Whisky’s age is just a number
“Age just tells you how long [a whisky] has been in a cask, not how good it is.”
Dave Broom, whisky writer and expert
At first sight, the title we chose might come across as somewhat ridiculous, but there’s a core truth at the heart of it. Because while we’ve all been conditioned to think older is better, there are many, MANY more variables that go into the making of high-quality whisky. As you’ll find out, it would be a mistake to base any purchase solely on the age of a whisky. Afterall, on our latest whisky festival, our 8 years old Blair Athol and our 21 years old Allt A Bhainne received the same amount of compliments!
Age statement versus no age statement
For years, the whisky industry put a heavy emphasis on age. It was one of their strongest and most convenient marketing tools, and easy to explain to consumers worldwide. After all, if maturation truly has such a profound effect on a whisky’s flavour (as we’ll explore below), it seems only reasonable to assume that older whisky is by and large better. For example, just over a decade ago, a big Scotch whisky company rolled out a campaign called ‘The Age Matters’. Nobody thought twice about it.
Or at least not until a few years later, when that same company then replaced a flagship 12-year-old whisky with a no-age-statement single malt. The decision turned many heads and there might’ve even been an audible gasp or two. It signified a complete 180 for the whisky industry. As far as they were concerned a whisky’s age didn’t really matter anymore; flavour was all whisky drinkers should care about.
A whisky’s age does not equal quality
Not necessarily new insights, but stock shortages were a deciding factor in the birth of the whisky industry’s new creed. The lack of transparency that comes with not putting a whisky’s age on a label can be problematic, which is why we’ll continue to prominently display an age statement on our bottlings. But whisky distilleries weren’t wrong to downplay age statements. Generally speaking, a whisky’s age really is but a number and isn’t a reliable predictor of quality.
Here's one more quote from another prominent industry figure to guide us further:
“100 percent of a whisky’s flavour is influenced by its time in wood.”
Mark Reynier, Founder & CEO, Waterford Distillery
It implies that while maturation in wood is important, there are many other key production details that happen before that. All of them play a role in the quality and style of new make spirit (unaged whisky), which is the foundation upon which the ensuing maturation builds.
Effect of new make spirit on flavour development
Dozens (if not hundreds) of decisions must be made before new make flows from those impressive copper pot stills. Whether it’s to do with the grain variety, peat levels, yeast strain, fermentation length, or flow rate. Each of these can have a profound effect on the style of new make, and whether it is more suited to longer or shorter maturation.
A heavily-peated whisky, such as Caol Ila or Laphroaig, is often already more mature at a younger age, because phenols tend to mask any immaturity. New make from certain other distilleries, like Craigellachie and Mortlach, revel in a sulphurous style. Just by itself, this is not a desirable flavour compound, but longer maturation in wood strips back the sulphur and often reveals fruity notes and a meaty spirit.
The importance of casks and environment
There are infinite factors that come into play during maturation. And each influences the perceived maturity of whisky.
With the rise of world whiskies, the effect of hot climates on maturation has received more attention. Single malts from warm regions in India and Taiwan have shown stunning development in just five or six years. This is due to accelerated interaction between spirit, wood and air. Extraction from the oak, adsorption into the cask and evaporation are all boosted. We’d previously dismiss these whiskies as too young, but they’re chock-full of character, rich and flavourful.
A similar effect can be achieved with creative cask management. A small 125-litre quarter cask has a higher surface-area-to-volume ratio. The spirit inside it will reach peak maturation earlier than the spirit inside a 500-litre butt. And what about the re-usage of casks? A 12-year-old Glenlivet from an active first-fill bourbon cask will taste markedly different than a 12-year-old Glenlivet that has matured in a tired third-fill bourbon cask.
Age matters less than you might think
All this is to explain that age matters less than you might’ve thought previously. It is just a single indicator, but because it is usually the most visible, an unusually high importance is still attached to it. Instead, age is just one ingredient of many, all of which contribute to the quality of whisky. And hopefully by now we’ve made it clear that quality is not necessarily synonymous with a whisky’s age. There’s so much more to it. Hence, why age is just a number.