Featured in Unfiltered #60
Words: Tom Bruce-Gardyne
OBE, or ‘old bottle effect’ lest anyone confuse it with the Queen’s birthday honours, is something of an enigma. It clearly exists in the world of fine wine, but what of whisky? Tom Bruce-Gardyne investigates.
Is the character of a whisky completely locked in at the moment of bottling, never to change – or might it evolve in some way after decades in glass?
Some are convinced it can happen, others are rather more sceptical. Justine Hazelhurst, co-founder of the Fife Whisky Festival and leader of numerous whisky tours around Edinburgh and Fife, is in the former camp. Her tours often feature a ‘then and now’ tasting, comparing a bottle of modern-day Teacher’s Highland Cream for example, with one from the 1960s bought at auction.
Aside from any changes to the blend that may have occurred over time, she feels something does happen in those older bottles, at least sometimes. Although she cheerfully admits that there’s nothing scientific about her feelings, and says: “It’s a bit like God, I suppose. You might believe, but you can’t prove the existence.”
How to compare?
On the issue of OBE, who better to ask than whisky writer Charlie MacLean MBE, who has nosed and tasted more rare bottles than most of us put together. “Many connoisseurs believe in OBE, but it is impossible to measure, since we do not know what the whisky’s flavour profile was when it was bottled – no comparisons can be made,” he says. “There is no doubt that whiskies made in (the) 1960s and earlier were different owing to the changes in production mainly in the 1970s.
“For what it’s worth,” he adds, “Robert Hicks [Ballantine’s former master blender] once told me that they had a rule than any bottles of Ballantine’s unsold for five years must be returned to their HQ in Dumbarton/Alexandria for disgorging and re-bottling, which implies they believed the liquid changed. However, this had never been done – no distributor worth the name would have stock unsold for five years.”
Volatiles and vibrancy
“It’s the same with an imperfect seal,” says Andy. “The loss of volatiles would explain the flattening and dulling effect on the vibrancy of the spirit.” But if you take an unopened bottle that is securely sealed, the amount of air is tiny, and if anything’s going on it takes a long time to show itself.
In 2011 Richard Paterson, then master blender at Whyte & Mackay, lowered his famous proboscis into a glass of Mackinlay’s Rare Old Highland malt from a bottle that the explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton had left in the Antarctic a century earlier.
“The only thing that had affected the whisky was a little seeding of the cork, and apart from that it was in mint condition,” he says. So, no evidence of OBE on that occasion, but the bottles were properly corked, wrapped in straw and above all buried deep in the ice. That permafrost would have slowed down any chemical reactions in the bottle. If Shackleton had explored the Congo as well and had dumped some Mackinlay’s in the steamy heat of the jungle, you could do a fascinating comparative tasting. Sadly, he didn’t.
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