Older and better?

Older and better?

In this issue we decided to focus on the increasing number of premium aged whiskies that are being released and how they are viewed by the drinking public. Who better to give us the answer than Whisky Magazine's online community at www.whiskymag.com

People | 18 Jan 2008 | Issue 69 | By Rob Allanson

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With the rise in interesting premium aged whiskies, is older necessarily better?MATTHEW: If I learned one thing at Whisky Live Glasgow, it is that older and more expensive does not always indicate better.I am referring specifically to one recently released bottling.At £950 a pop, I was looking forward to this immensely. This should be the finest Scotch I had ever taken. Buckets of sherry, great colour and nose, rich taste, but hang on? What’s going on here? Somebody has taken my lovely whisky and stuffed a load of wood shavings in it. Truly unpleasant.In my opinion the length of time in wood had completely killed whatever qualities the whisky might have had. If you want something to taste like this, but are worried that it might break the bank, you can save yourself the money and suck a pencil instead.JONATHAN: True, older is not necessarily better, just like a higher price doesn’t necessarily mean the whisky is great, or will be to your liking. What makes up the price of a whisky is brought about by many various factors, and not just because people might be willing to spend more on an aged whisky, but also a limited supply of that whisky. This doesn’t mean the whisky is better than a younger expression from that same distillery, there are just fewer bottles to go around for example, but perhaps it’s not good enough and shouldn’t go around at all. Some people don’t care for aged whiskies, and are willing to spend more on younger expressions. It truly depends on the individual’s taste, budget, and mood. And as mentioned, too much time in the cask might overpower the more subtle or likeable characteristics of a whisky for an individual drinker.JOSEPH: The answer to this question will be very subjective.Most likely it will not be dependent on the whisky’s age or price. Enjoyment of whisky is about flavour and aroma.If I were to mix a batch of whisky and put this in five separate but identical barrels and age them differently, say 12, 15, 18, 25 and 30 years, five different whiskies would be bottled. To some the younger batch would be their favourite, to others the oldest and the three in between would have their supporters too. Each aroma and taste would appeal to every person tasting them differently. So I would say no, older is not always better, at least from a tasting standpoint.WILLIE: Yes I agree, this is a trick question. It’s easy to assume that what is meant by older is something over, say, 20 years. If we ask the question; is whisky at 20 plus better than something less than 20, then the only sensible answer is: it could be, but not necessarily.But, we have to remember that we can call it whisky at three years of age. If we ask the question; is a 10 year old whisky better than a three year old, then the answer would be, almost certainly.Really young whiskies can be great but they are wild beasts (the Kilkerran for instance) that can really only be enjoyed by those that know what to expect.Even then there are times when they challenge the drinker. The path to maturity has (thankfully) been shown to us recently with the new Ardbeg. I know that some die hard fans will contend this, but the Almost There has definitely had some of the rough edges that were shown in the Very Young smoothed out by an extra few years in the cask. It doesn’t mean it is better for everyone, just better for most and I think that’s all you can say.At the other end of the scale, whiskies more than 20 years old can start to succumb to the wood influence. We are exposed to many great bottlings of older ages, but there are as many that have simply become ‘woody’, like a Ladyburn I tried a while ago.In short, whisky generally improves with age up to a point.Where the point is depends on the whisky. Lighter whiskies like Lowlanders will, arguably, mature earlier than heavily peated whiskies. After that point the effects of age become much less certain. We are at the mercy of the huge number of factors that will influence casks during the course of their life.When it goes well though, the aging process can give us some of the best whiskies ever.KENNETH: It depends, I suppose, on what the definition of older whisky is. Eighteen years in a barrel seems pretty old to most folk given the comparative speed with which the base spirit can be produced. No doubt distillers would welcome a cost effective method of maturing Scotch whisky to consumer standard within the three year statutory period to get it out there and providing revenue for the distillery.So, is older, more expensive whisky better? I would suggest that it probably is.Distillers will not risk their reputation and that of the distillery by putting out a poor product. The high cost probably reflects its true value taking into account production costs against the reduced amount of whisky left in the cask after the angels have had their share.Will we see whiskies more than 30 years old in the future?Probably not. It is simply not cost effective to mature whisky for that long given the financial returns.The aged whisky we are seeing now is a result of over production some years ago.Currently distillers can hardly keep pace with increased demand let alone leave whisky sitting as long as it has in the past.
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