This is a perfect whisky to use as a model in illustrating the current state of single malt Scotch and talk about the ongoing allegations of declining quality and inconsistent brand releases.
Before we get started, let me offer up a word of clarification to temper the immediate assumptions that could be drawn from that first paragraph. This is still pretty darn good whisky in its own right. It’s not spectacular – especially at the $700ca mark – but it is a solid offering that is somewhat consistent with the distillery’s style. Ok so far? Alright…moving on…
This is 2014’s edition of Springbank’s quarter century milestone malt. The last version of this whisky I tried (and the only one I know of, to be honest) was the 2006 release. I loved that malt. It wasn’t without its flaws, but it was singular and suited my palate perfectly. Again, a pricey affair, but the rewards were tangible, if maybe not entirely in line with the outlay of benjamins required to score one. What we have 8 years on is a mere shadow of this once princely dram. Actually that’s not entirely accurate, as it sort of implies that the basic outline is the same as the old edition. This is an entirely different whisky which, in my opinion, shouldn’t be this different from its forebears. The reasons though, are likely very easily explainable.
The story, I would imagine, goes something like this: In days gone by (let’s say up until about a decade or so ago) distilleries were producing distillate at a steady clip, filling and maturing barrels and feathering out releases with a regularity that cantered along nicely about in line with the rate of consumption. Perhaps they were even able to put aside a little extra to gather dust in the furthest corners of the old warehouses. When it came time to marry barrels together for the next batch of whichever edition was going to market, the ‘nose that knows’ at the distillery (read: master blender, or whatever title they’d claim) would have a decently stocked warehouse from which to pull casks. Think of it much like a painter having a broad swath of colours on his palette. Casks would be selected that aligned with the age they were aiming for and if the end product was not quite as glittery as hoped for, these vattings would be sweetened up with a few of the older, more spectacular barrels in bond. Ergo, your ’18 year old’ whisky was quite likely built upon a fair bit of true 18 year old spirit, but with a decent amount of older and better whiskies mixed in there too.
I am, of course, simplifying things, but you get the idea as to how this relates back to an age where demand hadn’t yet outstripped supply. Nowadays, in this burgeoning whisky market, distillers struggle just to reach status quo. Hence the rise of the dreaded NAS malts. I can almost guarantee that your current ’18 year old’ is just that. I think you’d be lucky if it was 18 and a day. You can call this a leap of logic, but it’s an easy inference, considering all of the evidence that has piled up as we’ve watched the times a changin’ for the last half decade or so.
Coming full circle to this Springbank 25 now, it, much like its younger siblings the 21 and 18, has become sadly almost entirely devoid of all the deeper subtle waxy notes, soft fruits and almost tropical nuances that made very mature Springbank a true revelation for many of us. Its unique profile has been replaced with a more generic – albeit not bad – caramel-y simplicity. All I can say at this point is…I guess it was inevitable. Doesn’t make it any easier to swallow though (pun intended).
Nose: Creamy caramel notes arrive first, then ebb, then return later. Definitely not as fruity as I’d hoped for. Smoke and peat are faded and subtle. Some orange (and maybe other citrus hints?) and leather. Orange candy. Decent spice pantry notes, predominantly of the allspice kind of aroma. Nice, but not overly special.
Palate: Very nice arrival to get things going. Hints of smoke and peat, as we’d expect, and an earthy or farmy backdrop. Over time some sweet, artificial fruit notes emerge. Leather. Dried fruits. Some coffee. And more of those candy notes again.
Thoughts: I think I said it all above.
– Reviewed by: Curt
– Photo: Curt
It’s true: some aged whiskies just aren’t that exceptional – but become exceptionally bad values when priced on their age (which is, of course, a completely different thing than saying that their age had little or no effect on their development or that the way to combat bad values is to hide age, or even composition, information). Bonus years beyond stated ages are probably a thing of the past.
I think this review is very good in the acknowledgement that some whisky is just in overall decline, to the serious reality of which the whole artificial NAS debate over “age matters here, but somehow not there” only forms a sideshow/distraction. If quality is not dropping (a very contentious and arguable topic), I think that overall complexity (not necessarily synonymous with quality, depending on what you value in a whisky) is at many age levels and with many distilleries. I don’t know the source of this, but I believe it to be more than just remembering back to younger days when new drinkers were more easily impressed (but blind head-to-heads would tell us much more).
Still looking forward to that promised piece on scoring, as it’s been an issue on my mind a lot lately and a few questions do pop up with it:
To what degree do people adopt an “anything worth drinking must be worth at least an 80/100” so they really mark on a 20-point scale (usually 15-point scale)? Is the margin in terms of average quality of what’s being produced really that close? Is there a better way to go about it, not just in terms of interpretation, but in terms of the math?
On interpretation, what do scores really mean in terms of not just a pecking order, but in terms of a recommendation? I know this will vary with reviewers (and readers) anyway but, although I initially found the L.A.W.S. letter-grade system a little frustrating, it is interesting in terms of saying exactly what is being recommended to the reader in terms of purchase.
I’d like to hear from others as well on issues around scoring, although the great point has already been made that knowing just what whisky is being reviewed in terms of its era is just as important as the candour of the review itself (my only point was that arguing for the importance of bottling dates is logically separate from arguing for the importance of age statements, although I’m in favour of both).
Also, on scoring, would it be possible to break down the scores of future reviews, not only to remind readers about how the reviews are weighted, but also to show where the strengths/weaknesses of the whiskies were found?
I’m not convinced of dropping quality (though I’m not saying it’s not happening either). I think for a very long while we were spoiled beyond our understanding in that an awful lot of what we bought was not simply a reflection of the number on the bottle. By that I mean that likely more often than not most releases had some older whiskies in them.
I do, however, think there has been a stretching of wood over the past however many years. In order to accommodate the upswing in production in these boom times, I think spirit is hitting less and less active wood (i.e. third fill…maybe fourth?). Additionally distilleries using dechar/rechar processes may be getting a little more life out of barrels, but not of the same character as earlier fills.
I guess you could call this declining quality, but it’s not a decline in the SPIRIT quality, just the maturation policy. At the end of the day it may very well result in a lesser product. I think we need a few more years to pass before we fully understand the ramifications of this day and age in the malt whisky timeline.
Regarding scores et al…
Well…that piece will come at some point. Always seems to be something more interesting to write about or do than go back and draft up that piece of what seems like procedural drudgery. I know it may be important to some (and that’s why I will do it), but I can’t say I’m chomping at the bit to pick up the pen and paper.
While I get your point about most using the ‘industry-recognized standard’ short scale (generally not dropping below 70 and usually not reaching 95, I’d say), I think most of us do it to allow some sort of universality across sources. Easier to speak each other’s languages with that as our proverbial Rosetta Stone, if you like.
In terms of further breaking out scores…nah. Not really interested in going back down that route right now. I used to in the early days (you may recall?), but a) it makes the site look kinda cluttered and the scores less immediately impactful b) I realized a while back that I don’t ever look at others’ broken out components in isolation when reading outside reviews and c) it can be a big enough pain in the ass to speak to one number (and all the words below in support of), let alone five separate numbers. Such is. I’ll stick with just publishing the tallied number. Sorry, mate. I know you’re a keen proponent of more, rather than less, information, but I just don’t care to step back to that format. The review format I’m using right now pleases my vain aesthetically-inspired eye. 🙂
As always…appreciate the comments though.
Good food for thought. I think the ultimate whisky debate question is “be it resolved that whisky quality is currently in overall decline”, if only because any resolution is, in the end, based upon subjective experience – and that the only really telling thing that could come out of it may be that, pressed to it, more people without any industry ties would admit arguing for the affirmative than the negative. Yet I could be wrong, which would make it very interesting to me indeed. That, not quality, but whisky values are in decline is, to me, a much clearer question (and the LCBO will help anyone who’s foggy on it; remember, Ontario’s “a small market” and “the Diageo agent sets the price”).
I agree that if products are falling, the spirits are more than willing but the maturation – and the argument(s) to back up what’s being done to maturation – is weak. Strong wood influence/high cask activity can suit some spirits very well but, as Ralfy and Serge have said, “crash” maturation isn’t necessarily a replacement for time maturation and “wood=time is largely a false equation”. At the same time, I think there’s a transition in tastes being fostered by the industry and some of its supporters that favours young/strong profiles over the subtlety that much of the industry is at pains to offer, particularly for new/large release products. As Serge has also said, the industry will sell you what it’s got, not what it doesn’t have (anymore), and I don’t really blame them for talking some of this stuff up; my beef/point of contention is just that the endless nature of the hype neither makes it true nor does any service to the consumer who is supporting (over supporting?) the industry though a period of possible decline.
On scoring, I’ve always found it preferable to tasting notes if a choice between the two has to be made (which is different from commentary on the whisky, which you provide in a very good, contextual, way). Scores are just another way of conveying information/opinion and do so very well once one understands the context of their language (“alright, what is the dogshit number for this guy and how close/far is this whisky from that?”, and the language itself, whether “correct” or not in any particular use, is precise; all 87s are better than all 86s all the time. Another question that I am interested in, however, is “is it ‘true’ that, say, 95% of whiskies do fall within a +/- 7-point margin of an 87 and how much of that is simply convention for the purposes of clarity?”.
And, just from the shoulder, what would you say your “dogshit number” would be, roundly speaking?
Totally agree with your assessment when comparing the older releases to the new at the DI tasting.
The old 21 and 25 were light years better than the newer versions, hey? I wouldn’t be heartbroken to have to drink the newer, but it’s those 2005 and 2006 releases that leave me sitting back in my chair with a glazed expression and a sense of awe.