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Is Older And More Expensive Whisky Really Better?

by Oliver Klimek on January 15, 2015

One one the most interesting trends in the whisky business lately has been the reversal of the long staying “Older is better” dogma that has been burnt into the collective minds of whisky drinkers for decades by marketing and advertising.

NAS whisky is the way to go these days, and the whisky companies go to great lengths in trying to explain that in fact age is not really that important at all and that making excellent whisky is just a matter of the master blender being able to pick the very best casks from the stock without having to worry about a low age statement thay may put off potential buyers.

Of course we know that truth is hidden somewhere in between. An awful lot as been written about this which I don’t really fancy regurgitating. But is there a way to see at all how the quality of a whisky is correlated to its age? And while we are at it, also to its price?

The closest I have come to solve this riddle is by looking at the results of the recent Malt Maniacs Awards. A substantial number of whiskies have been tasted blind by a panel of nine experienced judges here. This gives us a good chunk of data to chew on. With a bit of spreadsheet magic it is possible to group the results into age and price brackets to see if there are any correlations.

I have used the entire results including those whiskies that did not win a medal. But as the only interest here are averages, the Malt Maniacs policy of not disclosing non-winning entries is not violated.

When it comes to the influence of age, the place of maturation is of course an imortant parameter. Whisky from Taiwan and India for example needs much less time in the cask then Scotch. Since Scotch whisky makes up the bulk of sumbitted bottles, I have restricted the age analysis to these.

The result is indeed quite interesting:

score_age

  • There were a few very young bottles that did exceptionally well. On one hand this proves that young whisky really can be excellent. But of course these whiskies were specially selected because they are so good, and such young bottlings of known age are very far in between. So the results for these exceptional bottlings shold be regarded as what they are – exceptions.
  • The vast majority of Scotch whisky bottlings is ten years or older. And here we can indeed see an upward trend with age, but on average it is really only a couple of points.
  • Very old whiskies are not necessarily better than younger ones. It is not safe to assume that a whisky of 30 or more years just must be magnificent.
  • It should also be noted that the average score of Scotch whiskies in all brackets between 10 to 29 years is below the silver medal level of 85 points. Even though your chances of getting a really good whisky increase with age, it is by far not a given.

The price of whisky has risen enormously in the last few years. So for more and more people it is important to make sure that the money they shell out for a bottle of whisky is well spent. Here are the average scores of all whiskies of the 2014 Malt Maniacs Awards grouped into price brackets. By the way, two thirds of the bottles were priced below €120.

score_price_all

 

  • Again there is an upward trend at the beginning of the price scale, but once more by only a few points.
  • Silver medal level on average is only reached beyond a bottle price of €140.
  • Even very high prices of €200 or more don’t guarantee a cracking dram, some may even be disappointing given the price paid for them.

For the sake of a better comparision with the above age statement chart, here are the results for Scotch whisky only which do not look very different:

score_price_scotch

It would of course also be interesting to look at NAS Scotch whisky only. Here is a chart by price brackets, but the number of sumbitted bottles was not really sufficient for a proper comparison with age statement bottles. But we can see a similar trend as in the other charts.

score_nas

The most important result of this analysis, at least for me, is that neither very old nor very expensive whisky can save you from disappointments. Logically this is also because there is an obvious connection between the age of a whisky and its price. And to put it the other way around: If you are on a budget, then you don’t really need to worry about not being able to afford all those expensive bottles. The whisky you can buy for much less is not much worse and may even be better.

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Barry Bradford January 15, 2015 at 3:54 pm

Hi Oliver,

Nice data and very informative – thanks!
Could I ask on your score vs Age chart, are you comparing like for like, I.e. single cask whiskies bottled in that age bracket or are you also including all of the 10, 12, 18 etc. year old standard expressions which are made from multiple cask marriages/batch produced to a formulaic flavour profile?

Cheers, Barry

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Oliver Klimek January 16, 2015 at 10:34 pm

I will add an age vs. score chart next week when I will have the time to compile it. There is no distinction between single casks and batched whisky here. With regard to the age, it doesn’t really matter anyway. Of course single cask whisky is more expensive than batched but the price analysis really is a bang for the buck issue.

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My Annoying Opinions January 15, 2015 at 8:14 pm

This was more or less the case at the 2013 MMA as well. Of course my analysis (sans graphs) didn’t include the non-medal whiskies as I don’t have access to that information:

http://myannoyingopinions.com/2013/12/03/age-matter-malt-maniacs-awards-2013-edition/

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Jeff January 16, 2015 at 7:33 am

I thank Oliver for crunching the numbers, and, to me, they confirm a few things which Serge showed when he did a similar previous exercise (http://www.maltmaniacs.net/E-pistles/Malt-Maniacs-2010-04-Does-the-age-of-Scotch-whisky-matter.pdf). No surprise in that age, and certainly price, are no guarantee of quality (who, apart from the industry, for its own purposes, said they were?) – yet age maturation is shown to be of general benefit to whisky quality (again, no surprise; otherwise, why cask whisky?), just that the benefit isn’t in proportion to the price you’re asked to pay for it. Age is no guarantee of quality, yet it is, by and large, certainly a factor at the highest end of quality. Looking at the 87 gold medal winners from 2003 to 2014, I think the breakdown is as follows:

NAS: 5
5-9:0
10-14:1
15-19:6
20-24:12
25-29:9
30-35:20
>35: 34

“NAS whisky is the way to go these days, and the whisky companies go to great lengths in trying to explain that in fact age is not really that important at all and that making excellent whisky is just a matter of the master blender being able to pick the very best casks from the stock without having to worry about a low age statement that may put off potential buyers.” – I think Oliver has his tongue firmly in cheek here, but it is worth pointing out whisky companies only make these arguments with their NAS offerings (no one’s telling you that 25 you’re about to buy isn’t worth the money, or that its age doesn’t matter) and that NAS in general is a paradoxical, and nonsensical, position on age: age matters here, where producers want to discuss it with age statements, but age doesn’t matter there, where producers don’t want to discuss it with NAS, and the difference between the two is just the label (and how much stuff under 10 years producers want to hide behind it). NAS is simply a form of marketing which does nothing for the consumer and which the consumer should refuse by boycott.

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Tom K. January 17, 2015 at 1:36 pm

Very interesting, thanks. I read the first and last charts as good news for NAS. We’re told they are exceptional, and on average they do seem to be, especially if you’re willing to pay for it. To put it another way, if they have to produce NAS, they seem to be doing a decent job of it.

On the other hand, the third plot seems like bad news for people who like to sell, and buy, expensive whiskies. Above 120 Euros, does score even correlate with price at all?

I suspect box plots of these data — showing minimums, maximums, and percentiles — would make the case even stronger that age and price are not good proxies for quality.

A question: Is the average score of 85.5 for NAS in the first chart consistent with average scores all below 84.5 in the last chart?

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Oliver Klimek January 17, 2015 at 1:57 pm

There is no score for NAS in the first chart. Don’t confuse NAS with “under 10 years”. The score is for age statement bottlings that happen to be mostly single cask or small batches.

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Tom K. January 17, 2015 at 6:32 pm

Yikes, sorry for misreading what you’ve very clearly written. So I suppose the only good new for NAS is that the points v. price curve trends upwards for a good bit, and maybe that it’s not be altogether out of family with the curve for all Scotch whisky.

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Jeff January 17, 2015 at 2:38 pm

No whisky “has” to be NAS, as NAS is simply a producer choice not to reveal the minimum age – but it is useful to the industry that they have people mistakenly convinced of its “necessity”. As NAS is only a type of label, not a type of whisky (not even necessarily multi-vintage), no bottle “has” to be NAS any more than Highland Park 18 “has” to be an age statement (and you can “make it NAS” by tearing the label off) – it’s all just information which the consumer should be entitled to know as part of the price of purchase. If age and price are no guarantee of quality, neither are ABV, chill-filtration and natural colour, yet many consumers want to know that information too if they are paying for the bottle – it’s simply no defense for hiding the age.

If NAS labeled-products are in any way exceptional, it’s only in the way that they divert from common sense; they certainly don’t owe their quality to their label – or to fears that low age statements “scare” people away, particularly when one of the major industry arguments for NAS is that consumers don’t need to know the age because many don’t care about it anyway.

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kallaskander January 19, 2015 at 10:36 am

Hi there,

isn’t it telling how the crying and weeping of the whisky industry about clear spirits endangering whisky sales has stopped now that the NAS trend has com upon us they all take part in peddling NAS whisky?

They only wanted our best… our money among other things and it seems they are there and got what they wanted.

Not that the crying was sencere as all of the drinks giants have their fingers into vodka and gin, too.

Greetings
kallaskander

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scott's whisky April 17, 2015 at 8:27 am

Loved your article and the research that has been done on the ages of different whiskies. It’s a tricky thing to pin down the best whisky for the best age. It will also be interesting to see how the whisky industry changes now that we’re seeing less and less age statements on whisky bottles.

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