Out with the old, in with the new: The out-dated traditions of Scotch Whisky

(This is the second post by spirits writer, Scott Eason, who loves him some whisky.)

Let me get this out of the way first. I’m not much of a traditionalist. If I find a newer, better way to do something, I’ll do it. That’s what progress is all about, right? Raise your hand if you think I’m writing this on an IBM Selectric type writer. Why hold onto out-dated, obsolete practices just because someone a few of the generations before you thought it was a good idea? Case in point: the Porsche 911. Just because Ferdinand Porsche stuck the engine in the boot and created an iconic sports car doesn’t mean Porsche has to keep sticking the engine in the wrong end of the car, does it? Maybe it does.

This brings me around to Scotch. How, you’re wondering, do I connect the flat-6 German supercar with fine, barrel-aged spirits from Scotland? They have more in common than you might think. Like everyone else in this modern, globally out-sourced economy, manufacturers of every conceivable product are looking for ways to improve efficiency and quality and thusly improve the bottom line. After all, it’s the sacred bottom line that keeps the shareholder happy. And who’s more important to any business than the shareholder?

Except maybe (hold on to your MBAs) the customer.

A few weeks ago, I was privileged enough to be invited to a slightly flawed Scotch tasting sponsored by Glenfiddich (side note: the pronunciation is glen-fid-ick – the ‘ch’ is hard like Loch Ness). The original plan for the dinner and tasting was to preview the upcoming release of Glenfiddich’s Snow Phoenix, a one-time only blend of whiskies which survived the great roof collapse of 2010. (Following a rather heavy week of snowfall, four of the warehouses where Glenfiddich stores its barrels of aging spirits suffered a slight structural issue. The four feet of accumulated snow brought down the house and destroyed many fine casks. The surviving casks were then blended into a rare bottle called the Snow Phoenix which should be available at high-end retailers sometime this month.)

Unfortunately, I can’t offer a review of this unique blend because the both shipments from the distillery were broken in transit by one of those world famous overnight shipping companies. But as we sat around lamenting this horrible tragedy, I had a chance to learn a bit about the 125 year old family-owned company, like they still employ a full-time coppersmith to care for copper pot stills. And he’s been there over 52 years. Rather impressive in the age of contractors and consultants. But it’s that sort of tradition Glenfiddich holds onto despite what the accountants are surely saying. Should I mention the guy who takes care of the barrels has been there 49 years?

Glenfiddich uses only water from a single spring which they of course own. They still use peat to smoke-dry their barley instead of more modern methods. They still bottle everything on site instead of shipping loaded tanker trucks to bottling factories. And what does all this inefficient labor and production method get them? It gets them a proper hand-crafted whisky that borders on artisanal. Okay, it’s produced in quantities that make it available the world over, but Glenfiddich has made a serious effort not to embrace the corner-cutting, streamlined, computer-controlled processes that make everything look and taste the same in the misguided pursuit of perfection.

Because maybe perfection isn’t the answer, maybe what makes something great or memorable or simply unique are its hand-crafted flaws or its stubborn refusal to accept the same easy path everyone else has chosen. Maybe it’s those lingering imperfections that give it the personality to stand apart from all the over-engineered, focus group-tested, consumer researched, mass-produced… everything. So what if your iconic sports car is prone to dangerous amounts of oversteer. So what if the efficiency experts don’t understand the importance of having your own coppersmith on the payroll. You do.

Whisky Reviews

McClelland’s Single Malt:
Islay is one of four McClelland whiskies focused on one of the major Scotch regions. The Islay single malt has a rich but not overwhelming peat smoke flavor with a salty, vanilla finish. If you want a whisky that really represents the coastal Scotland, this is a good choice. It’s smooth and enjoyable despite it mostly phenolic flavor. $20 Retail. 4 out of 5 stars.

Glenfiddich 21 Year Gran Reserva has a secret. It’s aged in old rum barrels instead of the traditional used bourbon or sherry casks. And it makes a world of difference. This very pricey whisky has a deep nutty, caramel, crème brulee flavor with hints of butter and banana giving it a beautiful Caribbean warmth.  $150 Retail.  5 out of 5 stars.

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3 comments to Out with the old, in with the new: The out-dated traditions of Scotch Whisky

  • rishi ramkissoon

    Nice article!. May I offer my time for when you do cognac and armagnac tastings. I am a bit of an old soul and like the classico traditions.

  • For me, the key to the quality of Single-Malt Scotches like Glenfiddich is the marriage of tradition and technology that goes into their production. As any moonshiner can tell you, with a couple of pots and a lot of sugar you can make hand-crafted spirits… but they’ll taste awful. It’s the hundreds of years of “doing it the same way” and the willingness to experiment that makes Scotch such a high-quality product. This mentality also leads to a staunch refusal to sacrifice quality for efficiency (such as the use of column stills, or the blending of grain whisky), but at the same time these distilleries aren’t stuck in the dark ages: they use modern marketing, are members of huge drinks conglomerates, and are positioned for distribution the world over. It’s really a marvel that these companies are able to turn out such distinctive and quality products with the pressures of the global marketplace… and good for us Scotch lovers too. 🙂

  • scott eason

    i have to agree. it is amazing that they can produce such distinctive products. that was sort of the point i was trying to make. the modernization of everything just seems to make everything look and taste same, that so much effort goes into focus group testing and efficient processes. going back to the car example, the mass production of automobile has really started making cars look so much alike that the new chevy volt looks like a cheap rip-off the prius. i’m sure chevy exec said, “look at how well the prius is selling. we should make something that looks just like it. that’ll be so much easier than creating something new.”

    when america was a capatalist economy, we were brimming with great, original ideas. but now, america is a consumerist economy – let’s make as much as we can for as cheap as we can and get people to buy as much as they can so we can maximize profit. in the end, everyone gravitates toward the formula that works the best which leads to nothing but identical products.

    so i wanted to give some props to glenfiddich (and i’m sure many other distilleries) who is at least making an effort to maintain the traditions of their on-site production. i’m sure they’ve modernized much of their equipment and found better ways to work and market their whisky. but they are at least making an effort keep the level of hand-craftedness authentic.

    not having visited their distillery (yet), i can’t truly say how authentic they’re being to tradition. i think a fact-finding expedition is in order. who wants to go to scotland with me?

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