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Patience vs. Cash Flow – When Maturation Becomes A Necessary Evil

by Oliver Klimek on October 3, 2012

A standard bottling of Scotch single malt whisky today is normally 10 or 12 years old, ages go up to 30 and in rare cases even higher. Bourbon is bottled younger because maturation is faster in the hotter climate of the American South, a rough estimate is that it happens at about twice as fast.

Many whisky companies have been around for decades, if not centuries. They have a lot of experience, and they know that before a certain age has been reached, a whisky does not live up to its potential. Why isn’t there a Glenlivet 6 or a Bowmore 5? They simply would not be good enough. Such a whisky may be okay for use in a cheap blend where price is more important than quality, but it would be less than delightful to drink it as it is. There are of course exceptional single casks that can turn new spirit into delicious whisky much quicker than others, but those are a rare breed, and distillers cannot rely on them for their standard bottlings.

Many newcomers on the whisky market just don’t seem to care.

The recent wave of American craft distillers is a good example, but also many European distillers in countries without whisky tradition are trying to find their own way of whisky making. Apart from using non-traditional stills or experimenting with unusual grains, a concept that a lot of these ‘exotic’ whisky makers have in common is to sell their products significantly younger than traditional distillers. Understandable in a way, many of them opened up a new business and they need money to pay their bills, so they try to sell their products as quickly as possible.

Things are a bit different in the US than in Europe, though. American whisky does not have to be matured at all, it has just to wet a cask for an undetermined period of time, but European legislation has agreed on a minimum age of three years until a spirit may be sold as whisky.

Turning to the American market first, I have to admit that my personal experience with US craft whisky is very limited, so I have to trust the opinion of others. On several blogs I have read lots of individial whisky reviews and general thoughts about craft whisky, and the general consensus seems to be that there are indeed some very good ones around, but there also is a lot of sub-par booze sold in this category. Many distillers don’t even bother to age their spirit at all and sell it as White Dog, others try to speed up things by using smaller casks or casks that previously held a strongly flavoured other liquid.

Arguments have been heating up quite a bit in the United States, and the tone has become quite rude at times. While traditional bourbon distillers like Buffalo Trace have dismissed small casks for maturation, Tuthilltown Distillery in collaboration with Scott Spolverino have come to the conclusion that small barrels can indeed be useful – if you accept that wood extraction does not equal maturation.

Tuthilltown obviously take their barrels seriously, and critics are generally pleased with the results. Others just seem to use what’s available or don’t dive too much into the physical and chemical intricacies that govern the process of whisky maturation. When blogger Steve Ury described the products of Lost Spirits as to “show promise but are way too young tasting”, the distiller responded with an infuriated comment essentially accusing the writer of being a shill of the whisky industry destined to crush craft distillers.

Things over here in Europe have not got to this stage yet, fortunately. Maybe it is a mentality thing, maybe the three year minimum is also a factor. But the development has been different in Europe as well. American craft whisky can be seen as an extension to the very popular craft beer movement and as such gets a lot of media attention. European whisky distillers generally fall within two camps: Individuals who managed to turn their personal whisky dream into reality, and distillers of traditional spirits like eau de vie either looking for a way to extend their product range or deciding to fully switch to whisky.

But the results are essentially comparable. There are some pretty good Europen whiskies on the market like Kornog from Brittany or Mackmyra from Sweden to name just two, but many of the distillates make you wonder if they could have used a few more years in the cask, their newmake character is still too prominenent. Since European distillers mainly use standard size casks, aging does take longer, and the European climate is not really benefitial for “speed maturation”. And I honestly wonder if some distillers may have underestimated the patience and determination it takes to produce a fully mature whisky. Often it looks as if becoming the first whisky distiller of your region is a more important goal than becoming the best.

As an interesting side note, the best European whiskies for me turn out to be from distilleries that use Scottish type pot stills, while I have yet to try a European “eau de vie” still whisky that fully convinces me. This is actually quite in line with international distilleries. Indian Amrut and Taiwanese Kavalan use traditional pot stills too and manage produce whisky that is on eye level with Scotch but admittedly they also benefit from the tropical climate in their respective countries.

To conclude, it is definitely possible to produce decent whisky quickly. Kilchoman is a good example for a new Scottish distillery whose three year old whisky already is in ‘enjoyable’ territory. But the earlier you intend to bottle your whisky, the more care you have to take in selecting your casks and monitor their maturation.

I do understand that not every new distillery is in a situation like Daftmill who started distilling in December 2005 and so far have not bottled a single drop because the owner is determined to come up with a mature whisky. To bridge the long maturation gap I think it is better to just sell newmake, gin, vodka or liqueurs instead of bottling whisky too young.

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{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Joshua Feldman October 3, 2012 at 9:32 pm

Word. Nice summation of the issue, Oliver. Bryan’s flame moment with Sku aside, most American craft whiskies are being bottled too young. Only a few succeed in spite of that, in my opinion. In particular I would single out Balcones, particularly the Brimstone, American Malt, and True Blue expressions which come off as mature whisky while being only in the neighborhood of 3 years. There does seem to be a more widespread confusion between wood extraction and maturation. Tons of wood doesn’t make a mature whisky; just an oaky one. There are many many examples of oaky too young whiskies in the American craft distilling scene. I have high hopes, however. People tend to learn as they keep at something and the market will vote with money so the good ones will thrive while the bad ones fade away.

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Mantisking October 5, 2012 at 2:22 am

There is a Bowmore 5. It’s called McClellands Islay.

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Oliver Klimek October 11, 2012 at 9:31 am

There are lots of NAS malts with fantasy names on the market. That’s just my point. The distilleries would not want to put their name and an age statement on the Label of a very young whisky.

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Josh October 6, 2012 at 2:56 am

Nice article! I think good whisky can come out of small casks. In fact, I just a minute ago I reviewed two examples:

http://joshziewhisky.blogspot.com/2012/10/review-56-57-mckenzie-pure-pot-sill.html

I think you need to be careful, though. It’s too easy to let the wood overpower the spirit if you char small casks excessively. Also, if the spirit quality isn’t great, you’re in trouble. The short maturation time of small barrels means you don’t get those interactive reactions that can tame a wild whisky. It’s only adding wood influence (well, mostly). One must tread carefully…

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smsmmns October 11, 2012 at 12:19 pm

Great as always, Oliver. Extraction does not equal maturation. Lose the mysteries of maturation and I think some of the charm of whisky is also lost.

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