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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….

IMPORTANT: Restocking your collection

Just picture yourself on a Friday evening. You’ve come home from a long day’s work, and you decide to start the off the weekend with some quiet contemplation; accompanied by a measure of civilized hooch. You stroll over to your dedicated whisky vault, (which I sincerely recommend you keep well hidden) and to your horror you find your precious stock has run dry. How did this happen, you ask yourself.

Maybe you were gifted a single malt by some relatives, and hadn’t realised its diminishing qualities over the last few months. Or perhaps you simply had some friends around and one of your mates discovered the location of whisky utopia?

Whatever the cause may be: I am here to help guide you to renewing your stock for the year, with extra tips on what to look out for when purchasing new whiskies.

 

  • Start off with something new

Before restocking or even starting your first collection, consider trying something new. I recommend that you try a whisky from a country you’ve never been to before. Different countries around the world have developed their own whisky producing industries over the last century and many have their own quirks and styles. An iconic example of this would be Japan which started off mimicking the experienced Scottish whisky industry, and then around the end of the 1940s they had developed their own unique style and methods of drinking whisky. However there are many, less obvious places you can find a good dram.

I personally recommend you try Mackmyra, which is a Swedish whisky. There’s two things that stand out about this whisky; a large amount of the casks used for maturation are made from Swedish oak and the ingredients are all locally sourced with no added colouring. The whisky tastes different from other whiskies I’ve tried, it’s smooth, easily drinkable and the taste reminds me of alpine forests. They have a lot of different versions of Mackmyra, so to avoid the confusion I suggest Mackmyra Brukswhisky with a price tag of £40. Also if you’re interested they recently released a limited 10 year bottling this year. (They only started producing the spirit in 2002)

 

 

  • Diversity

I find there are two types of whiskies. Whiskies for yourself and whiskies for sharing. Obviously both can be shared, it’s just some whiskies seem less appropriate for sharing. Think about it, your partner or significant other comes home one day and suddenly decides that they are up for trying whisky and have never tried it before, or its Christmas and your aged 20 something relative wants to try whisky for the first time. And you are their guardian into the world of whisky, however you’re not going to just pour out a 50 year old Macallan and expect them to appreciate it? Letting someone try whisky for the first time is like teaching an apprentice, you cannot simply tell them all the secrets of the trade straight away. You must ease them into it. So that they may become wise – just like us.

For this task diversifying your whisky stock is crucial. I recommend including a blend, such as a Whyte & Mackay triple matured. This is ideal for introducing people to whisky and at under £20 very reasonably priced indeed, the flavours are an excellent representation of a good quality blend.

I would also include a well-aged single malt, such as Aberlour 12 year old, an excellent representation of a Speyside single malt, a full bodied whisky with a hint of orange.

And most importantly; remember to demonstrate to them how to appreciate whisky properly – in moderation.

 

  • Shopping around (UK retail)

If you walk into an average supermarket in the UK you will find a decent range of scotch on the shelves, another thing you will find is some pretty decent discounts. In the whisky industry, demand can be tricky to predict, this sometimes results in the price of some whisky going down. I have seen pretty much every whisky on the supermarket shelves be discounted at some point. There are some excellent deals to be had; if you live in the north of England Booths has a more extensive range of whisky than most supermarkets and more often than not, discounts.

I would also check out Aldi which has a very interesting range of their own branded whisky and gin, both of which have won awards trumping the more expensive brands. Check out their Highland Black 8 year Scotch whisky, many are calling it one of the best budget whiskies at only £12.95.

If you are looking for something you have never tried before and would like to sample what you are buying I recommend going to a local spirit/whisky specialist if you have one. Occasionally they allow you to try before you buy– if you are unsure just ask.

And of course my personal favourite option, go straight to the distiller themselves. Most whisky distilleries offer guided tours these days, and offer whisky at the end of the tour – this allows you to properly learn about what you’re buying and how the distillery operates. Unfortunately you are limited to Scotland for most distilleries in the UK, however there are a few English distilleries and a couple of Welsh if you are living south of the border. I can recommend the Lakes Distillery located in the heart of the Lake District, a tip top guided tour is available. Penderyn Distillery in South Wales located in the Brecon Beacons is another brilliant distillery. Sometimes you get a discount on their products with your tour ticket.

So; try something new, diversify your collection and shop around. These are my recommendations –let me know what kind of whiskies you have included in your collection!

Buying Whisky Casks

Interested in buying yourself a barrel of whisky?

Well we are not the only ones, there are many opportunities worth exploring in the world of whisky. Just this year in February it was reported that single malt scotch exports topped 1 billion pounds. So the whisky industry is undoubtedly growing, we see here in the UK several new distilleries opening up, and along with them new opportunities. Here I will talk about things to take into account when buying casks and give you a heads up on a distillery that is selling casks.

Where to find them?

New Distilleries. When a distillery first starts up, they need capital. In order to raise funds some distilleries decide to sell raw whisky (new spirit) in the cask to individuals. The idea is that it’s an investment for the buyer, as after the distillery has established its self and becomes more popular, demand for their whisky becomes higher – making your cask of whisky more valuable; you could then sell this and make a healthy profit.

So whats the catch…

Not everyone who buys a cask understands how it works. When you buy a cask you are buying new spirit that has been put into a wooden barrel. Now for it to become whisky it needs to be in the cask for at least 3 years and 1 day, however this doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s going to be palatable or ready in 3 years. Usually 10 years is about right, so this is a long term investment.

The problem is that after 10 years you lose a large amount of your precious whisky. In order for your new spirit to become whisky it needs to mature and this requires some heat, however this also results in evaporation. In order to reduce this evaporation the cask is stored in a cool warehouse, however you still lose a decent amount – in the UK a cask can usually lose approximately 2 – 4 p/c a year; leave this for 10 years and you see what’s happening? In 10 years you could lose up to 40 percent of your whisky.

So here is an example of a distillery that has casks for sale:

Annandale Distillery

There are two different casks to choose from: a first fill Bourbon Barrel or a second fill Bourbon barrel, both have the option of being peated or un peated spirit: and a price tag of £2100 Unpeated or £2300 Peated (which includes insurance and the ten-year storage of your 200 Litre cask). Sounds good! However you might ask yourself how much whisky will you have left after 10 years and what will it be worth?

If we assume that the casks will lose 4 p/c a year then after 10 years you will have approximately 120 litres of 10 year malt whisky for just over £2K. This equates to something like 170 bottles of 10 year Single Malt and each bottle will have cost you approximately £12.

£12 for a bottle of good single malt is not bad, however you need to take into account that what isn’t included in the price of your cask is bottling fees, and this can cost a lot of money – in fact I know of numerous cases where individuals have bought casks and not realised how high the bottling costs were, when it came to the bottling they had to sell their casks.

So overall it depends on what you’re wanting it for, if you want to buy a cask, wait the 10 years and have a nearly infinite supply of whisky then great, if you want it for investment purposes you might have to shop around and find an affordable way of bottling and transporting it.

My recommendation is that you read all the small print when buying a cask, and that you make sure you have a plan for when the big day arrives when your cask is ready.

You could always just roll the cask home I suppose….

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