It is a widely held, but erroneous, belief that when it comes to wood-aged spirits such as brandy and whisky, age is automatically a good thing.
Each cask of whisky—for whisky is what this article is concerned with, though the general principle applies across the category—is unique. And as it ages it becomes even more distinct from a similar cask filled with the same whisky stored in the same cellar. Small variations in the makeup of the barrel, and a temperature difference of as little as one or two degrees from one part of the cellar to another, have a surprisingly powerful effect over time.
As Bill Lumsden, head of whisky distilling and creation at Glenmorangie in Ross-shire, Scotland, observes, "When we do a vatting [blending] for Glenmorangie 25 Years Old, it's trickier than a vatting of the 10 Years Old because there is a lot more variation in the casks of that age." Glenmorangie is owned by French luxury products conglomerate, Moët-Hennessy Louis Vuitton (LVMH).
The Delicate Balance of Aging
So time does not treat all barrels equally, nor is it universally beneficial—at a certain point the whisky in a particular cask will reach its optimum maturity and from then on it will decline, loosing freshness and vigor. It becomes tired.
And this happens at a surprisingly young age—for a majority of casks, the maximum is 8 to 12 years, and only a small percentage of whiskies are capable of, and benefit from, longer aging. According to Evan Cattanach, master distiller emeritus at Diageo (DEO), at 10 years approximately 60% of whisky casks will have reached their optimum age, and only the remaining 40% will benefit from remaining longer in the barrel.
Lumsden is even more emphatic. "Some of the old whiskies that I have tried have been really outstanding, but an equal number have just left me completely cold. I think 'what a shame, that should have been bottled much earlier.' "
A New Interest in the Older Generation
In the past, the successful older casks happened almost by accident—they didn't fit the flavor profile the master blender was looking for so they got passed over, or were mistakenly dropped from the inventory list, or were simply hidden behind a large pillar in a dark corner of the cellar—and the distilleries really didn't know what to do with them. But not any more.
These days, as the palates of U.S. and European fans of single malts become more sophisticated, there is increasing demand for these special, rare, and often unusual tasting whiskies. And the distilleries are racing to take advantage of this growing market by releasing dozens of new bottlings a year.
Figures from the Distilled Spirits Council of the U.S. confirm this growth. While sales of "value" and "premium" scotch fell from 2005 to 2006 by 6% and 1% respectively, sales of "super premium"—that's single malts and luxury blends—rose 14% by volume, and 15% by revenue to $134 million.
Whiskies to Build a Night Around
The DISCUS figures don't separate out single malts and luxury blends, but according to Ronnie Cox, director of Glenrothes, a distillery in Scotland's Speyside region, in the European and U.S. markets it's the single malts that are driving sales. In Asia however, where status is a large component of the purchasing decision and the consumer is less familiar with these strange tasting, and even more strange sounding, single malts, it's the luxury blends that are growing fastest.
For this article I rounded up a wide selection of new offerings that have appeared this year and chose a diverse 10 of the most interesting, flavorful, and unusual for the accompanying slide show.
These are all subtle, deeply complex whiskies that will reward quiet contemplation. They are whiskies to savor, perhaps alone, perhaps with an appreciative companion, in a comfortable chair beside a log fire on a long winter evening, for they are among the very best whiskies Scotland has ever produced.
Click here to see ten of the best new whiskies on the market