Blinded By the Truth

August 4, 2014
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Blind tasting whiskies with and without age statements at a Tales of the Cocktail seminar

photo by Keith Allison

photo by Keith Allison

Spend any time in the whisky world, and you achieve certain signs of being a properly matured whisky aficionado. Among these is the understanding that neither price point nor age statement guarantee quality. There are glorious and nightmarish examples of whisky-making up and down the spectrum. Still, even for the seasoned drinker, an age statement can serve as a valuable signpost, or starting point, for setting expectations, especially if you’ve not had a chance to sample the whisky in question. Or at least that was the case before brand after brand started dropping age statements from their labels.

During Diageo’s “The Blind Truth About Whisky Aging” panel at the 2014 Tales of the Cocktail in New Orleans, the question of age versus maturity was put to the (blind taste) test. Part way through the discussion, it occurred to me that, while the panel was educational and the panelists were smart and witty, it was also a panel with an agenda, and that agenda was to make us as writers, as bartenders, as consumers, more accepting of the trend of dropping age statements from whisky bottles.

853-3917talisker57northboxTo support their point, we were guided through a blind tasting of seven whiskies by Diageo’s Ewan Morgan and a panel consisting of Gregor Cattanach, Dr. Nick Morgan, and author David Broom, whose most recent book is the exceptional Whisky: The Manual. With the name, region, and age removed from the whisky, we could assess its characteristics without bias. And as we took our trip through the seven samples, the panel discussed the process of aging whisky, and how age and maturation can be very different things. We were asked as we tasted each whisky to think of it not in terms of how old or where from, but where on a map of flavors and characteristics did it fall, and was that something we wanted to drink?

Also discussed was what the process of maturation brings to a whisky. Or rather, what it brings (wood-derived flavors like vanilla and oak), what it takes away (sulphur and sharp, immature off-notes), and what it changes through interaction with the barrel. A whisky that spends too much time in oak can go rancid or get dominated by the taste of wood, losing any of the character it might have brought with it when it went into the barrel. Too little time? The whisky will come out sharp and overly astringent, raw and unpleasant. Also discussed was the science of rejuvenation of used barrels — shaving off thin millimeters of spent barrels then recharring and refilling them.

In a panel dedicated to furthering the cause of no age statement (NAS) bottlings, the results were not surprising. The two oldest whiskies (a 30yo Cardhu, which tasted like a sludgy oversweet rum and an undisclosed 42yo Speyside from 1966 that one of my fellow tasters, Ellie Tam from NYCWhisky.com compared to “apple-y urine”) were the worst, while my personal favorites ended up being the youngest (a 4yo Dufftown), which reminded me of the coconuty, seaside flavor of Old Pulteney, and one that wasn’t a single malt or a blend, but the NAS Haig Club single grain whisky. Also part of the line-up was the Caol Ila Moch, the Talisker 57 Degrees North, and Johnnie Walker Red.

caol_ila_mochThe panel asked us, given that age statements have really only been a thing for the last 20 years, and given that 75-80% of the whisky on the market already doesn’t have an age statement, why are we so obsessed with having age statements on the bottles. To which, my reply would be, “I learned it from you, dad! I learned it from watching you!” The whisky companies taught us to be this way. It wasn’t consumers who put the ages on bottles then made a big deal about it. Companies bashed us over the head with age statements, older and older and more expensive premium whisky. And now they are trying to convince us that we have always been at war with Eastasia. Age isn’t a guarantee — but it is a sign post. It’s like following a road sign to a destination, only about halfway there they neglect to put up any more signs, leaving you stranded on some strange backroad.

Which leaves consumers in a quandary: is there anything on the label of a bottle of Scotch you can depend on? Even the region, in this age of non-peated Islay malts and smokey Speyside expressions, can’t be depended on for clues. For me, this is not that big a deal. I live in New York, a city that is near the top of the list for every Scotch brand to pay attention to. Between in-store tastings and special events, I have a pretty good chance of tasting what I’m interested in before I buy it. And as a spirits and cocktail writer, I exist on the periphery of the industry, which opens even more opportunities for me to taste before I buy. But a lot of people — actually, probably the vast majority of people — do not have the same opportunities. They are being asked to abandon age, be unsure about region, pay a higher price, and receive fewer guarantees from the brands. At a certain price point, don’t people deserve more information, not less?

As someone who rolls his eyes every time he has to hear “just give me your oldest” during a tasting, I am a man who started out with initial sympathy, or at the worst, antipathy, toward vanishing age statements. True, there are some gorgeous old whiskies out there. Scott’s Selection North of Scotland from 1964 is divine, and I can’t get enough (literally — I cannot get it anymore) of the Invergordon 40yo (incidentally, both of these are single grain whiskies, rather than single malts). No age statement whisky is common in Japan, where many of my favorite malts come from. And my favorite so far of 2014, the recently released Kavalan from Taiwan (3 of their expressions, the Podium, Soloist and Ex-Bourbon cask won gold in the 2013 NY International Spirits Competition) — I couldn’t even tell you without looking up a photo whether it has an age statement, because I just don’t care.

Haig-ClubBut a lot of consumers are miffed about the lack of ages. The brands say it’s because, quite simply, they are running out of whisky due to increased demand in Asia (though with the recent crackdown on luxury goods in China, already impacting Diageo and Moet-Hennessy, this could change), and that adhering to the rules of an age statement means sometimes not being able to a use a whisky even if its already mature. Consumers, on the other hand, see it as being asked to pay more for less information, as a smokescreen for companies to increase profit by selling you younger whisky at a higher price. My guess is that all of those things are probably true, and that in the end, there will be some sort of balancing act (likely in favor of the brands) between age and NAS, and that if bad whisky starts getting slipped in, consumers will react. Whatever the case, one thing is clear: we’re not going back to the way things were twelve, fifteen, eighteen years ago — though we might be going back to the way they were forty or fifty years ago.

“The Blind Truth About Aging Whisky” is exactly the sort of thing I wanted from a Tales seminar. Engaging speakers, a lot of history, and a lively topic with a lot of grist for the discussion mill — oh, and some really great whisky (a couple not so great). It’s a complicated topic and a debate that will be going on for some times, but to me it’s a debate that should be waged in good spirits, and preferably while accompanied by good spirits.

So as not to seem like they were totally clubbing old whisky over the head, we ended on another whisky whose identity was never revealed to us beyond the fact that it was old, it was rare, and it was expensive. And it was fabulous.

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6 Responses to Blinded By the Truth

  1. Bernhard Georg on August 4, 2014 at 12:40 pm

    Excuse me, but in which glasses did you taste the whiskys? Please don’t tell me the ones from the photo were used, because they surely ruin a lot of the subtle notes in aged spirit. They arem’t even fit for bourbon or blends. It’s like tasting wine from coffee cups.

    If they were used, this tasting is completely useless and tells you nothing.

  2. Keith on August 4, 2014 at 1:41 pm

    Hi Bernhard:

    Yes, the tasting was done in those cups — a fact which was acknowledged as not being optimal, though claiming it to be completely useless is a bit dramatic. Most people do not consume whisky is ideal, scientific tasting conditions. Glencairn glasses are basically unheard of outside of the whisky enthusiasts’ circle, and so I do think it’s fair to serve a tasting in something more reflective of the conditions under which the vast majority of people will be consuming a product. This was, after all, a seminar at an event and not meant to be in any way conclusive of authoritative. A whisky can be studied, dissected, contemplated. But that’s not always the case, and I don’t think a seminar at a general purpose event like Tales of the Cocktail would ever be considered a conclusive stamp.

    That said, and following up with a number of comments that have come across on twitter, this is a subject which invites — if not demands — more controlled, more impartial, and more professional. Tasting age statement/NAS versions of the same malt, for example, rather than a survey of multiple whisky labels and types; restricting it to production whisky only (the two examples of old whisky were not consumer bottles, and it’s likely might never have been judged suitable for becoming such). And yes, using glasses designed for serious tasting rather than cups designed to just get a job done at a large seminar.

  3. Jeff Paterson on August 4, 2014 at 3:16 pm

    As Oliver Klimek pointed out in his comparative review of Macallan’s 1824 Gold, Amber and Sienna: “Well, how to put it in a friendly way?… With their new range Macallan has indeed succeeded to make color an indicator for quality. But of course this is because it was designed that way.”

    And we see the same thing here: age might not be any indicator of quality in this Diageo tasting, but it’s a tasting of a stacked deck of whiskies DESIGNED to supposedly prove, through a very specific sample, a very general – and unsubstantiated – point: that age doesn’t matter.

    And why do many whisky drinkers care about age? For two reasons, the first being, as the Alcohol Prof. article points out, that the industry has taught us to:

    “The panel asked us, given that age statements have really only been a thing for the last 20 years, and given that 75-80% of the whisky on the market already doesn’t have an age statement, why are we so obsessed with having age statements on the bottles. To which, my reply would be, “I learned it from you, dad! I learned it from watching you!” The whisky companies taught us to be this way. It wasn’t consumers who put the ages on bottles then made a big deal about it. Companies bashed us over the head with age statements, older and older and more expensive premium whisky. And now they are trying to convince us that we have always been at war with Eastasia.”

    Yes, we got it FIRST from the same industry that, having now sold much of its older whisky, DOES currently want to pull an Orwellian “reality shift” on the subject. How can this be so? The sad reality is that, to the industry, age is just a marketing point to be manipulated to suit its own ends. Either the industry was formerly, and knowingly, lying about the importance of age or it is currently, and knowingly, lying about the importance of age, or the industry has never really known the importance of age but feels comfortable, even in its ignorance, of saying whatever suits its fancy at any given time.

    The second reason that many people care about age is that they know that, all other things being equal, yes, it DOES matter. For all the recent trumpeting of youth, the vast majority of top-rated whiskies DO have an aged pedigree that extends beyond 10 years (and frequently farther) in oak. It’s true that age is not a GUARANTEE of quality, but that’s also largely where “all other things being equal” comes in. A properly casked 9 can beat an improperly casked 20, but how can the whisky in the older one possibly benefit from 20 years in a substandard cask – and, more to the point, who put it in that cask in the first place? It’s also true that age is not a panacea to quality: it IS possible to have too much of it, just as it is possible to have too much of virtually anything in a dynamic process. But if a stacked blind tasting of 7 Diageo products supposedly shows that age is somehow irrelevant, what do 10,303 Malt Maniac blind scores of 865 whiskies show? To see, check out http://www.maltmaniacs.net/E-pistles/Malt-Maniacs-2010-04-Does-the-age-of-Scotch-whisky-matter.pdf.

    But even if were impossible to show any correlation between age and quality in general, that’s still a VERY different thing than saying age doesn’t have an impact on any INDIVIDUAL whisky. Producers KNOW that whiskies change between the ages of 3, 8, 12, 15 and on up – they, in fact, COUNT upon the influence of oak TO transform whisky. Producers AREN’T putting all that whisky away in barrels, and losing at least 2% per annum in the process, because it DOESN’T affect the product. And if it affects the product – certainly enough for producers to keep careful cask records and continue to sell expensive age statements – then age is, evidently, PROVEN as fairly important information, which is why, as a consumer, it’s important to me and I support the boycott of NAS.

    Oh, and the most telling thing from the article:

    “So as not to seem like they were totally clubbing old whisky over the head, we ended on another whisky whose identity was never revealed to us beyond the fact that it was old, it was rare, and it was expensive. And it was fabulous.”- so, once again, great aging is irrelevant through non discussion of it – until you taste it.

  4. Michael on August 5, 2014 at 1:37 am

    Hi Prof,

    First I’d like to thank you for reporting on this Diageo tasting. I agree that older whisky doesn’t necessarily mean better whisky. I’ve always liked Laphroaig 10 better than the old 15 and the current 18. I prefer Lagavulin 12 over 16. And many of Kilchoman’s 4-5 year old whiskies compete very well against those more than twice their age.

    I think that the grief you’re going to get (and have already gotten) from whisky geeks centers around the fact that Diageo was controlling three major elements at this seminar:

    1. Information — By telling you “age statements have really only been a thing for the last 20 years” someone over there was dabbling in untruths. Diageo’s own Classic Malts, have used age statements since their beginning, 26 years ago. Single malts (though not all) were using age statements before this. Glenlivet has been using ages or vintages since the early ’70s. Diageo’s own Johnnie Walker brand has been using age statements since at least the 1940s, stating “at least 12 years of age” on Black Label. There’s a Glenlivet bottled in 1920 that showed it was distilled in 1906. (http://whiskybase.com/whisky/40971/glenlivet-1906) Going back even further, Mr. John Walker himself used the wording “Old” on his original blends in the late 19th century. He didn’t have a “Young Highland” blend. And if you want to go back even further, the brandy and wine industry has been using age as a method to paint products as luxury since before whisky could be legally sold. Was it always marketing malarkey? At least it was always used a way for people to sell their wares for more money. The “age doesn’t matter” approach is indeed another way for companies to sell their stuff for more money. But to pass off age statements as a new thing comes across as revisionist history.

    2. Glassware — This was already referenced above. I’m enjoying a rye right now in a flat tumbler. Serving the whiskey this way makes it soft and easy going. But put the same whiskey in a Glencairn or copita and it’s a firecracker, intense, hot, and colorful. As you mentioned those plastic cups are not optimal. If Diageo wants to make serious statements about whisky “Truth” (their word), they’re utilizing instruments that flatten out more complex specimens.

    3. Specimens — I know this sounds like urine samples. As Oliver Klimek mentioned on Twitter, the two lesser oldies offered up as evidence were not products that Diageo is selling. Diageo’s annual limited edition whiskies are mostly quite old and very expensive. They were careful not to damage the reputation of their own long-aged products. To cherry-pick two stinker casks makes it appear as if they’re stacking the deck to make their point about their young whiskies. That’s not the most honest way to get to “Truth” (their word).

    You may or may not catch further heat about this post from impassioned geeks. To me, the real issue is Diageo’s definition of “Truth” and their general dismissal of truth in their attempts to sell things, though I’m also a little bummed that Dave Broom took part in this. Though this seminar may not have been intended for geeky enthusiasts, it’s comes across as even more ethically questionable for this to be their sales pitch to the unknowing.

    Thanks again for letting us know about this event. I wish that Diageo would rethink this approach, because there are a number of excellent young whiskies on the market.

  5. Keith on August 5, 2014 at 1:47 pm

    Thanks, Michael–

    So far, I think the response to this article has been well reasoned and polite as well as passionate, which is the way things ought to be. No ugliness or heat. The points made are all valid and true. My hope is that Diageo — or someone else, anyone else — will take a more balanced and honest approach to the pitch for NAS whisky, since as you say, there are a lot of good ones out there. This seminar was a nice chance to taste some whisky and learn a little about certain processes, but everyone is correct, and as I asserted, in pointing out what a stacked deck, manipulated tasting event this was.

    Honesty, even when it’s ugly, makes for a happier consumer, especially if it’s a consumer that can tell when he/she is being lied to. I would throw money behind a company that comes out and says, “You know what, we pushed age because age can and does matter, even if it doesn’t always mean better. But we are basically out of old whisky now, so this is what we have to do. Here’s a coupon. It’s valid for three years past when the Chinese market collapses.”

    • Michael on August 7, 2014 at 1:57 am

      Thanks Keith. I definitely agree. A large part of the NAS backlash is due to the lack of honesty in (what often seems to be) the industry-wide marketing of the young products. It’s almost if the blurred “truth” approach derives from the companies’ fear that the sudden 180-degree turnabout in the importance of age is blatantly obvious to their customers. In any case, I’d take that coupon.

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