When age is more than a number

Whisky myths smashed #1

Ask 100 people what makes a good whisky, or any other spirit, and you’ll get 100 different answers. Some of the answers may be very similar, but very few will be completely the same. A whole range of opinions will be given, such as age, price, the distillery, whether or not it is blended

What makes the best whisky? There is no easy answer to that, and indeed as everybody has a different opinion, any answer will be totally subjective. But how do we determine what is the best whisky? Many will put a lot of faith in the age of the whisky, but with the proliferation of whiskies bearing no age statements means that it gets harder to tell.

So how do we know if we are getting a quality drink, or are we just getting ripped off? Is older and expensive better?

Only two have age statements. What bottle is the best one?

To get started, (and this is solely my opinion) the age of a whisky is absolutely no guarantee of how good it will be. Quite simply, the age will give an indication of what to expect from the whisky – it will have taken more flavours from the cask, the alcohol content may be lower and it may be comparatively smoother than a younger spirit. One of the best whiskies I have open is only 14 years old, one of the best scoring Scotch single malt (sadly now an extinguished distillery) is only 19 years old. I can think of a couple of malts I have tried at age statement which have been completely underwhelming – Dalmore 12 being one of them, yet Dalmore do make some fine malt whisky.

Many whiskies are now being released with no age statement at all. But does this mean they are the poorer relations of an aged single malt and are the distillers trying to hide something? The answer to this is Yes and No – non age statement is not necessarily worse than an age statement spirit, and yes, the distillers and blenders are trying to hide something.

To qualify my latter statement, we need to delve into the Scotch Whisky Regulations 2009. I’ll keep this as brief as possible, as a story about regulations never wins you friends in a bar.

Firstly, a whisky can be called a single malt (or grain if not made from malted barley), if all the spirit in the bottle comes from the same distillery. It does not have to all be distilled at the same time. This means in any bottle of single malt, there may be whisky of various ages. The practice of blending various ages of casks is to ensure that throughout the bottling of thousands or perhaps hundreds of thousands of bottles that the taste dies not vary between batches. This does not apply to single cask whisky, due to the very fact it’s from one cask and does not get blended in any way.

Secondly, the SWR 2009 states that whisky must be matured in oak barrels, in Scotland for a minimum of three years before it can be called whisky. Anything any younger is called New Make Spirit, or by a product name such as Aqua Vitae as an example, but the one thing it cannot be called is whisky.

Thirdly, and here we have to briefly dive into the SWR 2009 for the last time (and this being our key point), where the regulation states that any age statement on a bottle must give the age of the youngest whisky used to make up the single malt or blend.

And there it is – point three is most possibly the reason for seeing so many non age statement whiskies in the market place. The reality is distilleries are running out of aged stock.

This lack of stock has been caused by the tremendous growth in the popularity of Scotch whisky, and is not unique to Scotland either. Certainly I have read that Japan is also suffering the same issues. Around 90% of Scotch whisky is used in blends, and the need for certain stocks to make up the blends has caused huge pressure for distilleries to keep production up. The problem isn’t the capacity of the distilleries; it’s the fact that has to mature for so long, and this is a process that just cannot be hurried. The perfect storm has been created from the closure of many distilleries in the 1980’s, which has meant many stocks of these brands are now running out, then compounded by the rapid rise in popularity of single malts which started in the early 1990’s. Such is the demand for some of the whiskies that a trio of legendary closed distilleries are emerging from slumber – Port Ellen, Brora and Rosebank are all due to open within the next couple of years.

But why all the secrecy of a non age statement? Ask any person what they think the best whisky is out of a choice of a three year old or a twelve year old, and I doubt anybody would pick the younger spirit. It’s a question of image, and with the whisky market booming, nobody wants to release a whisky that will likely be rejected. And I would imagine the majority of non age statement whiskies have spirit in them less than 8 years old, and possibly younger. How many have three year old spirit in them and would this put you off if it was an age statement whisky?

I’ve 2 examples of a three year old whisky in my wee stock, a quadruple distilled Bruichladdich and a bottle from the first cask produced at Strathearn distillery. Not tasted them yet, but a younger spirit is going to be light, more raw, as the amount of interaction with the cask is going to be at an absolute minimum. However that doesn’t necessarily make it bad, and in the case of the Bruichladdich, the fact it has been distilled twice as much as normal may make it a pleasant proposition.

Bruichladdich X4+3. Quadruple distilled, three years old. Any good?

It is worth considering that non age statements are used as a tool of marketing. Of course the distillers want to maximise the purchasing of their products. And after all, how many 12 year old whiskies can you have in a range that may only have subtle differences? With an array of cask types at the disposal of the distilleries, an non-age statement lets the marketers build a brand, although differences between the whiskies may be slight to the educated palate.

So how can we tell if we are drinking a quality whisky? In my opinion, there is no true way as each person’s taste is different. We can look to the reputation of the distillery, but in that I’ve found NAS whisky from a known brand that is a total let down, with Macallan being a notable offender in this respect. Most of the recent Jura releases without age statements have been fairly disappointing, with Journey having been universally decided amongst many whisky enthusiasts as being below par. Having a half bottle myself, I didn’t think it was the age that was the issue, but the bottling strength.

To those who are well versed in whisky, they may be able to tell by the taste and mouth feel if there is an older whisky in the spirit. Although it has an age statement, the Glendronach 18 year old Allardice is quite likely to be such a dram, although the distillery themselves won’t tell you. What I can tell you is that it is delicious, and I will be reviewing that one for you when I can.

A good bet to tell if a whisky is likely to be of a decent quality, and therefore you are less likely to be left feeling cheated is to check out reviews, either on-line, in specialist whisky magazines or research via the various whisky year books that are released.

A good guide to the many distilleries.

I can heartily recommend buying the annual ‘Whisky Bible’ by Jim Murray. Now in its 15th year, this is a good starting guide for new releases as well as older ones. It is worth buying the older editions of this tome in order to build a compendium of whisky knowledge, but will always remain the opinion of one man. Mind you, it’s a man with more knowledge than me!

Bottom line is that as much as beauty is in the eye of the beholder, taste is as well. Each one of us is individual and no two palates are the same but many may be similar. Does expensive and old make a better whisky? Not really if you don’t enjoy it – the value isn’t there in that respect. What may be there is the kudos of what is in the bottle, how old it is and where it came from.

My advice is to take recommendations from others; try different drams from different distilleries. Maybe pick a cask type (ie Sherry) and compare various sherried whiskies. Keep costs down by trying in a whisky bar where you are only committed to trying a nip, or consider trying miniatures first – Master of Malt, the Whisky Exchange and Drinks By The Dram are good online retailers which will sell the more unusual miniatures or samples of full size bottles.

Whatever you do – make sure you enjoy it!

Slainte Mhath!

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