The 1960s is a decade immortalised as an era of systemic social upheaval, sweeping change and the ushering in of new eras of culture, politics and ideas. While it’s true that for Scotch Whisky the decade saw the beginning in earnest of production modernisations that would contribute to the profound changes in character which were to come, in many ways it was a decade of calm and consolidation before the stormier 1970s.
Looking back now, it is clear that the 1960s was the decade from which many of the greatest whiskies ever bottled have hailed. Although, it is important to remember that the reason for this is twofold. Not only was it to do with how these whiskies were made, but crucially it was also because they were bottled at all. By comparison to the slim pickings from 1950s, the 1960s offers a wealth of bottled riches. This is largely because the culture of enjoyment of single malt whisky really started to take off in the 1980s and 1990s, precisely the time when mature stocks from this decade were in affordable abundance and reaching a peak of maturation.
Both official and independent companies began to make more malt whisky available in its unblended, ‘self’ form. Increasingly, whiskies were offered as single casks, undiluted and at natural strength. Due to the far more sweeping modernisations and changes that were to come in the 1970s - the effects of which were written into the olfactory DNAs of Scotland’s malts - we can look upon these bottled 1960s single malts as liquid artefacts. Distillates that represent a now vanished era of Scotch Whisky.
Indeed, it was a decade where much of the ‘architecture’ of whisky production that had existed in Scotland since before the Second World War remained actively in place. For devotees of old style Scotch Whiskies, it is the decade to look to for illustration of ‘how and why’ Scotch Whisky was different. From the supply chains of a still decentralised brewing industry that fed distilleries with a far more varied and exotic supply of yeasts. To the existence of many on-site floor maltings at distilleries, many of which would cease operation in the coming decade. And of course the still reliable supply of transport and ex-Bodega sherry casks which supplied Britain’s proud, but declining, thirst for sherry.
EXQUISITELY BEAUTIFUL AND CHARISMATIC MALTS...
You can see this latter aspect most vividly in bottlings like the first Springbank Local Barley series. The run of casks from 1966 (443, 442 & 441) all bottled in 1990 at natural strength were nourished by the kind of unctuous, almost resinous old sherry cask that is quite thoroughly unobtainable today. The resultant whiskies offer a level of leathery concentration and earthy density that is hard to rival. A sherry profile which runs rather than fights with the distillate. It’s a profile which is illustrated in more playful and subtle form by the Samaroli bottling of 1964 Springbank under the ‘Glen Cawdor’ name. The unifying theme of so many of these amazing 1960s sherry casks is freshness, vibrancy, depth and cleanliness of character and flavour. These were casks which held and transported beautiful, properly mature sherry intended for drinking; a far cry from the proto-vinegar used to season many contemporary industry-commissioned ‘sherry’ casks today.
Strip away the sherry and, perhaps most profoundly of all, you find an abundance of examples of sublimely created distillate. Spirits of differing origins, production quirks and ingredients; mostly matured in refill hogsheads; all displaying a staggering breadth of idiosyncratic characteristics and beautiful hallmark flavours. This is where the prevalence of older strains of barley - Zephyr, Spratt Archer, Golden Promise - with their genomes closer to those of brewing malts, really make their effects felt. They worked in tandem with different origins of ex-brewing yeasts, often pitched with varying ratios of the more basic distilling yeasts of the time. Those more curious and complex brews would be more commonly distilled by direct fire and condensed via copper worm. Put these kinds of distillates into refill casks with a lighter touch and you have a recipe for exquisitely beautiful and charismatic malts - both in youth and greater age.
The list of such examples is too exhaustive to be thorough here. But noteworthy names in current auctions include such luminous bottlings as the fruit-concentrative Isle Of Jura 1966 Samaroli bottling and the gloriously fatty and plush Glenugie 1966 from Samaroli.
TWO NAMES WHICH STAND TALL ABOVE ALL OTHERS IN MY BOOK...
These are all incredible whiskies. Each one an individual in its own right, while still displaying their core distillery DNA. However, when it comes to the 1960s, there are perhaps two names which stand tall above all others in my book. Laphroaig and Bowmore. These two Islay malts encompass everything that was wonderful about whisky making in this era. Each had fully operational floor maltings using their own source of peat. Each began the decade with direct coal firing and worm tubs; each entered the 1970s converted to steam and condensers. For much of the 1960s each shared the same Glasgow brewery yeast source. Each make would go on to be characterised by intense and almost mesmeric interplay between tropical fruits and peat smoke. Each was sublime from 8 to 40 years of age. Each distillery’s 1960s output fed some stunning younger official bottlings in the 1970s and 1980s. Each distillate is regarded today as some of the finest whisky ever produced.
When you taste bottlings as varied as the Filippi or Bonfanti import Laphroaig 10 year olds, 1966 Bowmore Samaroli Bouquet and the White and Gold 1964 Bowmores, you can see how stunningly versatile the results of these older production styles were. They transcend rigid ideas about age, maturity, cask type, bottling strength and the marketing language of flavour profiles. These are stunning distillates that bend with the whim of wood type and years. Their grace and beauty never yielding but finding their way to manifest in a myriad of profiles.
LESSONS FROM A FASCINATING DECADE...
The whiskies of the 1960s were not particularly efficient to produce in terms of time, labour and material cost. The blenders of the era would decry inconsistency and expenditure. It is not surprising that the accountants of the 1970s seized upon the regimenting force of commercial M strain distilling yeast; centralised malting and steam heating. Had the customer of the 1960s been the single malt fanatic of the 2010s then these distilleries and their processes would have been celebrated contemporaneously. Instead, they made for the blenders of yesterday single malts for the geeks of today. An ironic inversion that gave birth to upheaval and homogenisation. However, for today’s new generation of smaller scale distillers, the 1960s contain the seeds of inspiration. Whisky’s future might yet find its brightness in the lessons of that fascinating decade.