Of course it is fundamentally about flavour. This is what this debate usually always boils down to. But there are some pretty key factors which will commonly influence flavour in whisky and age – time spent getting to where it is – is perhaps the ultimate influencer. I can already hear voices at the back tripping over themselves to point out that there are good young whiskies and bad old whiskies – well, of course there are. There are thousands upon thousands of single malt whiskies out there in the world. In my experience older whiskies are generally good to very good and most of the greatest whiskies ever bottled are aged between 12 – 25 years.
Let us also consider that when we talk about age, we are talking about time spent. This can refer to the production process as well as time in cask. Length of germination, malting and kilning. Duration and pace of mashing and – especially – length of fermentation. The pace of distilling and dilution of distillate to casking strength. They all play a part in determining the final quality and beauty of a whisky and generally the longer and more stately the pace with most of these processes the better – something I would argue is also true of maturation itself. There are flavours in well-matured malt whiskies that you simply cannot create by any other means than a long, sedate languish in good quality – but not overtly – active oak casks in a cool, dark, evenly temperate warehouse. No amount of wood trickery will get you the true complexity of proper, interactive maturity. And maturity itself – real maturity – should be defined by complexity and balance – not by ‘smoothness’ or the masking of youthful aggression by vanilla-laden fresh American oak.
The furore around age statements is a modern muddle in whisky. Companies sold great old malt whiskies for cheap, when stocks were good and demand comparatively low, in the 1990s and earlier decades. They happily slapped age statements and vintages on their whiskies – young and old alike. The modern gripe around NAS whiskies has arisen because the big companies see it as a way around the negative commercial perception of younger whiskies. In the 1980s and earlier it was common to see 5 and 8 year old single malts. The big companies don’t see this model as commercially viable for the vastly increased malt whisky consumer base of today though; they just don’t believe enough of us will swallow it. There may be some truth to this, certainly if their research suggests, so you can understand their pickle of a situation with stocks of older single malts far scarcer or more ‘squeezed’ than they were even ten years ago. Although it is a pickle they helped create for themselves, by, for decades extolling the virtue of ‘well aged’ whisky in word and deed. Add to this the more cynical modern practice of using NAS as a means to sell greater quantities of youthful liquid for higher prices, and it’s not hard to see why all the griping exists.
Of course NAS whiskies have been around since whisky was first bottled on a commercial scale in the 19th century. You could find NAS proprietary single malts throughout the 20th century but they were always seen as the ‘house style’ statement bottling and were often the cheapest. Many were also very good whiskies, and even today there are plenty of good NAS drams about. But the more ideological purpose behind them, to make us believe that age is ‘just a number’ is what irks me. Age is not just a number – age is time and information and the core of every whisky’s story.
Diageo did a widely publicised tasting a couple of years ago using cask samples to demonstrate the wild variances and inconsistencies with the established wisdom of how whisky behaves at certain ages. Of course you can do that when you have a cask inventory running into the millions – you could probably prove anything you wanted with that approach. This is exemplary of what the modern industry would have us believe though – that age is ‘just a number’. It bypasses the most interesting thing about knowing the age of a whisky though. If a whisky is made in a very modern fashion and is wood ‘forward’, the age gives us insight into why, and how, it tastes the way it does. Similarly if a whisky is made in a more distillate driven, traditional fashion then knowing age lends further clarity to understanding it. Irrespective of whether the whisky tastes remarkably mature at 5 years of age or surprisingly youthful at 15, that knowledge is a powerful way to understand and gain more pleasure from the liquid. There is undoubtedly fun and skill and greatness to be had in skillfully marrying multiple whiskies of varying ages, but I would still like to know more about what goes into the bottle. This is where the debate moves over to transparency laws and the SWA regulations – not something I have room to get into here.
Age makes whisky fascinating and there is more pleasure to be derived from a great tasting whisky by understanding why it tastes so good. Age is a huge part of that understanding. It is not, and should never really be, a question of whether whisky is better when young or when old – whisky can be incredible at all ages and we need that broad spectrum of age to give whisky its great variety. The real folly is to discount ageing and maturation itself as the essential, informative and underpinning part of every whisky’s identity and story that it is.
Until next time.
Angus Macraild is an independent writer and expert on whisky. He appears occasionally at Whisky Lounge events and writes prodigiously for several publications, including a certain whisky washing implement. As always, his views are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of everyone at The Whisky Lounge…