Iconic Scotch Blends: Old v. New
How cool is this: tasting two bottles of the same iconic blended Scotch side by side, one right off the shelf today, and one bottled three, four, or even five decades ago?
This is how I spent Tuesday night, in the company of the self-described Midwest Single Malt Appreciation Society (they were aware of the irony in their tasting a series of blended whiskys).
We met on the patio of a local watering hole; everybody laid down thirty bucks to cover expenses. Organizers Brett and John pulled seven bottles from their collections, each decades old, to compare to current bottlings of the same labels. Each of the seven old bottles was something of a mystery their bottling dates unlabeled; we had to narrow down the age of each based on clues: tax stamps, bottle sizes, design changes and importers listed on the labels. The bottles were all sealed, the fills all good, so the influence of additional bottle age and oxygenation was minimal. If age was a factor in any of these whiskys, it was more in how the bottle was stored, from issues like heat and light, than from the age itself.
So. Who comes out on top in a comparison of old v. new?
The old Dewars White Label was bottled in 1984, in a 1L bottle. The new and old are similar in style, sharing notes of honey and light clove. The newer bottling is a little more spirited and rough, with more sour notes on the nose but less intense on the palate, lacking the finesse and pretty floral notes of the older bottling.
Tasting the Dewar's White Label flooded my mind with memories from college. This brand has been consistent at least since then. The group spent some time reminiscing about this monolithic brand.
Grant's recently went through a rebranding; the old bottle of Grant's was labeled Grants 8 Year and had a white label while the current "Grant's Family Reserve" bottling on Binny's shelves has a red label and no age statement. The old example was bottled sometime after 1957 but before 1977; we guessed it in the late 60's.
The older bottle shows a beautiful nose of honey and toffee and butter, leading into a slightly spirited whisky with a good buttery texture, short but nice. The current bottling is much more raw, fatter and more spirited, while less complex.
The older bottle of Chivas Regal was from the late 70's or early 80's, based on bottle design and importer. The older bottling is broad, sweet, and full, with just a slight mustiness, leading to a broad spirit with some good notes of fruit and grain. The newer bottling is slightly thinner on the nose, and while similarly mellow on the palate, shows a little more shrill with grassy notes.
Our older bottling of 12 Year Old Pinch was from sometime in the late 70's, and it was bad. We all agreed that making the comparison with the current bottling wouldn't be quite fair. It smelled like something rotten, with comments like "burnt brown sugar in a mop bucket." The modern bottling 15 Year Old Dimple Pinch in a word: "Smooth."
This one was a surprise. The 1L bottle of Johnnie Walker 12 Year Old Black Label was bottled in 1971. With a broad nose of honey and grain, this blend is mellow with a quick finish. The modern bottling is slightly lighter, less intense and more thin on the nose. On the palate, this blend sings! It has more breadth than it's older brother; is sweeter, with more smoke and more intensity all around.
This was the first modern bottling that bettered its older counterpart. As Brett put it, "The bottom line is that for thirty bucks or under, Johnnie Walker Black Label is one of the best whiskys you can get your hands on, day in and day out, anywhere."
The older Teacher's Highland Cream bottling, from some time between 1967 and 1979, bore the old label "4/5 quart." Tasting the two side by side, it is apparent that the older Teacher's is more intense in every way. The nose is frosting-sweet compared to both the Johnnie Walker that came before and the modern Teacher's bottling. Lots of caramel leads to a bitter finish with wild fruit notes. The modern bottling, from a 1.75L bottle (the only size available at Binny's) is dialed back; lightly smoky with some honey notes. It is quite soft by comparison, but we agree that the handle is a great value for thirty bucks.
This may be the oddest pair of the evening. We compared a 1976 bottling of Buchanan's Black & White (the one with the black scottie and white westie on the label) with the current Buchanan's 12 Year Old. The two are surprisingly similar. The 1976 bottling has a nose of light toffee, vanilla and vegetation, with a little white pepper. The modern bottling is just a little flatter, with a note of balsa wood. Both are light-bodied with caramel and some smoke poking through.
Overall, the modern bottlings tend to be more focused, thin, spirited and austere. While a small part of this may stem from bottle age and storage conditions, it is more likely that the productio blends have shifted over the decades, leading producers to include more inexpensive grain whisky in each blend, and less of the