For the whisky drinker, few moments will ever rival that of tasting a 50 year old scotch. And right now, we are witnessing the release of the last bottles from casks laid down in the 1960s—a decade defined by tumultuous changes in the world: the Civil Rights protests, the Cuban missile crisis, the Vietnam War, the assassination of J.F.K., the Moon landings, and Hendrix playing “The Star-Spangled Banner” at Woodstock. Although blended scotch was king at the time, the 1960s also marked the inception of the single malt Scotch whisky revolution. And today, there are more 50 year old single malts to choose from than ever before.
Only an infinitesimal number of special barrels have gone the distance of 50 years, and their rarity and longevity always command top dollar. Current offerings of 50 year old scotch, like Dalmore, can cost as much as $60,000 a bottle, making others, like Benromach, look like a veritable bargain at $14,500. Therefore, you will likely belong to one of two groups: those who can afford 50 year old scotch, or those who aspire to afford 50 year old scotch. To the first group, congratulations to both of you, and to the latter, squeeze up at the back so everyone can hear.
Despite its exclusivity, 50 year old scotch has much to teach us all. It might seem that patience is the only requirement for a scotch to persist for 50 years or more, but the scarcity of drams of this age owes more to wood management than to overeagerness. To gain a deeper understanding about why so few casks make it to 50, consider the spectrum of whisky maturation. An age statement of 50 years refers to the time a whisky spent in a wooden cask, a clock that stops as soon as it’s dumped and bottled. At the point of filling new make spirit into a cask, the spirit has 100% distillery character and 0% maturation character. Broadly speaking, a whisky will reach its zenith when it achieves the preferred balance between distillery and maturation characteristics. Some whiskies hit peak maturation after 8, 12, or 16 years in cask, but what makes a 50 year old whisky special is how that cask takes a different trajectory.
A refill cask is more likely to go the distance than a fresh first-fill cask. The latter will hit its peak maturation at a younger age, and if that cask is left to stew for decades, the result could be a bitter whisky overpowered by off-putting wood tannins and little enduring distillery character.
The chances of reaching 50 years are further diminished by the fact that when casks mature inside a Scottish warehouse, 1% to 2% of the whisky evaporates each year, known as the angels’ share. In addition to losing volume, the alcohol strength gradually falls. When nurturing a cask for this length of time, it’s vital that the evaporative forces don’t drain the cask too quickly or that the alcohol by volume doesn’t sink below the legal minimum of 40%. Below this floor, it can no longer be sold as whisky. As the lower threshold becomes a risk, blenders can either choose to bottle it, or they might choose to merge a few old casks together to boost the strength and volume, thus reducing further evaporation. However, the cask now takes on the age of the youngest whisky.
Those few casks that maintain sufficient alcohol to be called scotch may yield only a few dozen bottles. Cognizant of these factors, it becomes easier to appreciate the true rarity of these great old whiskies. But it’s not merely scarcity that contributes to their greatness. As the level of the liquid falls and air consumes more space inside the cask, greater oxygenation can add to the whisky’s maturity and complexity. It is likely that aging whisky extracts different alcohol- and water-soluble flavors from the oak in different phases of maturation as its strength wanes in these golden years.
Casks of this age are in fact time capsules, reflecting a barley harvest from summers long ago, lost distillery practices sacrificed to modernization, expansion, and efficiency, and the legacy of the people who once toiled in the distillery but who are now just figures in grime-smeared overalls squinting at the camera in archival photographs. That’s what’s magical about 50 year old scotch.
“Any scotch that has matured for 50 years tends to develop nuanced flavors that are impossible to recreate in a short space of time,” says Jonny Fowle, spirits specialist at Sotheby’s. “Fifty year old scotch might not always be dark in color and rich in flavor, but they all have that je ne sais quoi. They represent a forgotten era in Scotch whisky distillation, and each one is a piece of history.” Fowle welcomes the growing choice of 50 year old Scotch whiskies and doesn’t think their recent proliferation makes them any less desirable at auction. “Fifty year old releases always do remarkably well at Sotheby’s. They are still very scarce and released in extremely limited quantities, so they’re a must for the avid collector.” Nor does he believe that they are solely collector’s items, “I have been lucky to taste some remarkably old whiskies, but never forget that these whiskies were designed to be drunk: We should be doing just that,” he adds.
It Was 50 Years Ago Today
Highland Park Distillery has changed very little since 1964; operating instructions dated 1937 hang by the kiln. The stills have been replaced, but always with those of an identical size and shape. Efficiency has improved, and better yielding barley species have come along, but Gordon Motion, Highland Park’s master whisky maker, doesn’t believe newer varieties make a huge difference to the spirit’s character. Then, of course, there’s the Orkney peat. “It’s been the same for the past 9,000 years,” confirms Motion matter-of-factly. “So I’m not expecting that to have changed since the last millennium.”
All things being equal, time in the cask presents the great divide. “In our older whiskies, we get a distinct ethereal note coming through,” he shares. “It reminds me of shellac used for French polishing, with characteristics of cedar and camphor wood.” Two sherry hogsheads of Highland Park laid down in 1964 were combined in 2010, topped off with some 1960 from the first Highland Park 50 year old, and left to mingle in a refill cask for 8 years, an instance of marrying the casks to preserve the whisky’s alcohol strength. This was bottled as the Highland Park 50 year old 2018 release. The light sherry character of these hogsheads was ideally suited to a long and slow development of flavors.
Highland Park is lightly peated in comparison to most Islay whiskies, and its peat is quite floral in character, but over five decades, the volatile phenols reduce to leave a delicate peat note in the background. “It’s a very slow oxygenation process that drives the changes in flavor in a whisky of that age,” explains Motion. Evaporation continues as the whisky ages. “Effectively, you’re ending up with a jus as the flavors become more concentrated.”
Are You Experienced?
It’s American oak that marks a departure for the latest edition of Glenlivet Winchester Collection 50 year old from its two sherried predecessors. The whisky was laid down by master distiller Bob Arthur in 1967, and bottled under the watchful eye of master distiller Alan Winchester. The youngest whisky was distilled on December 11, 1967, when Winchester was still in elementary school in Aberlour. The floor maltings had been closed a year earlier, so this whisky was made from malted barley supplied by Robert Hutchison’s in Kirkcaldy. Under Captain Bill Smith Grant, the distillery employed around 50 people in 1967, including farm workers. There was no steam heating, no pre-heating, and a traditional mashing process. Coal-fired stills were in operation, as the distillery did not convert its two pairs of stills to liquid butane until 1972, before adding a third pair of stills the following year.
Such whiskies are a rare snapshot of the distillery 50 years ago, allowing the drinker to peer back in time. Winchester has sampled a number of 19th– and early 20th-century Glenlivets and found them to be characterized by fruity aromas, much like today. Winchester’s nose interrogates each glass for traces of peat, although he seldom finds it. “We knew they burnt a lot of peat, but the peat was different in those days, as they stored it for three or four years before use,” he explains, indicating that it dried out to a coal-like substance that was far less aromatic. He believes that whisky can mature for so long that the peat fades away completely. Winchester has another theory that whiskies of this age, at low volume and low strength, lead to an acceleration in wood extraction; the whisky is so weak, it takes out more water-soluble compounds from the cask, leading to greater woodiness.
Even Winchester can only speculate on the reasons these particular casks survived to such a ripe old age, to be bottled today, but he seems delighted that they did. Without being glib, Winchester appreciates Glenlivet Winchester Collection 1967 50 year old’s incredible velvety smoothness, one of this whisky’s most remarkable qualities. “Smooth is a word I don’t normally use, but I think it’s quite amazing in this 50 year old. It’s got that lovely, coated mouthfeel because it’s not chill-filtered, and it lets through the sweetness, the ripe peaches, milk chocolate, and that fruity, floral distillery character.”
One Small Sip for Man
In the summer of 1969, Scottish Malt Distillers filled a refill sherry cask at Benromach Distillery. A month later, man first walked on the Moon. By 1983, NASA was pushing the space shuttle program to four missions a year, but scotch whisky was in trouble, and numerous distilleries fell silent, including Benromach. When Gordon & MacPhail bought the dilapidated site in 1993, the distillery building was nothing more than a shell. In 1998, a new Benromach Distillery was opened on the site, which was the same year that the international space station launched into orbit. By 2009, Benromach launched its own 10 year old whisky. And this year, that 1969 cask was finally disgorged as Benromach 50 year old, the oldest whisky in the distillery’s current range.
Benromach was the first distillery in Scotland to have oil-fired direct stills, but by the late 1960s, shell-and-tube condensers had replaced the worm tubs and the stills were switched to indirect firing. Benromach transitioned from floor maltings to buying commercial malt in 1968, so the peatiness dwindled as the stocks of house malt were used up. Distillery records from the 1960s are meager, but the gentle smoke on the Benromach 50 year old causes us to consider whether the inclusion of some of the final floor malted barley appears here. Perhaps it is a last glimpse: a final taste.
We know the equipment that made the 1969 whisky was also lost to history, cannibalized for parts, with the open-top mash tun sent to Royal Lochnagar, and the pair of large, broad shouldered stills transplanted to Glen Ord. Distillery manager Donald Macdonald lived on-site, one of just six to ten people needed to operate Benromach in 1969. Today his home is named Benromach House and contains the distillery office of Keith Cruickshank, the current distillery manager. “I was 1 year old when this whisky was made, so it’s a privilege for me to represent a legacy whisky made by others in previous decades,” says Cruickshank.
Gordon & MacPhail, the renowned Scotch whisky bottler, has over 8,000 casks resting in its Elgin warehouse, the place where both the Benromach and Caol Ila 50 year olds matured. Any cask over 30 years old is sampled and assessed every two years by Stuart Urquhart, operations director and a member of the fourth-generation family business. He appraises the balance of distillery and cask characteristics, the diminishing alcohol strength, and the potential for longer-term aging while being on the lookout for bitterness from overpowering wood tannins. “I’m deciding if this will be a 35 or 40 year old, but some will go on to 50, 60, or 70 years-plus. It’s all about making sure you get the right sort of cask: If it’s too active, they’ll never get there.”
A lot of their oldest whiskies were matured in well-used transport sherry casks, vessels with great potential for very long aging. But even for Urquhart, perfect maturation remains a moving target. “Our Private Collection Caol Ila 1968 was never planned to be a 50 year old, but it had reached the right point: Originally, it was going to be a 55 year old,” he says.
Stocks are continuously replaced as new whiskies are bottled, critically benefiting the slow maturation of the oldest casks by maintaining an ambient temperature. Gordon & MacPhail has continual plans for old whisky releases for its classic range of Strathisla, Longmorn, Glenlivet, Mortlach, and Linkwood. Fabulous whiskies 50 years old and older may be much more available in the future. Urquhart humbly admits, “We’re in the unique position where we’ll do 70 year old whiskies every year for the remainder of my career.”
PAST THEIR PRIME
Fifty year old whiskies go through such a rigorous selection process that it’s highly unlikely a bad one will get bottled. Gordon Motion recalls a distillery manager (not from Highland Park) once pressing a 1960s cask sample into his hands and enthusing about its greatness and encouraging him to consider putting it out as a single cask release. Motion recalls, “I sniffed it and thought, ‘Wow, that smells fantastic.’” The following week, Motion returned to the promising sample, and thought that he had better taste it. “It would have taken your fillings out,” he says bluntly. “It was so bitter.”
“We have some casks in the sample room that have gone beyond the point where we would be happy releasing it,” comments Stuart Urquhart. One cask yielded only a single bottle, which Gordon & MacPhail uses for educational purposes, but it was never released. “It smelled fantastic, but the wood had completely destroyed everything to do with that whisky,” he says. “We’re looking at the quality side, and if it goes over beyond the point we’re happy with, we’ll never release it.”
These Outstanding Scotches Have Achieved the Half-Century Mark
Balvenie Fifty: Marriage 0197—$38,000, 110 bottles produced
1967 Glenlivet Winchester Collection 50 year old—$25,000, 150 bottles produced
1969 Benromach 50 year old—$14,500, 125 bottles produced
1968 Gordon & MacPhail Private Collection Caol Ila 50 year old—$9,500, 199 bottles produced
1964 Bowmore Vaults Legends Collection Black Bowmore 50 year old—$25,000, 159 bottles produced
Highland Park 50 year old (2018 release)—$15,000, 274 bottles produced
Dalmore 50 year old—$60,000, 50 bottles produced
Macallan 50 year old—$35,000, 200 bottles produced
Glenfiddich 50 year old—$30,000, 50 bottles released per year
Tamdhu 50 year old—$18,000, 100 bottles produced