Meet the Oldest Scotch Whisky: Gordon & MacPhail’s Generations 80 Year GlenlivetBy Jake Emen
Whisky drinkers, colleagues and connoisseurs, we’re gathered here today in memoriam of Gordon & MacPhail cask #340, a life lived from February 3, 1940 through February 5, 2020. The enormity of this one whisky life lived over 80 years represents the longest span for any Scotch whisky ever. Any Scotch whisky to make it into a bottle, anyway.
The good news is that the liquid inside cask #340 did not die. No, it was born anew, its essence bequeathed into 250 decanters of the oldest single malt Scotch whisky – the oldest whisky of any variety – to ever hit the market. When cask #340 passed onto the afterlife, it gave us Gordon & MacPhail Generations 80 Year from Glenlivet Distillery, a first-fill sherry butt matured Scotch whisky which came of age over a staggering eight decades.
“We have created the oldest whisky in the world — it’s 80 years in the making,” says Stephen Rankin, Gordon & MacPhail’s director of prestige, and one of several fourth generation family members involved with the company today. It’s a fortuitous age, too. “When we celebrate anniversaries, we commemorate them with material. Gold is 50, diamond is 60, platinum is 70. What’s 80? 80 is oak!”
The Oldest Scotch Whisky Ever
The fifth release in Gordon & MacPhail’s Generations series, following two 70-year-old Glenlivets, as well as one 70-year-old and one 75-year-old Mortlach, is this 80-year-old senior citizen which came into the world on February 3, 1940. Hall of Fame quarterback Fran Tarkenton was born that day; his 18 year NFL career ended in 1978, 43 years ago. Pinocchio made its debut in February 1940, as did the characters Tom and Jerry, then known as Jasper and Jinx.
The month was otherwise marred by the steady day-in, day-out progression of World War II unfolding across Europe. Yes, this whisky was distilled during World War II – though before the United States got involved. Franklin D. Roosevelt still had five more years of his life, and presidency, remaining.
With such historical footnotes out of the way, one somewhat miraculous feature of this whisky is that it actually qualifies as a whisky. “If the spirit drops below 40%, it’s no longer ‘whisky,’” Rankin says. In certain parts of the world, ABV can trend upward over the years due to climate conditions. That’s not the case in Scotland. There, with extended maturation lengths reaching or exceeding half a century, the liquid runs the risk of falling beneath that minimum ABV requirement to be called Scotch whisky, rendering it a mere vague “spirit” instead.
Mighty Oak Barrel
The saving grace for cask #340, which ended up at a robust 44.9%, was its very construction. It was made in Spain from American oak, specifically designed with extra thick staves to survive the shipping process to the UK. “The thicker the staves, the lower the losses to the angels,” Rankin says. While the accepted industry standard in Scotland is a 2% annual loss, he says that this cask and other bespoke casks similar to it lose less than 1% annually. “Which is remarkable.”
Director of Prestige Stephen Rankin with cask #340 /Photo Credit: Gordon & MacPhail
A different type of barrel, or a lower quality one, could have resulted in a total loss after eight decades. “This cask looked after this spirit incredibly well,” says Richard Urquhart, Gordon & MacPhail’s head of sales America and another fourth-generation family member. “It retained its strength, it retained its volume, and you can see just how this whisky has evolved over 80 years. It’s all about making sure you use the right cask for the right maturation.”
Your Great-Grandfather’s Glenlivet
Another notable aspect of Generations 80 is that it represents a wholly different type of Glenlivet whisky. Due to a series of production differences, what the distillery makes today does not adhere to what the distillery made in 1940. “The way this whisky was made back in 1940 is very different than the way it is today,” Rankin says. “Back in the day, this distillery was malting its barley on-site and using local peat.” Glenlivet is now known as an unpeated whisky, of course, and as with the vast majority of distilleries, does not handle its own malting.
Cask #340 /Photo Credit: Gordon & MacPhail
Glenlivet was further using direct-fired stills, along with worm tub condensers, and neither of these production factors are consistent with today’s. Yet, these differences proved useful for such a mega-maturation. “You tended to get a richer, heavier, oilier spirit,” Rankin says. “That’s what helps it last so long and compete with the oak in the cask. That’s why it’s so good today.”
Tasting the World’s Oldest Whisky
An 80-year-old whisky is all for show, right? The oldest Scotch whisky can’t possibly showcase a standout, quality flavor profile … right? That might be true in many cases, but the Generations 80 liquid itself is exceptional.
Sir David Adjaye OBE /Photo Credit: Gordon & MacPhail
“It’s just so elegant and fresh for its age,” Urquhart says. “So vibrant for a whisky which has been maturing for this length of time.”
Generations 80 is an incredibly complex and layered whisky. It shows its maturity with deep levels of rancio, while at the same time offering bright citrus and floral notes, dried fruits and honey, intriguing spices, and a thread of peat smoke. It likely blows your expectations out of the park for what a whisky this age can taste like — I know that was the case for myself.
“Yes, if you asked our great grandfather if the whisky would be of this quality today, it would have exceeded his expectations,” Urquhart says. “How would you know back then that it would hold up, and even still be whisky, of this amazing quality?”
As the years turned into decades, though, this wasn’t a guessing game. You don’t stash a barrel away for generations only to shrug and hope for the best. “How do we know it’s at its peak? The answer is we’ve been watching its evolution over many, many years,” Rankin says. By evaluating this particular cask with sister casks, they’ve been able to “compare and contrast to pick the right moment for bottling them.”
Most telling was cask #339, a Glenlivet released by Gordon & MacPhail a decade ago at the ripe old age of 70. “This is not the first 1940s cask that we’ve launched,” Urquhart says. “So we knew what they were capable of then, and we knew this cask could go further.”
Buying a Piece of History
If you’re ready to click “buy now!” to buy the oldest Scotch whisky you’ll have to show a bit more patience. With a whisky 80 years in the making, what’s the rush? Generations 80 was delayed by a year due to the pandemic, and now that it’s ready for its time in the limelight, its price won’t be revealed until after a charity auction of decanter #1, benefiting Trees for Life, at Sotheby’s Hong Kong on October 7th. The auction house is anticipating a potential winning bid between $100,000 and $200,000.
The decanters and presentation boxes themselves were designed by Sir David Adjaye OBE, who began collaborating on the project two and a half years ago. The architect-artist is perhaps best known for designing the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. His design for Generations 80 is a show-stopper, offering a stunning look for a whisky which deserves a bit of pomp and circumstance.
Is that type of price, or something close to that range, worth it? Like anything else, if you have to ask, it’s probably not for you. But for the select few who want to own a legitimate piece of history, something aged for eight decades, distilled amid the chaos of World War II, it’s a singular item. “You’re looking back at that snapshot of time,” Urquhart says.
“It almost defies logic,” Rankin adds. Indeed, it’s without precedent or comparison, stretching the very limits of what we thought we knew about whisky’s capacity for long-term maturation.
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