The golden age of whisky

The golden age of whisky

The golden age of whisky

Some of the most exceptional single malts ever released were produced in an era affectionately known as “the golden age”. Bottlings from this time are painfully scarce and have gained near-mythic status among whisky enthusiasts. Holly Motion explores why whiskies from this age are so precious

17th February 2023

There are myriad fascinating twists and turns in Scotch whisky’s long and storied past. From dizzying boom times to disastrous downturns, the distilling landscape – and the major players within it – has been redrawn countless times.

There's one era, however, that is legendary – whisky's "golden age". Between the 1950s and '80s, some of the industry's most nuanced single malts were crafted. These are now widely regarded as the greatest ever released, which is reflected in the eyewatering secondary market prices – should they ever appear on the auction block.

These perfectly imperfect, characterful and wonderfully unique liquids, produced at distilleries that no longer exist, or exist in a very different way today, will never be bottled again – making them real unicorns for whisky collectors.

To understand what makes them so special, it is important to first appreciate just how little liquid exists from this time. The single malt whisky market was unfathomably small before and during this period and entirely dwarfed by blends. A mere fraction of a distiller’s finest liquid would be bottled as a single malt. These minuscule quantities were also made via practices that are now lost in the annals of history, making them more desirable for collectors.

For context, Scotch whisky was largely made as it always had been until the 1950s, drawing on traditional methods that had been passed down for centuries. Distillers would use their sight, smell and taste to determine when a liquid was ready to cask, and later, bottle. Whisky-making took mastery and patience – something producers could ill afford when demands on the industry intensified and there was a concerted push to produce more for less during the 1970s. While many producers made these changes around the same time, they didn’t all happen at once, creating a wonderfully varied time capsule of whiskies.

The 1960s – when some of these great bottlings were produced – was sandwiched in between two vastly different decades. Production in the ‘50s was steady but small. By the 1970s, however, distillers – both large and small – were forced to increase their output by almost double, and names that had fallen silent were reawakened once more as global demand for Scotch whisky grew.

Sadly, by the mid-1970s, the tide started to turn. The bountiful supply of whisky was not met by demand, resulting in a devastating whisky loch in the 1980s and some of the most difficult years the Scotch whisky industry has ever endured. Swathes of distilleries were forced to close, including the now-legendary Port Ellen and Brora – both of which shut their doors in 1983. This depression continued well into the 1990s with a further 20 casualties (of these, only three ever reopened), before the pendulum finally swung back in the early 2000s when the seemingly unquenchable thirst for single malt whiskies, that is still in full force today, began.

From the 1950s onwards, holders of the increasingly frayed purse strings sought to reduce inefficiencies in the traditional, labour-intensive practice of whisky-making – which defined the golden age. With the introduction of modern, more mechanised, safer processes, it was a new dawn for Scotch whisky. 

One of the few remaining direct-fired stills in Scotland at Glenfarclas

 

During this period in history, every single stage of whisky production was “streamlined”. The money men closed floor maltings, introduced distillers’ yeast, reduced fermentation times, installed semi-lauter tuns, made the switch to indirect-fired stills, replaced worm tubs with shell-and-tube condensers, and introduced ex-Bourbon barrels. By the end of the 1970s, you could almost count on one hand the number of distillers who retained traditional methods.

It’s important to remember that tweaking one of these processes can alter the entire flavour profile of a whisky – just ask Glenfarclas who reverted back to direct-firing their stills after their new-make spirit lost its characteristically heavy and oily profile during their ill-fated flirtation with steam in 1981. And yet, in many instances, producers permanently changed many of these processes. Traditional practices and know-how that varied slightly at every distillery began to be outsourced as they turned to professional maltsters and installed modern, industrial-scale equipment that increased efficiencies and consistency but in some cases compromised the craft and character of the final spirit profile.

“Every distillery has its own story and evolution of style,” whisky authority Serge Valentin explains, “their own ups and its downs.”

Valentin was ahead of his time when he started collecting single malt Scotch, almost exclusively from Old Clynelish and Brora. He couldn’t possibly have predicted what his passion project of buying as many different bottlings as he could “simply because they were [his] favourites”  would become.

Both Clynelish and Brora – as it would be known – produced heavily peated malt during the late 1960s and early ’70s. Bottlings from this time until 1983, when Brora became a victim of the whisky loch and fell silent, have become highly collectable in recent years. Old Clynelish bottlings, (Valentin’s favourites), which are robustly distinctive with aromas of scented wax and heather, are astonishingly rare and modern collectors clamber over one another to get their hands on these golden-age gems for many times the price Valentin would have paid.

Stephen Rankin has been fortunate to sample whiskies from one of the most remarkable single malt libraries in the world at Gordon & MacPhail. His team is able to pull out liquids from what he calls “pre-evolutions within distilleries” thanks to his family’s foresight to buy barrels from cash-strapped producers who were selling their stocks for survival. The Elgin-based independent bottler had the luxury and fortitude to bide their time and store casks that would otherwise have been bottled young or blended. He has a particular affection for single malts from what was Milton Distillery, known since 1951 as Strathisla, which he describes as a “great example of a whisky that has the flavours of this past era.”

Independent bottlers like Gordon & MacPhail played a vital role in bringing many of these now-legendary whiskies into the world. One man in particular, Silvano Samaroli, was responsible for bottling single malts that are now widely regarded as some of the greatest ever released. 

Rome-based Samaroli released his first Scotch whisky series in 1968 in the form of the now-iconic, dumpy Cadenhead bottlings – making him the first independent Scotch whisky bottler outside the United Kingdom. Today, Samaroli’s Bowmore, Glen Garioch, and  Springbank releases are held in especially high regard and his  Laphroaig single malts from 1967 and 1970 are in a league of their own.

“The late 1960s to the ’80s is definitely one of the most remarkable periods,” Samaroli’s Daniele Liberati says, “largely due to the appearance of certain expressions for the first time.” 

“We started to propose different bottlings, moving away from the classic blends and official distillery releases,” Liberati adds. These included single-cask expressions, numbered bottlings and cask-strength releases, all of which are commonplace today but were revolutionary at the time.

A rare sight: traditional floor maltings at Springbank

In recent years, a handful of new distillers have turned to old whisky-making practices in an attempt to recapture some of its magic. Fledgling Speyside distiller Dunphail, for instance, has faithfully – and at great cost – installed traditional floor maltings, direct-fired stills and wooden, open washbacks where fermentation times are considerably longer than the industry average, to produce a fruit-forward, oily, medium-bodied Speyside whisky. Today, however, these traditional methods are always adopted in conjunction with modern practices in order to achieve all the desirable characteristics of yore in a more efficient way.  

While there is the temptation to look back on this era with a rose-tinted view, as there are undeniably some exceptional bottlings from this time, it is wrong to believe that all whisky produced in the golden age was of the same standard. Whisky-making 40 to 50 years ago was imperfect, there was very little consistency in quality and for one good cask, a distiller would likely have 10 or 20 bad ones that never saw the light of day. 

It’s also important to appreciate that many of these modernisations were vital to guarantee the safety of distillery workers as several stages in production were unstable. These advancements have also resulted in unprecedented consistency. While nuance and singularity might have been sacrificed, it’s now incredibly hard to find a bad dram.  

As times evolve – as they inevitably do – it’s highly unlikely whisky from Scotland’s golden age will ever not be considered precious. 

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