Thursday 2 September 2021

Tasting the world's oldest whisky: G&M's Generations 80 Year Old from Glenlivet Distillery [Tasted #540]

We've featured our fair share of Gordon & MacPhail whiskies over the years - from the "Connoisseurs Choice" range (which, no hyperbole, deserves a lot of credit for bringing single malt whisky into the spotlight back in the 1960s) to the rare and always-exceptional "Private Collection" range. With whiskies ranging up to 70 years old, it's fair to say we've had some incredible tasting experiences.

One range we've never featured though is G&M's "Generations". Retained for only the longest-matured, most exclusive whiskies, there have only ever been 4 previous releases - two of which broke the record at the time as the oldest Scotch whisky ever bottled.

Since the last "Generations" release (a 75yo Mortlach in 2015), there's been quite an increase in incredibly-aged malts hitting the market (one distillery in particular has released no fewer than five 70+ year old whiskies since 2018), but to date, the oldest whisky ever commercially bottled has topped out at 78 years old.

Today though, G&M are regaining the crown, with the release of the world's first 80 Year Old Single Malt WhiskyGenerations 80 Year Old from Glenlivet Distillery.

It would be easy to simply focus on the age of such a whisky, given how rare it is for whisky to remain in oak for so long and still legally be whisky, but that would mean brushing aside some incredible facts and figures, like:
  • This whisky was distilled during World War II (1940), when production at Glenlivet (and all Scottish distilleries) reduced by two-thirds due to Govt-imposed restrictions before almost halting entirely/. Peat was also commonly used, even in distilleries that don't today produce "peated" whiskies.
  • This incredible cask was looked after by four generations of the Urquhart family (who still own G&M to this day); and
  • This whisky matured for 40% of the lifespan of The Glenlivet distillery!

The spirit for this release was filled into a 1st Fill Sherry Butt (which initially held mosto (freshly pressed grape juice), then sobretables (new wine post fermentation) before being filled with mature Sherry at Bodegas Williams Humbert) on 3rd February 1940, and was laid down in Elgin by George Urquhart (aka "Mr George") and his father John, to mature well beyond their own lives - all the way to 5th February 2020, when it was bottled as the very first 80 year old Single Malt Scotch.

I was incredibly fortunate to taste the whisky recently, over a 1:1 Zoom with Stephen Ranking - eldest member of the 4th Generation of Urquhart family and G&M's Director of Prestige. Speaking to Stephen and hearing him tell the story of this whisky and G&M's 125 years in business was fascinating, and a testament to G&M's long-standing relationships throughout the industry. 

For example, G&M were only able to obtain Glenlivet new make (going back to well before this one was bottled) due to long-standing relationships with the distillery - both business relationships (G&M would provide the distillery with business, casks and warehousing) but also personal relationships, as both families were close. Similarly, as a close personal friend of Alexander Williams of Bodegas Williams Humbert at the time, "Mr George" was able to secure quality casks and ensure they were prepared as required.

(Side note: one fact I really love about G&M is they still, to this day, only buy new make spirit and fill their own casks themselves, unlike most other independent bottlers who also buy mature casks for further maturation. Of course there's nothing wrong with buying mature casks, but G&M's approach affords significantly more control and oversight of the whisky's maturation. Due in no small part to their extensive relationships, they've been able to do this for over 100 Scottish distilleries throughout their 125 years.)

As Stuart Urquhart (Operations Director and member of the fourth generation of the owning family) explains of the spirit:
“Glenlivet’s style of spirit is often highlighted as a classic example from Speyside – smooth, light, fruity and slightly floral. Spirit from Glenlivet can withstand long term ageing, managing to retain its delicate character. It is imperative for us to select quality casks, made to our exacting specifications, to ensure the spirit is not overpowered. Typically, we use Sherry casks for spirit earmarked for long-term maturation, with bourbon casks deployed for shorter term expressions although there are always exceptions to the rule."
When reviewing a whisky, I'll be honest - I don't typically like to give a lot of attention to bottle and packaging design on the blog, but in this case, it warrants an exception. For the fifth Generations release, G&M looked to partner with someone who shared their values of ‘artistry’, ‘legacy’ and ‘craftsmanship', and they found him in Internationally acclaimed architect and designer, Sir David Adjaye OBE.

Not having an architect's eye myself, my first thought upon seeing the design was "yeah, that looks really cool", but speaking to Stephen highlighted the level of thought and planning that went into the designs:
  • The decanter, with its "lenses" on the sides, is intended to cast the whisky in a different shade, showing off the different colours it goes through during maturation (the lenses are also functional, serving as handgrips. You wouldn't want to drop one of these!)
  • The oak case (handmade in sustainable timber by Wardour Workshops) is intended to "open like an oak forest letting light through its branches".
  • The blackened top of the handblown Glencairn crystal decanters is intended to echo a charred cask.


Generations 80 Year Old from Glenlivet Distillery officially launches today, as a release of 250 decanters bottled at 44.9% ABV. Interested parties won't be able to purchase one just yet however, as decanter #1 is going under the hammer for charity, with Sotheby's holding an auction on 2nd October in Hong Kong. In addition to the first decanter (and oak case and two tumblers), the winner will also receive:
  • A unique & rare whisky tasting experience for four in London, tailored to the buyer, conducted by Stephen Rankin and attended by Sir David Adjaye OBE.
  • The cask head of cask 340 which cradled the spirit for eight decades, presented in a bespoke frame.
  • Sir David Adjaye OBE’s original, signed concept drawings for the decanter and oak case, presented in a bespoke frame.
Proceeds from the auction (minus costs) will be donated to Trees for Life, a Scottish charity with a mission to rewild the Caledonian forest, with whom Gordon & MacPhail colleagues have been actively involved in helping with tree planting, including native oaks, at their site at Glen Affric in the north of Scotland.

Pricing and availability for the remaining 249 decanters will be announced following the auction.

So, a historic and incredible feat of whisky-making, no doubt, but how does it taste? Many would claim (and I wouldn't disagree) that on average, Scotch single malt hits its "sweet spot" around 15-25 years old, and that for a whisky to make it to 40, 50, 60, 70+ years and 1) still be whisky and 2) still taste good is an incredible feat.

..but what about 80 years? Has 8 decades in a First Fill sherry butt rendered something of an oak bomb? Read on...

Gordon & MacPhail Generations 80 Year Old from Glenlivet Distillery (44.9% ABV, 80yo (3rd Feb 1940 to 5th Feb 2020), First Fill Sherry Butt #340, 1 of 250 decanters, Speyside, Scotland, pricing TBC)
Colour: Rich, deep burnished copper.

Nose: Initially coconut, followed by cigar box, some mint & sandalwood. You get some of those woody notes that let you know a whisky has spent some time in-cask, but they don't dominate at all - far from an "oak bomb". Nose it for a bit longer (I spent 45 minutes on the nose alone) and you'll find pot pouri, lavender, and some caramel cream.  With a little drop of water, I found port, more sandalwood, rooibos tea and some orange.

Palate: Viscous and full-bodied, there's initially some citrus-infused oak, dried fruits (sultanas, papaya), pressed flowers, fig and hints of grassiness and mint. You get big "vintage whisky" notes (cigar box, leather) without the "old bottle effect" notes that often accompany whiskies of this era from decades gone by. Water brings out a little orange peel, some very slight tannins, more mint and after 40 minutes, the faintest hints of smoke appear. The layers in this are incredible - some of these notes only showed themselves after 20, 25, 30+ minutes. If you looked up "complex whisky" in the dictionary, you may well find a picture of this.

Finish: Incredibly long and mellow. Ginger tea, sandalwood, incense and orange peel.

Rating (on my very non-scientific scale): 94/100. Just incredible - not only because this whisky made it to 80 years and still retained 44.9% ABV, but because it retains such balance and complexity. An absolute pleasure to experience - I sincerely hope whoever is lucky enough to purchase one of the 250 decanters opens it up and enjoys it with good friends.

A tremendous thank you must go to Stephen Rankin for generously giving up his time to take me through the whisky, and Gordon & MacPhail and Petrie PR for allowing me this incredible opportunity.


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