Sometimes there are coincidences that are just a perfect match. A few days ago it struck me that there is one very basic whisky myth which I have not tackled yet: the notion that age and quality of a whisky are going hand in hand. And just as I sat down to write about this, Pernod Ricard tweeted the annoucment of a followup to last year’s Age Matters campain, this time titled: Great Things Take Time.
Especially beginning or casual whisky drinkers tend to draw a 1:1 correlation between age and expected quality of a whisky. After all, older whisky generally is more expensive than young one. But is this really true?
What Happens During Aging?
Apart from the inevitable loss though evaporation – called the angels’ share – there are three separate processes going on when whisky matures in a cask. Firstly there is interaction with the air, resulting in oxidation of aromatic components in the whisky which evidently also affects its taste. Then the components can react with each other, for example alcohols and acids may combine to aromatic esters. And thirdly, the whisky interacts with the cask, extracting flavours from the wood as well as remnants of the previous cask filling.
There is a consensus that the first two interactions have no detrimental effects with age, oxidation can only become a problem in almost empty open bottles when the ratio between air and whisky becomes too high.
With wood interaction things are not quite as straightforward. Apart from the previous filling, cask wood can contribute lots of interesting aromas like vanilla, caramel, lemon and spices. But wood also contains tannins, chemical susbstances that give an adstringent mouthfeel and add bitterness. As all casks are different, the gradual release of tannins may or may not turn into a problem at higher maturation ages. Some 40 of 50 year old whiskies hardly show any traces of them, but there are some oldies out there that give you the impression of chewing on a piece of wood.
Better, Worse, Or Just Different?
All that can be said with certainty is that aging changes a whisky. If it becomes better or worse with age or just displays a different character is always a matter of personal taste. This is a reason why blind tasting can be very insightful as it does not take care of any preconceptions you may have. There are some very young whiskies of an exceptional quality, and there are old ones who let you feel that they should have been bottled a few years younger.
Of course the correlation between age and quality is not entirely erratic. Generally, the added richness caused by aging tends to be favourable for whisky, but one has to look at this in a very differentiated way. Even when looking at different expressions of an age statement range of a single brand – no matter if blend or single malt – it is not an automatism that the older ones should be the better ones. A very important reason for this is that more often than not, the different expressions are using different blending recipes like a different ratio of sherry to bourbon casks, or some may even have a wine finish. So the effect of age often intermingles with factors that are a matter of personal taste.
In the end, the truth is in the glass.
A Few Thoughts About The Age Matters Campaign
Yes, age does matter, no question about that, this should have become obvious by now. But even if the Older Is Better is not stated explicitely here, the subliminal message goes into this direction. It would be naive to think this campaign is solely educational. It also is a marketing effort to justify prices for older whisky that at times seem just not fair.
Age statements are a good thing to have, I certainly would not want to miss them. Apart from giving you information about a most fundamental property of whisky, an age statement does carry the message that whisky production is not a rush job, that it takes passion and time to make. But this does not mean that there aren’t any great whiskies out there that don’t have an age statement. And, finally, whatever age statement your bottle carries, it is no guarantee at all that you will like the whisky inside.