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Musings on a 75 Year Old Scotch

Editor’s Note: Our Scotch Whisky Editor at Large Joe Micallef had the chance recently to try the very rare and ultra-expensive Mortlach 75 Year Old Scotch whisky from independent bottler Gordon & MacPhail. In the first of two parts, he explores the idea of whisky aged this long in general. Watch tomorrow for his review.

What is it about ultra-aged whiskies that make them so intriguing? Certainly extended aging can produce an extraordinarily well-integrated, smooth whisky. There is a law of diminishing returns, however, that invariably kicks in.

The effect of the wood is largely dissipated after 30 years or so. Cask strength, the nature of the wood, and the age of the barrel can affect this, but it is unlikely that this will make a difference of about five, plus or minus, years.

Gordon & MacPhail Generations Mortlach 75 Year Old Scotch
Gordon & MacPhail Generations Mortlach 75 Years Old

The slow oxidation of the whisky will certainly add to its smoothness, but here again the overall impact will diminish over time. Is a 75-year-old whisky three times smoother than a 25-year-old whisky? Probably not, even if the question of how you would analytically measure smoothness has never been resolved.

There are slow, complex chemical reactions that are taking place as a Scotch whisky ages. The underlying chemistry of extended aging, the synergistic effects of how wood, spirit, the slow creep of oxygen, and the hundreds of trace compounds chemically interact are not well understood. This is the last frontier of whisky science.

Here again, however, what is the incremental benefit of the last 20 or 40 years of aging? How easily could the same whisky be distinguished at 50 years old versus 75 years of age?

What is intriguing about ultra-aged whiskies is that they represent living history. They did not shape that history nor, for the most part, were they shaped by it. Instead they stood in mute testimony to the passage of time, quietly slumbering while the world changed.

The Gordon & MacPhail bottling of 75 YO Mortlach was distilled in November of 1939, in the opening months of World War II. By then Poland had already fallen and been carved up by Hitler and Stalin. France and Great Britain were in the midst of what critics dubbed “the phony war,” waiting for the Nazi onslaught to be unleashed.

Our Mortlach slept, through the rise and fall of Nazi Germany, through the Cold War that divided Europe, and countless other wars that shaped the 20th century. It slept through the rise and fall of the Soviet Union, the advent of the transistor, and the myriad other inventions that transformed 20th century life, only to finally wake up at the beginning of the 21st century to a world that could barely have been imagined when it was born.

The Italians have a word for wines that are not intended to be served with meals, but rather to be savored alone. They call them “wines of meditation.” This is a whisky of meditation. A whisky to be drunk and to be meditated upon, a whisky to be savored when you reflect on life and death, on our history and the world we have wrought.

The last 75 years have been an extraordinary period in human history, a period of grave danger where the future of humanity hung in the balance, but also a period of exceptional progress and innovation. Humankind has survived, as has our Mortlach. That alone is a good enough reason for a wee dram. Slainte.

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Joe Micallef

Joseph V. Micallef is a historian, best-selling author, keynote speaker and commentator on wine and spirits. He is a member of the National Speakers Association and has also appeared on a variety of broadcast venues including, CNN, Fox News and Fox News Radio.
He has frequently spoken on the history of food, wine and spirits. He holds the Diploma in Wine and Spirits and the Professional Certificate in Spirits (with Distinction) from the Wine and Spirits Education Trust (London). He is a certified wine judge for the California State Fair Wine Competition and also a judge for the International Wines and Spirits Competition (IWSC)

Among his recent books are), Scotch Whisky: Its History, Production and Appreciation (2015). A new book, The Whisky Isles, is forthcoming.

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