different cask sources – there’s simply no way for a producer to create an expression which stand still in time for eternity. And this isn’t a facet that’s restricted to just the whisky industry – look across the entire world of consumable products (yes, sorry folks - whisky is a consumable) and you’ll see that all products change over time. Be that for production, ingredient or consumer preference reasons. What was then, cannot simply be now.
In some ways, enthusiasts are being quite unreasonable here. Suggestions that whisky shouldn’t change are a failure to recognise that the sector can and must move forwards. The grass may or may not have been greener, but regardless, you're going to have to get used to a different shade of green now.
This is not to say that there haven't been changes in quality over time. There has. Some for the better, some for the worse. And many likely driven by the producer view of consistency – namely yield. Shorter ferments and tired casks have become synonymous with some of the output from the larger distilleries. And whilst processes and profiles will inherently change, it’s easy to argue that the overall excellence of some whiskies has been diminished for the sake of fulfilling the growing capacity demands of consumers. Sadly it seems you can’t have it both ways.
But, as enthusiasts we should be careful not to mixup changes in quality with the sector's desire to experiment and push forward. Claims of inconsistency based on tasting two bottlings and enjoying one more than the other are a complete nonsense. Likewise, its important to recognise that our palates change and our experience grows. That 12 year old that you once bragged to your friends as being a superb whisky - is likely not quite as shiny to you nowadays - still good, still formative, but not the bottling which you're currently praising.
Consistency is not and cannot be uniformity. But it might be dependability.
Bowmore is one such distillery that enthusiasts and commentators regularly cite as suffering from consistency problems. Whilst specific production modifications are not bandied around on the Internet, changes in the distillery’s parent company occurred within living memory. These were quite some time ago now, so it is somewhat surprising to note that quality denunciations are still prevalent within the community – but then when you look at products like Bowmore No.1 and the 1st Vault Edition (I read that the 2nd is significantly improved, but the damage might well have already been done), this is easier to understand.
Nevertheless, a selection of recent pure ex-bourbon releases I’ve sampled have, by and large, seen significant upgrades to their overall compositions – it’s almost as if there’s been a continued period of experimentation at the distillery, and we’re only just now coming to a newer, and possibly happier equilibrium. But, at the same time – there’s still a raft of casks sitting in Bowmore’s extensive warehouses from previous times – and the distillery needs to do something with them….
Bowmore 25 year old Small Batch was originally produced in 2013 - making its casks of origin late 80s and worrying some because of the prevalence of FWP in some Bowmore bottlings around that time (you’ll know it if you’ve tried it). Some 7 years later and likely the casks used to create the modern batches of this expression – American ex-bourbon and Spanish sherry – are much more likely to have come from the mid-90s (Suntory time).
Whilst nowhere near the upper echelons of Bowmore ageing (there’s a raft of 50+ expressions from the 1960’s which few of us will ever be able to afford in our lifetime), the 25 year old is the current highest age-statement in the distillery’s age-statement core range. And it’s a bottling where there’s a huge retail pricing variance - £270 from Tyndrum Whisky (always good with their pricing these guys), £298.99 from Master of Malt and a less tempting £365 from Whisky Exchange (which surely needs someone in the pricing dept to take a closer look at).
Nose: Relaxed and rather floral – lavender and violets alongside mosses, ferns and bonfire autumn leaves. Not quite perfumed, but certainly heading towards a form of laundry detergent for me. Running throughout is coastalness – limestone cliffs and seashells. This sits with an assortment of fruit elements – guava, kiwi, cherries, and ripe red berries. In the background - cacao powder and old rubber tyres alongside aniseed. Reduction reveals the sweetness of butterscotch, combined with burnt pastry, floor cleaner, ozone and petrichor.
Taste: The arrival presents an interesting combination of seemingly thin spirit, but with an inherent sappy/resinous quality. Chocolate and sherry nuttiness (walnut) greet bright berries, tart lemons and papaya. Dusty soils and chalkiness are given a floral aspect from clean cotton sheets and overt Palma Violets. The smoke is both background and enveloping – gently layered throughout and not as diminished as you’d expect after 25 years (bearing in mind Bowmore’s ‘baseline’ peated profile). In the back palate, sour and drying oak with hints of polished surfaces. There’s not all that much scope for dilution before dropping this out of whisky territory, but a few drops does have an appreciable effect nonetheless – candy Love Hearts with apple peels and paste-like washing powder.
Finish: Quite long with underlying salinity, burnt toffee and mentholated oak.
Bowmore 25 year old Small Batch is rather the odd duck. On the one hand, there’s a lot going on – fruits, coastalness, confectionary, peat smoke – this is far from simplistic. On the other – there’s a palpable sense of soapiness. We’re nowhere near FWP territory, it’s firmly floral stuff - and yet I still find this to be an uneasy combination when considered within the wider aroma and flavour profile of the bottling. Entirely decent - but then shouldn’t this be aiming for higher praise given its provenance and particularly its firm pricing?
But don't take our word for it..
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