Thursday, February 16, 2017

How much does the stated age of a whisky really matter?

An "age statement" is a number meaning that all whisky within the bottle has been matured for at least the number of years indicated by the age statement.  Even a single malt is typically a blend of whisky from different casks.  A bottle of Benromach 10 might contain a mixture of whisky from a number of different casks that have been matured for different numbers of years, but the bottle may not contain any whisky from any cask that has been matured for less than 10 years. Many whiskies (for example, Benromach Traditional) bear no age statement, meaning no commitment is given about the age(s) of the whisky in the bottle. 

Many producers are moving away from age statements more and more.  Their argument is that an age statement unnecessarily limits their ability to produce quality whisky.  Let's take the Benromach example.  Maybe a bottle of Benromach 10 typically contains a mixture of whiskies aged for from 10 to 15 years.  Maybe a whisky having precisely the same flavor profile could be produced by using some eight and nine year-old whisky and increasing the proportion of older whiskies in the mix.  But such a mixture could not be sold as "Benromach 10"!  The producer's argument is that they are unnecessarily restricted in their ability to produce a product that is in high demand.  The other side of the argument is that what the producers are trying to do is make more money by pawning off whisky that does not meet the same standard.  To me, that is based on an assumption that age is strongly correlated with overall quality. There are many who turn up their noses at whiskies that bear no age statement, and might even refuse to drink them, apparently believing that age indicates quality and that no assurance of age means dubious quality.

I don't get it.

Not all years are equal.  Whisky matured in warmer environments (such as India or Taiwan) will reach the same level of maturity in a fraction of the time.  Even in the same environment, the individual cask has a substantial influence on what happens in maturation.  For just one example, casks are generally re-used, and a cask that has been re-used less will generally introduce the influences of maturation faster than a cask that has been re-used more.

Even if all years were equal, more is not necessarily better.  During the maturation process, numerous changes occur in the chemical composition of a whisky.  Think about cooking.  The overall taste of the dish depends upon the harmony between the various flavors.  Up to a point, adding salt might make the overall flavor of a dish better, but beyond a point more salt destroys the balance of flavors and begins to detract.  There is even a name for this occurring in whisky maturation, with the whisky becoming too "woody".  Personally, for my  own palate, I cannot remember going to a vertical tasting at which I liked the oldest expression the most.

You can readily see this principle at work with the peaty whiskies of Ardbeg and Laphroaig.  The flagship expressions of these distilleries are matured for 10 years, on the  very young side for whiskies that bear age statements.  Why?  Because the balance of flavors with these peaty whiskies is best struck at about the 10-year mark, whereas the most harmonious balance will tend to be achieved after a longer maturation for whiskies that have a different flavor profile.

Don't count on aging a whisky for a long time to turn a whisky that is fundamentally subpar into a really good whisky. To extend my cooking analogy, if a recipe is otherwise subpar, manipulating the amount of salt is usually not going to make it good, and the mediocre recipe with an optimal amount of salt will still be inferior to a really good recipe even though the amount of salt might not be perfect.

Personally, I think that it's all about the end result - does the whisky taste great with a wonderful flavor profile, or not?  I think being hung up on age statements can sometimes mean that people do not trust themselves to judge whether they find a whisky to be a good one or not and they delegate their judgment to a single number that is easy to grasp but doesn't necessarily mean very much.

There are wonderful whiskies with no age statement, and there are some really mediocre whiskies that have been matured for a very long time and are very expensive.  Producers who care about their brands are not going to put out a product they believe will reflect unfavorably upon them.  I say try different whiskies, perhaps following the lead of people whose opinions you trust.  Free the hands of the producers, and let the market pass judgment on the quality of their products.

1 comment:

  1. I agree with you, that we, the consumer, should rely more on our own senses and not on writing on the bottle, or reviews done by others. I might like NAS whisky more than the one with age statement. This goes back to distillery, that takes pride in their product, not just factory to churn alcohol.elPolako