Back to the Future: the best Scotch whiskies to pair with movies from the 1980s

Joel Harrison jumps into his DeLorean and heads back to a decade celebrated for memorable movies – and malts

Words by Joel Harrison

Macallan 1980s advert
Whisky advertising took a different approach back in the 1980s. Photo: Whisky.Auction

At a time when were all looking for something a touch more cheery, I turned to comforting, familiar fare over the New Year break. And amazingly, it didn’t come in a bottle. Well, not all of it. Instead, I found significant solace by delving into Hollywood’s vintage cellars and blowing the dust off some classic movies from the 1980s.

For me, today’s blockbusters have largely lost their lustre, becoming over-processed, overlong money-machines more concerned about spin-off merchandise than giving the viewer feel-good entertainment. Take the never-ending stream of comic-book movies. Just when you think you’ve seen the last of the X-Men, their 13th (13th!) movie pops up like a new head on a hydra. Compare this to the delightfully pithy, utterly adorable 1987 classic Planes, Trains and Automobiles93 minutes of brilliant John Hughes storytelling brought to life by Steve Martin and John Candy. Spare, simple and brilliant. 

1980s movies – Memorable Movies and Malts – Planes, Trains And Automobiles
Steve Martin (left) and John Candy in John Hughes' 1987 classic, Planes, Trains And Automobiles

Best Scotch whiskies from the 1980s

My nostalgia trip didn’t stop at the movies, though. Over the past couple of years, I’ve purchased a few bottles of spirits from the 1980s – including some of the best Scotch whiskies –  at auction, and, over the Christmas break, I found the same qualities of unvarnished purity in these.

The ’80s was an odd time for the Scotch industry, which was suffering from a drop in demand (vodka was the spirit of choice), coupled with overproduction in the 1970s, leading to distillery closures and a much-touted ‘Scotch loch’ maturing away in warehouses across the country. As a consequence, the blenders of the day had a large selection of well-matured spirit to draw from, and the resulting whiskies are delicious.

Those still in the industry will recall that many of the bottles from the period that carry an age statement had much older whisky in them than advertised on the label, and the result comes through in the liquid. But it’s not just the extra age that gives these bottles their appeal. Theres something about the overall style of the whisky that is just… vintage. It’s different from today’s bombastic flavours that we find in some of the high-strength, sherry-matured (or sometimes aggressively sherry-finished) malts. And just like those movies from the 1980s, theres something reassuring about them. Maybe it’s my rose-tinted glasses, but these whiskies – and movies – seem easier to consume. 

1980s whisky – Glenlivet 12 Year Old and The Macallan 12 Year Old
Harrison cherishes the comforting feel of 1980s whisky – just like the movies of the era (Macallan photo: The Whisky Exchange)

Memorable movies and malts

Take a recently opened bottle of 1980s’ Glenlivet 12 Year Old. With its fruity overtones and the sweetest of finishes, coupled with a youthful energy that has kept it vibrant despite its advanced years, it’s just so easy to drink. The perfect pairing with the narrative of Tom Hanksclassic Big.

My 1980s’ bottle of Islay classic Laphroaig 10 Year Old, meanwhile, is as big and peaty as the current bottling, but with an additional smoothness and fruity note that makes it decidedly quaffable. And unlike with Gizmo, the Mogwai in Gremlins who had a nasty turn after a post-midnight feast, it’s perfect to sip in the small hours.

A bottle of The Macallan 12 Year Old from the end of the 1980s highlights what a decadent decade it was. It’s a malt as rich as Monty at the end of Brewster’s Millions and as ambitious as Wall Streets Gordon Gekkoand appropriately, The Macallan is now top of the charts as the world’s most expensive single malt Scotch.

Movies from the 1980s – Memorable Movies and Malts - Gizmo, the lovable Mogwai from Gremlins
Gizmo, the lovable Mogwai from 1980s' classic Gremlins

Living in the now

The Christmas break allowed me to reminisce about a more simple time, when Scotch tasted of Scotch, and movies were simple, and heart-warming. But equally, there are some modern-day films that have challenged my perspective: the incredibly emotive 1917; the funny, witty and excellently observed Parasite; and the Guy Ritchie flick The Gentlemen, which owes more to Ealing Comedies than to special effects. 

Maybe in 30 years’ time there will be a generation that looks back on the films of today with the same rose-tinted glasses with which I view The Karate Kid, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off or Top Gun. Maybe they’ll be buying bottles of the best Scotch whiskies, finished in mezcal casks, at auction. 

Either way, it’s 2021 and I’m back to living in the now, rediscovering the brilliance of modern-day whisky-making. And there is, it should be said, much to admire: blends are more consistent; single malts are matured in better oak casks; finishes can be innovative and interesting. To quote one of Hughes’ more famous characters in Ferris Bueller: “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”