We're living in a golden age for liquor -- let's just get that out of the way first. There's more quality booze being made by more people in more places around the world than ever before in the history of the human liver. So don't think I'm some dewy-eyed romantic who yearns for days gone by that never really existed except in my deluded imagination, or....
OK, scratch that. I am a dewy-eyed romantic. My head knows that there are more truly first-rate spirits out there right now than I could ever hope to drink in a lifetime. That 21st-century tipplers have it all over our forefathers (and foremothers) when it comes to choice and level of sophistication. But my heart wants to know how different the bourbon my parents drank was from what I drink today; what a mai tai would be like with the original, long-gone spirits used by Trader Vic's in the '40s; what kind of bitters Jerry Thomas used in his cocktails when he was becoming the first celebrity mixologist in the 1860s.
Put a little 1963 in your mouth.
Heaven knows I'm not alone in my passion to drink the past. That's why you can walk into a well-stocked liquor store today and find several brands of Old Tom gin, which hadn't been widely consumed for a century; or rock & rye, which peaked in popularity on the other side of Prohibition; or New England rum, last made in the 1800s. Savvier spirits companies understand this passion, and they're tapping into it. The latest attempt to capture the past in a bottle of booze comes from Glenfiddich, by way of the Speyside region of Scotland.
Glenfiddich's "The Original" (40% alcohol by volume, no age statement, suggested retail price $100) is a recreation of the first single malt whisky ever sold internationally, way back in ... 1963?! Seems rather recent for a company whose history dates back to 1887, and Glenfiddich isn't even one of the oldest distilleries in Scotland. But until the '60s -- or really, the '80s -- single malts (meaning whiskies whose barley is roasted, or malted, at a single distillery) weren't really a thing. Distilleries sold their whiskies to other companies, which made blends like Johnnie Walker, Dewar's or Cutty Sark. These blends combined single malts with lighter grain whisky to make a smoother and somewhat less distinctive final product. Blends still outsell single malts by a wide margin even today, but they were literally the only game in town until Glenfiddich went out on a limb with its "Straight Malt," as it was then called. It's rather shocking to think that Humphrey Bogart, JFK, Clark Gable and other vintage tipplers probably lived and died without ever trying a single malt, but such is the case.
Unopened '60s bottles of Glenfiddich Straight Malt sell for anywhere from several hundred to a couple thousand bucks a pop, and those are the European bottles, not the ultra-rare American editions which would probably go for a lot more. So $100 for a bottle that's an exact replica flavor-wise, at least according to Glenfiddich's Malt Master, Brian Kinsman, is a bargain in the grand scheme of things.
And what's that flavor like, you might ask? Well, it's not quite a single malt the way we've come to think about them today. It's a lot younger, for one thing. It's hard to find a single malt today that's aged less than 10 years; Glenfiddich The Original doesn't have an age statement, nor did the original 1963 Straight Malt, but bottles from later that decade say it's aged eight years. The recreation, whatever its age, tastes quite young, but don't mistake young for immature. It's a lively, fruity whisky, with Glenfiddich's signature pear flavor along with honey, a little citrus and vanilla, and just a hint of oak. It's very smooth and burn-free going down -- almost a cross between a modern single malt and a blend.
In its time, Glenfiddich's Straight Malt must have made a great gateway drug for drinkers who'd never had anything but blends. Today, Glenfiddich The Original is history in a glass, but it also makes for a very tasty dram. It's a limited edition, but I wouldn't buy a bottle just to stick on the shelf and gather dust while it appreciates in value. Well, you can do that too, but just make sure you also have some handy to drink.