Old Whisky better Than Young?

The eternal question: Is older aged whisky better than younger whisky? For a long time I have heard people say that older whisky is better than younger whisky.

An interesting statement, but is it true?

We see all sorts of ages on whisky these days, 10 year, 12 year, 15, 18, 25, even up to 50 year olds, and don’t forget NAS (No Age Statement). The truth is that whisky is allowed to be sold at a mere 3 years old.

So why don’t you see any?

There is a general consensus that consumers prefer dark, aged whiskies and assume that the higher the number on the label means higher quality. Generally speaking this is a half-truth; older whisky costs more for whisky distilleries to produce and are considerably more expensive as a result.  However, I will address the question of whether this means that older whisky (18+ years) is actually better tasting than younger (3-15 years) whisky. This is a purely opinionated question – it depends on the drinker.

However, there are a few facts that can looked into.

New make spirit (un-aged Whisky if you like) goes into a wooden cask and then is left there for a Minimum of 3 years and 1 day to mature. Whisky can be left for any number of years, there is however a limit, as whisky sits in a cask the temperature of the air in the surrounding warehouse leads to the evaporation of the spirit within the cask.

This is a good thing. It is simply allowing the cask to ‘breath’ and the heat allows the wood to impart its unique character to the whisky, increasing flavour. It is approximated that something like 70 percent of whisky flavour and character comes from the wood that it’s stored in.

This evaporation can account for up to 2 – 4 percent of the whisky being lost a year (in the UK) so the amount of whisky in a cask gradually decreases over time, which means that a 250 litre cask, a hogshead, will lose a considerable amount of whisky over 10 years. Also, the longer you leave the cask in the warehouse the more likely it is to be damaged or prone to bursting.

It is quite common for whisky casks to burst or break, ‘wood can be temperamental’ as one cooper told me. The temperature and various environmental conditions can sometimes put strain on the cask, pressure is also exerted on the wood when it’s full of highly alcoholic substances; and this causes it to sometimes burst or leak.  All this means that older whisky results in higher risk and loss – if you were to leave a whisky for more than 50 years you would end up with most of the whisky evaporating away; which is why you don’t see many over that age. I don’t know about you, but 10 years seems like a while to wait for a dram of whisky.

So now we know that older whisky is rarer, but is it tastier or more refined?

Not necessarily. Whisky, when kept in either bourbon or sherry casks, absorbs a large amount of influence from the wood – sometimes too much.

First fill sherry casks are used all over the whisky industry, notably Macallan. First fill means that when they first receive the cask it has previously been used for sherry, however, the influence of the sherry can be too strong and mask the overall character of the new make spirit, which was carefully crafted at the distillation stage. So distillers generally prefer the use of second fill casks, as now the influence of the sherry isn’t overpowering and allows for a more balanced flavour to the whisky.

This effect can also be had when leaving whisky in a cask for a long time – if your whisky has been stuck in a cask for two, three, or even five decades, you’ll be sure that it has been heavily influenced by that wood. This leads to an interesting result.

Whisky making is a delicate process, it takes a lot of skill and effort to craft whisky, and like all things balance usually results in success – too much of something can ruin the end product.

This means that younger whisky aged for 10 or 12 years have imparted an excellent amount of flavour but retained its original identity derived from the distillation process. Whereas a 30-40 year old may be overpowered by the influence of the wood.

Another factor to take into account is the fact the all single malt whisky is technically blended – remember that single malt is whisky produced at a single distillery from malted barley.

The Master Blender takes whisky that has been aged from a variety of casks: 10, 15, 20 years and then blends them together to create the perfect flavour for that single malt, the age statement is merely telling you the youngest whisky that is in that bottle.

Which means your 10 year old whisky probably has a 20 year old in there somewhere. In fact the main purpose of producing different age statements is more about supply and to produce different flavours/expressions of whisky.

So next time you see a young malt, just remember; it’s wise beyond its years….

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