Rarely a day goes by in whisky world without someone, be they producer or commentator, making a statement about consistency. The largest whisky producers frequently roll out the ‘c’ word or its equivalent in order to maintain brand perceptions and customer loyalty - faithful vattings, reliable blends, balanced wood policies – even constant pricing structures. And at times these proclamations sadly ring hollow. Meanwhile on the Internet, enthusiasts seem to enjoy little more than comparing seemingly identical bottlings sometimes produced decades apart and suggesting that their differences either substantiate the notion of consistency being a myth or are reflective of diminishing product quality. Neither of these positions seems particularly helpful as generalisations.
Producers do care about consistency. They’d be fools not to. At the bulk end of the market, blends are tirelessly tuned to ensure a uniform product – this is especially important for the hospitality sector where the consistency of aroma and flavour is vital for turning out dependable drinks time and time again to customers. Similarly, if you’re producing at scale – consistency is a friend to your bottom line – economies of scale are only possible when improvements, cost-savings or harmonious production processes are implemented broadly.
But nothing truly stays the same forever. From changes in ingredient properties, variances in wood sources and quality, right the way through to fluctuating consumer expectations – it is irrational to believe that consistency is equitable to identicalness and therefore a whisky from ten years hence should offer a wholly indistinguishable profile to its current-day incarnation.
The job of blenders is not only to imagine and to create, but also to ensure this type of consistency – however, they are always limited by the selection of crayons they have available in their box.
This all said, consistency can be used by producers to hide a multitude of sins. The blending away of knackered casks with sound ones has been, and still is, utilised as a method for inventory management. And similarly, in striving for consistency there are countless expressions – both blended and single malt which invariable find their end destination as ‘middle of the road’ – a profile engineered to be as innocuous and broadly appealing as possible. And it’s these types of practices which have led to enthusiasts bemoaning quality reductions – to a level where I’ve seen some posit that standards are knowingly being lowered in order to a) reduce production costs and b) provide a taste/experience differential away from the super-duper, ultra-premium, limited edition releases – which can then be used to justify their ever-increasing prices. Bold and unsubstantiated claims - but interesting nonetheless.
Consistency is a broader topic than of mass production and/or perceptions of quality. It goes to the very heart of what defines a particular distillate – and the versatility of that spirit both over time and in a variety of different settings. A particular bottling can be judged as high quality – sometimes over long periods of production – but that doesn’t automatically equate to every release of that same spirit possessing a similar evergreen standard or appeal.
Ardbeg 10 year old is regularly put on a pedestal by both old hands and newer enthusiasts – meanwhile, Uigeadail has countless column inches dedicated to its changing composition (suggestions of different proportions of sherry cask influence). Both are perennial releases – both deride from the same core distillate. But both doubtless have changed and will change over time – one simply receives more attention and dissection (perhaps purely out of fan love for sherry with peat) than the other.
On the flip side, Ardbeg for all its increasingly wacky marketing and chasey, flippable Committee releases – still has what several distilleries possess – a notion of consistency that runs throughout their ranges and operations. It’s more than just the perceived profile of a single expression – it’s an observation that applies to the output of the distillery when taken as a whole. Another example is that of the ever-increasing popularity for anything produced by Springbank. Regarded (rightly in my opinion) for quality, but also progressively becoming synonymous for consistency. In essence - whilst some releases will arguably command greater accolades, you rarely read of a “poor” Springbank.
Perhaps my favourite example of the notion of consistency applied as a moniker for ongoing eminence is that of Caol Ila. Earlier this week, Mark Watt from Watt Whisky posted a photo of a set of notes he made for a tasting talk – from a fair few years back. On it was written: “Caol Ila – impossible to feck up”. A succinct summary that could have happily replaced all the piece that I’ve just written above.
Caol Ila is arguably one of the most consistent of distillates out there. Its profile is defined, recognisable and well-loved – and it presents highly ably at a very wide variety of ages and across a broad swathe of casks types (there are always exceptions). I can count the number of truly poor Caol Ila’s I’ve encountered on one hand. A staggering feat considering the volume of production and ergo the large number of bottles of this spirit that are on the market at any one time.
Consistency should not be thought of as pure uniformity – especially not over longer periods of time. But it should be associated with an evenness of character. And Caol Ila’s spirit is an epitome of this evenness – its profile perennial and classic to a point where changes in production and application over generations have still allowed its inherent qualities to shine.
Speaking of shining brightly....
The Whisky Exchange’s most recent own-bottled Coal Ila was distilled in 2008 and matured for 12 years in ex-bourbon hogshead #313261, which provided 283 bottles at an ABV of 58.5%. These were released towards the end of last year and are still available to purchase directly from the TWE website for £74.95.
Nose: Immediately mineral with pumice and slate. Deeper we’re into alluvial notes of clays and sandy loams. Coastalness is expressed not just through rockiness, but also through strong, fresh briny character - rock salt and sea breeze – whilst smoke envelops all in a soft, but palpably ashy and greasy hug. Everything is perfectly offset by communicative citric aromas – candied lemon peels and lemon curd. Water offers a wider array of fruits with lime and pink grapefruit alongside buttered pastries and asides of samphire.
Taste: The arrival delivers an excellently defined amalgamation of preserved lemons, lemon verbena and tart green apples, whilst sea salted caramel leads into overt maritime flavours of rock pools and hewn granite. Smoke is pervasive, but entirely in-step – tarry, fairly fabric and with asides of pan fats and antiseptic. Reduction presents syrupy citric notes of lemon and lime combined, whilst pear drops and sunflower oil is joined by crumbled digestive biscuits.
Finish: Long with bright and sweet lemons translating into fading, ethereal smokiness whilst minerality and salinity lurk in the tail.
This TWE Caol Ila offers a great deal of exactness with every element offering both distinctness and definition. But when examined as a whole, the amalgamation provides the sort of miraculous and immaculate character that this distillate is regularly capable of displaying. Meticulous. Same again please.
Review sample provided by The Whisky Exchange