Wednesday, 9 May 2012

Never too old?

When I first became interested in drinking whisky properly – tasting it, as opposed to putting cola in (for shame!), I tried to determine a few principles that would see me right. The most obvious thing was to start drinking Single Malt whisky and move away from cheap blends. This generally holds true.

The next thing for a Whisky newbie to hook onto was age. It’s seemed clear from the shop shelves that a standard single malt bottling from a distillery was around 10 or 12 years old. Therefore the obvious conclusion to draw is that whilst the liquid need only(!) be 3 years old to be called whisky it has to be at least 10 to be considered any good.
And from that it must surely also follow that the older a whisky is, the better it is. You know – like wine (sort of). Certainly that’s reflected in the price, an 18yo can be nearly twice the price of a 10/12yo. With an almost exponential curve upwards the older they get – browse any whisky shop or website and try and find a cheap 40 year old.
It makes sense – older whisky takes longer to produce, the cost of making it is higher and this is reflected in the price. As for the taste, when I’ve been lucky enough to try them, older whiskies have generally been smoother and more complex than younger whiskies. The Highland Park 18yo is a thing of beauty in comparison to its (excellent) younger sibling.

So that was easy. Old = good.

But - as you may have guessed from the fact you’re only halfway through this blog post – there’s so much more to it than that. At both ends of the timeline.
The first revelation I had a few years ago was that whisky can spend too long in a barrel – there is such as thing as too old and it doesn't necessarily follow that keeping the stuff in a barrel means it keeps getting better and better (and better). The basic reason for this is that if it stays too long in the barrel the whisky takes on too much ‘woody’ character from the barrel, to the extent that it could end up quite flat and dull. So whisky needs to be freed at the right time.
And not all barrels are created equally. They do not all flavour and colour the whisky at a uniform rate. So what ends up being 25yo whisky is most likely something that didn’t taste right after 12 years (or even 18) - or it was judged to have more potential if it stayed where it was for a few more years. It wasn't just any old barrel that they left to mature for longer than the others.
Old whiskies are almost like ugly ducklings – not good enough to be bottled at the same time as everyone else but in the long-term even better for having to wait.

Even with standard 10 year old bottling - the age on the front of the bottle is only the age of the youngest whisky in there (a legal stipulation). So a 12yo might have whisky that’s 13yo or 16yo or whatever age it was when it was deemed right to come out.
So my original idea that whisky has to be 10 years old kind of holds true but it’s more complicated than that. Whisky isn’t simply bottled the minute it hits its 10th birthday, it's far less exacting. And older whisky is generally better but it’s not a simple process of waiting for anything to turn into great whisky.
What a fascinating liquid to enjoy.
Still surely my 10 year old rule holds true? – I’ll explore this in the next post…

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