I'm the first whiskey writer to complain when a Bourbon drops an age statement. Just ask Heaven Hill, Jim Beam, Buffalo Trace and others who endured my whining, both publicly and privately. Once, while waiting in line at Louisville Airport, I told a distillery executive that they didn't need to discontinue age statements if they stopped making flavoured whiskey, my other favourite thing to hate in American whiskey. But one should not take this age dropping disdain for a belief that older always means better.
In fact, I've found many younger whiskeys actually taste better than the old stuff. My point of contention has always been one of transparency and that consumers have a right to know the age of the whiskey they're drinking. But you don't have to be a rocket scientist to know that Scotch's brilliant older releases, combined with general human nature, make many consumers believe older is better. And some brands are capitalising on this. In the past decade, we've seen multiple American whiskeys north of 25 years old, and they're all as satisfying as licking a sap-saturated fence post. Old timers question the palates of the modern consumer, asking how anybody could like the woody and tannic flavours in 28-year-old Bourbon.
Yesterday's Bourbon drinkers appreciated a good 8-year-old Bourbon, the exact age cited for 'quality' in the movie The Hustler. At 12 years and older, they questioned if it was too woody. That's why 12 to 15 years old sat on the shelves in the 1950s and 60s. But many beautiful 17-year-old Bourbons and older were launched in the 90s. Some of the more brilliant older Bourbons are Pappy Van Winkle 20 and 23 Years Old, Jefferson's 17, 18 and 21 Years Old, Michter's 20, Elijah Craig 18, Evan Williams 23 and Wild Turkey Tribute. These releases defied the woody profiles old timers held in contempt of whiskey. But these whiskeys were better because of the palates blending them.
Both Jefferson's Trey Zoeller and Julian Van Winkle have built careers around their ability to blend barrels. Unfortunately, not everybody has this skill, and many older Bourbons flooding the marketplace will deceive consumers into purchasing them. Don't spend $500 on bad, woody Bourbon - study younger Bourbons and find the age that meets your palate.
If you think older is better, you're missing out on the opportunity to taste inexpensive whiskey between four years and 10 years old. Unfortunately, most of these don't have age statements, such as Four Roses, Elijah Craig and Knob Creek. So you're back to the drawing board for studying whiskey's age. However, when you don't see an age statement, you can assume it's at least four years old. By law, the distiller must disclose the age if it's less than four years old.
But why not reward the brands with age statements? I'm talking Heaven Hill 6 Years Old Bottled-in-Bond, a delicious pour for around $12; Barrell Bourbon, a non-distiller producer that discloses the age of every batch; Henry McKenna 10 Years Old, one of the greatest values in American whiskey; Bulleit 10, a fun pour; and Smooth Ambler, which gives age statements for all the releases. One could buy every bottle mentioned here and create an incredible Bourbon cabinet that allows you to study age and see how it impacts flavour. It also sends a message to the corporate boardrooms that we, the consumer, want age statements.
Of course, I'm a hypocrite. Here I am telling you to reward the few, the brave, the age stated, and I personally buy more non age than anything else.
I purchase a lot of Maker's Mark ($23), Old Forester ($14) and Four Roses Small Batch ($24). These are fairly inexpensive pours that I believe present wide-ranging differences in flavour profiles, allowing me to educate my guests on the differences between the wheated Bourbon (Maker's) and the high-rye Bourbon (Four Roses) as well as the more traditional mash recipe in Old Forester.
So, does age matter? You bet. But so too does my bank account. In a perfect world, we could have our non over-oaked aged stated whiskey and drink it, too.