Thursday, 7 February 2013

What's in an age?

I've not long started working for The Whisky Shop. I don't consider myself an expert in whisky; while I do have qualifications in wines and spirits through the Wine and Spirit Education Trust, wine is the dominant part of the syllabuses and whisky is only a part of the spirits components. Much of what I have learnt about whisky prior to working in the Whisky Shop is through working in wine retail, reading around and, of course, drinking it! So my new line of work is very much a continuation of that learning process, and it's one reason I enjoy it; I get to learn every day.

A gentleman came in a while ago asking about Jura Superstition. It's a whisky that's obviously highly regarded by Whisky Shop customers, having just won the whisky of the year award, but because it didn't carry an age statement he had his doubts. I offered a sample but it was a bit early and he declined, and so the 'proof of the pudding' adage couldn't be applied.

In that gentleman's opinion the age statement on a whisky is a vital thing. Even as a fan of Jura he wasn't prepared to buy a version that didn't carry that all important statement. This raises an interesting question about whisky in general, but to use a specific example; does a heavily peated whisky such as Ardbeg need to be ten years old before becoming a fantastic drop? Well, if a scientific sample of the rate of how quickly a bottle of their Still Young got drank round at my house a few years back is anything to go by, then it's a resounding no! It's a whisky that's all about the peat, and I would argue that a much older version, while being more expensive, may well lose that freshness and vitality that makes Ardbeg the purest expression of what Islay is all about. However, an expression that could mix that freshness with older cask character? Well, that would be a different animal indeed.

As was pointed out in a comment after a post I wrote back in October about blended whiskies, even single malts are blended, even if they're not referred to as 'blended whiskies' per se. It's becoming conventional wisdom that whiskies can be great at younger ages than ever before, and so it follows that younger whiskies can contribute an important character and complexity to a single malt. The flip side, and this is why it's interesting that sherry barrel advocates Macallan have come out and rejected age statements in their younger (below 18 yo) whiskies, is that if much of the whisky's character does come from the cask, then that point of maturity becomes crucial, because I sure as hell don't want my whisky to have 'character' that comes from caramel colouring.

The problem is one of reassurance. How can consumers be convinced that age statements aren't being removed as a short-cut, a way of getting the same money out of a customer whilst reducing costs? Well, I'd say take the time to pop into your friendly local whisky specialist and they'll let you try some to prove it one way or the other, and I'm not even going to attempt to claim a lack of bias with that one.

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