A lineup of whiskies with different age statements.

The Age of Whisky

One of the many things we love about our dram is the sense of time it can give us. Whisky is a drink that can help you be in the moment; you just sit down and take your time with it. I don’t drink whisky to get a buzz going. I drink it to appreciate the world of smells and flavours it has to offer. Those sensations tell a story, a story with a lot of history. But in this article we’re not gonna talk about the history of whisky, but about its age. Note that this means the years it spend in the barrel, whisky stops aging the minute you put it in a bottle, a 12 year old whisky from 1959 is still a 12 year old whisky today.

What is an age statement?

Let’s start off with the most basic explanation of age statements. The age stated on the bottle is that of the youngest whisky in the blend.

Now many of you may already know this, but almost all whisky is in fact blended. Single Malt whisky is (most often) a blend of only malt whiskies, all from the same distillery. The exceptions are known as “Single Barrel” or “Single Cask” releases. Blended Whisky (for example like many of the Johnnie Walker offerings) is different from single malt. It’s made with whiskies from different distilleries that are often blended with grain whiskies.

The age statement says nothing about the oldest whisky in the blend. There might very well be a much older barrel in the mix though. The master distiller might put a 30-year-old whisky in the blend of an 18-year-old, to get the desired flavour profile. This (in most cases) will remain a mystery though, and let’s be honest… that just adds to the fun of it all.

What age says about the quality of your dram

Age statements first came to life as an indicator of quality, crudely said as just another marketing trick. But even though age most definitely influences the characteristics of a whisky, it certainly does not mean that age is a standard for quality. What it does always offer though, is a certain exclusivity (because of its higher rarity and price point).

Each year spent in the barrel adds more complexity to the whisky. And thus, older whiskies are often experienced as a higher quality dram. The whisky has simply had more time to pull flavours from the barrel, flavours that with less age in the barrel never would have made it into your glass. You can argue that complexity is not necessarily the same as quality, but I think in the end it is something we look for when we define quality and thus (in our minds) there’s a certain synonymity between the two.

Note that it all has to do with what you’re looking for though. It vastly depends on your own personal preferences. A great example is smoky Islay’s. If you’re looking for an absolute “peat bomb” you’ll usually have to look at some of the “younger” offerings. Take for example one of the most famous “peat bombs” out there, the Octomore. Some of their offerings only have an age statement of three years. And there’s a good reason for this; age mellows the peat and settles it more and more in the background each year. If you find yourself hankering for a “peat bomb”, like an Octomore, a higher age statement might not be what you’re looking for.

What drives up the price

So, why are age statement whiskies almost always more expensive the older they are? That’s firstly because of the higher cost of making a high age statement whisky, and secondly because demand is lower (most people can’t afford it after all). Less demand means the distillery will make less of it, which makes the whisky rarer. And that rarity will further drive up the price… But keep in mind that rarity and the price of a whisky, will not necessarily tell you much about its quality.

So… what are NAS statements?

You may also have noticed that there’s a lot of offerings that don’t state the age of the whisky at all. These are what we call No Age Statement whiskies, or NAS for short. NAS whiskies are a great example of the downside of having age statements on a whisky. You can have an absolute banger of a whisky, but if it’s only six years old the distillery most likely won’t put it on the bottle because people will assume it’s of inferior quality. Or let’s say for example that a distillery has an amazing set of 30-year-old casks, but they find out that adding a few drops of a 6-year-old whisky brings out the flavours much better… it would then mean they could only market it as a 6-year-old and then (most) people wouldn’t be willing to pay the price it’s worth.

More often though, it’s also the case that distilleries (especially the Japanese) run out of older whiskies because of the rising popularity. They might still be able to create roughly similar flavour profiles, but they must achieve it by blending with younger whiskies. Because of the negative image of younger whiskies, instead of dropping the age statement down, they decide to drop the age statement all together.

Does all whisky age the same?

What age tells you about a whisky is also largely dependant on where it’s from. The (relative) cold climate of Scotland for example, is very suited to ageing whiskies for a very long time. But a Single Malt made in Texas will become overaged very fast. Higher temperatures (and especially temperature swings) pull flavours out of the barrel at a much higher rate. So, theoretically a 6-year-old Texas Malt might be the equivalent of an 18-year-old Scotch. Note that this is just a random made-up example though. Of course, there are many other flavour differences when it comes down to the climate a whisky was aged in. But I do think it’s a good example of how age is relevant to location.

So, in conclusion. What does age say about a whisky?

  • Time spend in the barrel adds to a whisky’s complexity and price, not its quality.
  • Age statements limit how old the “youngest” whisky in the blend can be, this can be a good thing (quality control) but also a bad thing, because it limits the arsenal of barrels a blender can choose from.
  • And lastly, age statements are different for each place of origin. How complex a whisky gets with age depends on the climate its aged in.

My advice would be to not choose a whisky by its age alone, but by its character. And when it comes down to that, some might have clear preferences and others (like me) just like to change things up day by day. In the end it all comes down to what you prefer, and when it comes to enjoying whisky what you prefer is all that matters anyway.

Dramble on!

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