Blinded By the Truth
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.
To 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.
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. 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.
But 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.