Jan 25

Scotch Lesson #4: Age Statements

Jura 10 Year Old Scotch DetailAh yes, the benchmark by which we measure “good” whiskey; age.  When we see a 10, 12, 15, 18, or 21 year old, we immediately assume an ascending level of quality.  At least that’s what we’ve been conditioned to think.

Age statements can tell a story, and certainly aging whiskey is important – but it’s not always the definition of the whiskey’s quality.

A variety of processes prior to aging can affect the whiskey that you drink, but the time spent in the cask is what gives it its color and much of its taste.  Letting a whiskey age in a barrel for an extended period allows the wood of the cask to impart more of its characteristics into the liquid.  It’s generally accepted that this is a good thing, but aging something for too long (especially in a barrel that doesn’t marry well with the whiskey) won’t always produce a desirable end-product.

You should also take into consideration the price, and cost, of the longer-aged whiskey.  Clearly while browsing your local liquor store, you’ll notice that older whiskeys are typically more expensive.  But why is that?  As any business-person could tell you, keeping inventory in your warehouse is expensive.  Now multiply the average shelf time of an average stocked good (let’s say one year) and multiply it by the age of the whiskey.  That’s a pretty considerable investment!

In addition to the cost of holding the inventory, there is also an inevitable loss of liquid during the maturation process – this is known as the “angel’s share”.  I have an old bottle of Glenlivet 18 Year Old that has an interesting anecdote on the back label.  “From time to time a cask is tasted and considered so special that it is left in its dark cellar to rest a little longer.  Its time will come, say the distillers.  This superb whisky was drawn from such casks, after more than eighteen long years.  In this time more than a third of the contents have evaporated – ‘gone to the angels’, say the Scots.”  Not only do those casks remain in the warehouse for eighteen years, but they lose one third of the whiskey without any payment!

I really enjoy Glenlivet 18 Year Old, and to me it is surely a step above the 12 Year Old, but not all whiskey is created equal.  Some young whiskeys will defy the odds and achieve a superior quality despite their youth.  Take Stranahan’s Colorado Whiskey for example.

The main point is, aging is an important part of understanding good whiskey, but not the only factor.  You should determine your preferences based on the taste of what’s in your glass, not the label on the bottle.

Class dismissed!

 

-Ryan

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  1. More time in the barrel means more wood. It also means lower proof out of the barrel (and thus less dilution if the whiskey is not sold at cask strength). Some whiskeys clearly benefit from more wood. Examples include most Speysides and Highlands. I’m thinking here how I prefer Highland Park 18 to 12; Macallan 18 to 12; Glenfarclas 21 and 17 to 12; etc… Some whiskeys, however, lose some of their characteristic flavors because the wood hides it. I’m thinking of western maritime Scotches like Talisker, where the 10 is truer to the terroir of Skye than the 18; Port Charlotte where the 5, 6, and 7 had a more raw, direct, peat and more fruity grain sugary essence and the 8 and 9 began having that oak vanilla note and softened peat – making it taste more like conventional Scotch (not that that was so horrible). Laphroig is another western maritime scotch where the young one is truer to the distillery’s essence than the old one.

    Bourbons are also another situation where less time in the wood is often preferable to more. Jim Rutledge of 4 Roses exclusively sells young bourbons and says that age can sometimes produce bitter bourbons from too much wood tannin. He will sell older bourbons on a cask basis, to taste, but refuses to make a “regular” offering with a stated age because he demands the flexibility to choose. Most bourbons sell at 4-9 years of age. Older ones, such as Elijah Craig 12 and 18 are the result of careful barrel selection and originate with a sweeter simpler mashbill (both are excellent – among my favorites).

    So age isn’t a simple “more is better” proposition. Thanks for discussing this interesting topic.

      • Ryan on February 22, 2012 at 5:11 pm
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      Wow, thanks for the comment Josh! Clearly you’ve put some serious thought into the aging process, and you have some really great examples to back it up!

      I agree with you on the Glenfarclas example (this being the only one of your Speyside/Highland brands that I have tried an appropriate spectrum of expressions). I also agree about Laphroaig – I have a bottle of the 18 Year Old that is very good, but certainly doesn’t pack the same punch of peat and smoke that the 10 Year Old does. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; I just buy Laphroaig to be blown away and the 18 Year Old seemed a bit too refined.

      -Ryan

      1. Bingo. The Laphroiag 18 is a fine dram with more complexity and more wood essence than the 10 – but it is muted and tastes less like “Laphroiag” – less peat, less intensity, less of the character of the place. The wood has added wood – but this can be a homogenizing thing. I have this same complaint with most of the maritime western scotches where I have tried older expressions. Once exception is Ardbeg 10. I love Ardbeg 10, but find it doesn’t do it for nearly as well as the other expressions which have more wood (but also higher proof – so wood isn’t the only factor).

        However, in addition to the Spey and Highland examples I provided I’ll amplify and state that I much prefer Springbank older than 10 and 12. The 15 and older are the ones that really turn me on. Ditto for many Irish whiskeys Bushmills and Jameson both benefit from more time in the wood. However Redbreast doesn’t. I prefer the 12 to the 15 in Redbreast.

        This is a big part of why I love whiskey. So much variation, so many rules that are shattered by the endless exceptions of the multifarious and wildly unique nature of the many different kinds…

        I love whiskey-reviews.com btw. Excellent work!

          • Ryan on February 28, 2012 at 8:01 am
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          You hit the nail on the head, Josh! That’s what makes whiskey so great – the variety!

          -Ryan

  1. […] we go any further, let’s define what aging is in relation to whiskey.  Traditionally, maturation occurs when the whiskey is in the barrel, and anything housing the […]

  2. […] Age statements are interesting things.  Many times, they lead us to purchase “older” bottles to achieve status, even if it’s with ourselves.  Even the media makes it seem as if older is better.  My wife and I saw Judd Apatow’s “This is 40” last weekend, and there’s a scene where Leslie Mann’s character’s father (John Lithgow) brings a bottle to their house as a gift.  To the discernible eye, you can tell that it’s Lagavulin 16 Year Old.  But, Lithgow presents it as “a very old Scotch”, despite the fact that 16 years is not “very old” in the grand scheme of Scotch variety. […]

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