Stuck in the past

Posted 03 June 2020 by Matt / In Glenburgie
The Dramble reviews Glenburgie 1966 Gordon & Macphail (Original Cask)

Bottle Name: Glenburgie 1966

ABV: 61.2%
Distillery: Glenburgie
Bottler: Gordon & MacPhail (Original Cask)
Region: Speyside

There’s a wide gulf between celebrating our past and seemingly wanting to live in it. Whilst few would deny the importance of whisky’s history – indeed for a product with an unusually long manufacturing time doing so would seem counterintuitive – tradition and heritage should be the bedrock on which the industry’s future is built, not the crutch it always falls back on when it has run out of new things to say.

Like all other businesses, whisky’s past is littered with changes – changes to ownerships, production methods, personnel and brand identities. It doesn’t stand still – there are things to do. And in a similar vein, there is not a pool of workers just sitting around, feet up, looking for something to preoccupy themselves with. “I know what we can do to keep ourselves busy – a rebrand!”. Said no one ever. I can tell you unequivocally, and entirely contrary to the Internet chatter - rebrands are never undertaken simple for the sake of it, nor because “everyone else is doing it”. There are always reasons. Business reasons. Though whether these motives prove correct is of course an entirely different matter.

This week has seen a painful birth – and for some overly infatuated and occasionally callous enthusiasts’ suggestions of a near abortion. But we would do well to consider that few whisky rebrands have been unveiled to riotous applause. If whisky drinkers are anything, they’re creatures of habit – content with their own definitions of what constitutes tradition – and equally vociferous when changes are made. But they also by and large possess short memories….

It was not all that long ago that “they who can do no wrong” Springbank unveiled a new look. The Internet was immediately awash with decrying armchair branding experts. And then it wasn’t. Folks moved on the next thing which seemingly wasn’t satisfying them at the time. Highland Park wasn’t always of all the Vikings. Arran was not all that long ago The Arran Malt. For better or worse, times moves on….and eventually so do we.

And that brings us back full circle.

Whilst distilleries have a significant past to draw from – either a real, physical history, or simply (in the cases of younger operations) from the practices and ethos’s which have been entwined into the art of distilling itself - all life is forwards.

Protecting and celebrating whisky’s heritage and traditions is vital – but not as a seeming sacrifice for modernity and relevance.

Combining history into a rebrand is a tough ask. Indeed, conceptually it's potentially an anthesis. If the past is so important to you – why change for the future? Similarly, at the same time, it does make you wonder that if a new look is deemed to “better connect with our rich heritage”, that the issue lies not with the glassware of even with the story, but with that message itself – which feels more outdated than either.

The moment you find yourself having to explain your clever rebrand is the moment you should be realising that your rebrand isn’t quite as clever as you thought it was. And regardless of scrabbled back-peddling into “the liquid is still just as good” - it’s all very well having Ferrari 488 performance – but I doubt few would want this in the body of a 1940’s 125 Sport.

That’s sadly what has transpired this week. Though it's worth pointing out that some of the most vocal detractors were equally happy to enter the distillery's tag a friend, win a bottle promo - integrity and the promise of free stuff can be a tough square to circle. But ignoring the visual association to Southern Comfort for just a moment – having ambassadors being able to point to the bottle capsule and distillery chimney and give a wry wink when the drinker notices that they’re a similar pantone isn’t celebrating a distillery’s history. It's an optical aside that says nothing about either craft, nor mindsets - let alone conjuring up a time machine connection back to what is viewed as a rich heritage.

The debt which is owed to the pioneers of distilling and to distillery founders cuts far deeper than the adoption of colours and fonts. It comes from retelling their stories – but from within the context of the present. History is neither important nor relevant in isolation. It derives its power from how it has shaped what we understand today. 

Framing this history without the context of modernity is a mistake. At best it results in a confusing proposition – at worst it risks sacrificing that history to shrugging disinterest.

Today’s review takes us into distilling’s history with few of the niceties of modern branding and messaging. Indeed, there’s not even a bottling date on this 1966 Glenburgie. The Internet suggests a range of possible dates – from the mid 80s through to 1990 – but regardless, this was released after the distillery removed their Lomond stills (installed in 1958 to produce Glencraig) due to the rectifying plates in the necks being extremely difficult to access to clean. I’d like to have had the opportunity to see these stills – they possessed adjustable lyne arms which were used to alter the level of reflux of runs – intriguing.

The bottling is drawn from the Original Cask series by Gordon & Macphail and comes in a 75cl at a potent 61.2% ABV (which regardless of the bottling date says something about casks of yore). It’s also rather the oddity.

Nose: Intense fruity polish and penetratingly overt alcohol – nose hairs you have been warned. Apricots and orange liqueurs meet malt loaf, chopped almonds and blackcurrant leaves with a growing sense of vegetalness. Indeed, after a period of resting this whisky unravels in the glass to offer less sharp, fruity top notes and more earthiness with waterlogged oak, mud, clay and huge aromas of dunnage floors, antique shops and unexplored attics. Reduction reveals a much more juicy complexion – stone and orchard fruits stewed down and sprinkled with golden caster sugar – teak furniture and dry parchment paper.

Taste: Up first – booze. A mouth-numbing arrival of concentrated and penetrating alcohol. After recovery (mine) – plump juicy oranges and lemony polish with hints of copper piping. Oakiness is sustained throughout – damp, ancient oak, more furniture than Ikea and burnt toast-like wood char. Pepperiness and grippy tannins pervade the mid-palate alongside golden cereals and moist earthiness. The addition of water here results in something much more palatable and approachable – indeed, it's quite lovely in places – a waxy arrival and a reduction in alcoholic bite sufficient enough to appreciate it. alongside breakfast cereals and ripe, fresh stones fruits and chopped nuts.

Finish: Incredibly long – but largely alcohol driven. Ancient oak, persistent earthiness and palpable pepper.

An intriguing old-style Glenburgie which offers a thought-provoking but highly uneven ride. Out of the bottle any nuance feels suffocated by both the profound alcohol attack as well as the sharp cask influence. Diluted this presents much more agreeably and allows the natural fruitiness of the distillery’s spirit to shine through alongside some highly pleasant textural elements. I suspect we might turn out to be friends in the end, but this fellow doesn’t come with the friendliest of introductions.

Score: 78/100

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