I have just discovered that, unbeknownst to me, my husband has recently been buying lots of random old bottles at auction. The most recent purchase being a bottle of Bell’s from the 80s.
What’s a wife to do?… Suggest a comparative taste test, naturally!
I was very excited to discover that not only has he been buying whisky from the 80s but also other spirits, including a bottle of Ricard from the 80s that he picked up for the bargain price of £4. Now I must confess, I have a huge soft spot for pastis, Ricard in particular, after spending a year living in Aix-en-Provence when I was a student. I felt terribly sophisticated, at age 19, sitting sipping (ok, slugging) Ricard and chain smoking Gauloises in the pavement cafés of Aix, instead of necking pints and shots in the student pubs of Sauchiehall Street. Nearly 20 years on (eeek!) I am still very partial to a wee glass or two of Ricard as an aperitif, even in the depths of Scottish winter (although it does taste much better on a sunny terrace in the South of France)
Anyway, enough nostalgia. Back to the matter in hand, the comparative taste test, which was now to include the1980s Ricard vs the current Ricard as well as the 1980s 12yo Bell’s vs the current NAS Bell’s. After a quick trip to Tesco to pick up a bottle of Bell’s (since we didn’t have any in the house) and a detour via Mark’s office to pick up the 1980s Ricard that he had secreted there (doubtless along with a few other bottles he hopes to sneak into the house at a later date) we were good to go.
We started with the Ricard since it is traditionally an aperitif. In the interests of fairness, we decided to do the tasting blind so I would pour Mark’s drinks while he was out the room and vice versa. Our efforts were thwarted though when the current Ricard turned out to be much darker than the 80s one, so it was immediately obvious which was which. No matter, we pressed on regardless.
So, on to the whiskies. Bell’s bottled c.1980s vs Bell’s bottled c.2015. Around a 30 year age difference in terms of bottling date. In terms of actual declared age, our 1980s bottle carries a 12yo age statement, whereas today’s one, as with many whiskies, is NAS (Bell’s having dropped their most recent 8yo age statement a number of years ago). This one was better suited to a blind tasting as the colour is more or less identical. That said, it was immediately obvious to us both which was the old bottling and which the current one. We both preferred the old one. The current one, to me, seemed much more one dimensional, although to be honest, it was still much better than I expected!
Conclusions then. The generally held belief is that, unlike wines, spirits do not mature/change once bottled and yet in this taste test both the pastis and the whisky are markedly different. Why is that? I’ve always been very sceptical about the so-called ‘old bottle effect’ in older (as in bottled a long time ago rather than matured for longer) whiskies, but this may have changed my mind. However Mark (who has tried many more old bottlings than I have) doesn’t find it in all old bottlings so maybe it is down to changes in production or maturation rather than the whisky/spirit continuing to evolve in the bottle? Or maybe it is a case of evolution, as in, there are tiny, imperceptible changes in character/flavour each year; when you compare this years bottling against last years they are virtually indistinguishable but if you compare this years bottling against one that was bottled 10, 20 or 30 years ago then the differences are much more marked.
I don’t know. What I do know is that I’ll definitely be seeking out more old £4 bottles of Ricard at auction - much cheaper and just as drinkable, if not more so, than the current offering. Not so bothered about the Bell’s, past or present, though!
Whisky Impressions is run by Kate Watt. Previously at Springbank and then Glenfarclas, I now design some whisky related stuff and write about it, and anything else that takes my fancy, on this blog.