Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Bright Young Things

So I was just talking about whisky possibly being “too old”. But what about youth in whisky? As I said in my last post, the impression you get when starting out in the world of whisky is that single malt has to be at least 10 years old to be any good. 10 or 12 seems to the minimum age of most distillery entry level bottlings.

Obviously whisky can be younger (although it needs to be at least 3) but most stuff released before it turns 10 goes straight into making up the numbers in blends. But is there any good single malt whisky under 10?

Yes, of course there is. I just didn’t know this until recently. The realisation came about during two distillery visits on Islay. The first was genuinely a shock. You may have heard of Octomore whisky – it is produced by Bruichladdich and is the world most heavily peated whisky. It is £100 a bottle.
Also it is only 5 years old.
It seemed amazing that they would try and charge £100 when you could get a 20 year old for that kind of money. Thankfully I was lucky enough to try Octomore 4.2 at Bruichladdich and it’s one of the most amazing whiskies I’ve ever tasted – it was fresh and smooth and surprisingly light given the extreme phenol levels. I didn’t take any proper notes and this isn’t a review but one of the things that surprised me the most, considering the age, was how smooth it tasted. £100 is a lot of money but I don’t think I’ve ever been so close to shelling out that much for a bottle.
So an exceptional young whisky – but maybe that was it, it was an exception. An experiment with high phenol levels that’s produced a freakishly good 5 year old.
The next encounter with young whisky also took me by surprise but mainly because I didn’t realise it was under 10 until after the tasting. I stopped by the Laphroaig distillery, firstly trying the 10 Year Old (a familiar favourite) and then tried the Quarter Cask for the first time. I was won over by this – it really is very flavourful and I’ll post a review in due course. However I had assumed at the time it was a variation on the 10yo but didn’t realise until much later on that whisky is only 6 or 7 years old. The whisky spends 5 years or so matured in full sized casks and then is finished in ¼ cask. The greater surface-area to whisky ratio of the smaller cask means its finished differently and more speedily. Not to the detriment of the whisky I hasten to add - quite the opposite.
So two young whiskies discovered within a couple of days. One of them an experiment but the other a widely available standard bottle.

And the more I’ve looked into this they seem to be everywhere (often referred to as No Age Statement). Sometimes it seems they are bottled at a younger age to get a preview of what they will be like later on. The consensus on tasting notes is that younger whiskies are shorter on the finish but a bit fresher in the taste.

So that’s it. My interest is piqued and it is another facet of whisky to explore. The next whisky in the crosshair is an expression of the highly regarded Kilchoman - the oldest of which is only 5. Watch this space.

Wednesday, 9 May 2012

Never too old?

When I first became interested in drinking whisky properly – tasting it, as opposed to putting cola in (for shame!), I tried to determine a few principles that would see me right. The most obvious thing was to start drinking Single Malt whisky and move away from cheap blends. This generally holds true.

The next thing for a Whisky newbie to hook onto was age. It’s seemed clear from the shop shelves that a standard single malt bottling from a distillery was around 10 or 12 years old. Therefore the obvious conclusion to draw is that whilst the liquid need only(!) be 3 years old to be called whisky it has to be at least 10 to be considered any good.
And from that it must surely also follow that the older a whisky is, the better it is. You know – like wine (sort of). Certainly that’s reflected in the price, an 18yo can be nearly twice the price of a 10/12yo. With an almost exponential curve upwards the older they get – browse any whisky shop or website and try and find a cheap 40 year old.
It makes sense – older whisky takes longer to produce, the cost of making it is higher and this is reflected in the price. As for the taste, when I’ve been lucky enough to try them, older whiskies have generally been smoother and more complex than younger whiskies. The Highland Park 18yo is a thing of beauty in comparison to its (excellent) younger sibling.

So that was easy. Old = good.

But - as you may have guessed from the fact you’re only halfway through this blog post – there’s so much more to it than that. At both ends of the timeline.
The first revelation I had a few years ago was that whisky can spend too long in a barrel – there is such as thing as too old and it doesn't necessarily follow that keeping the stuff in a barrel means it keeps getting better and better (and better). The basic reason for this is that if it stays too long in the barrel the whisky takes on too much ‘woody’ character from the barrel, to the extent that it could end up quite flat and dull. So whisky needs to be freed at the right time.
And not all barrels are created equally. They do not all flavour and colour the whisky at a uniform rate. So what ends up being 25yo whisky is most likely something that didn’t taste right after 12 years (or even 18) - or it was judged to have more potential if it stayed where it was for a few more years. It wasn't just any old barrel that they left to mature for longer than the others.
Old whiskies are almost like ugly ducklings – not good enough to be bottled at the same time as everyone else but in the long-term even better for having to wait.

Even with standard 10 year old bottling - the age on the front of the bottle is only the age of the youngest whisky in there (a legal stipulation). So a 12yo might have whisky that’s 13yo or 16yo or whatever age it was when it was deemed right to come out.
So my original idea that whisky has to be 10 years old kind of holds true but it’s more complicated than that. Whisky isn’t simply bottled the minute it hits its 10th birthday, it's far less exacting. And older whisky is generally better but it’s not a simple process of waiting for anything to turn into great whisky.
What a fascinating liquid to enjoy.
Still surely my 10 year old rule holds true? – I’ll explore this in the next post…