Opinion: When did whisky's obsession with being 'old' take hold?

Opinion: When did whisky's obsession with being 'old' take hold?

The value placed on whisky being 'old' is nothing new

Mythbusters | 22 Jun 2022 | Issue 184 | By Chris Middleton

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The word ‘new’ is often said to be the most used and abused term in sales and marketing. For whisky, though, it‘s ‘old’ that gets rolled out the most. ‘Old’ entered the whisky lexicon at the beginning of the 19th century, gaining popularity over the next 150 years. The appeal of ‘old’ was twofold. One usage described the sale of aged whisky, not raw or young distillate; the other defined distilleries using traditional or ‘old school’ modes of whisky manufacture.

When new mechanical technologies and steam power moved whisky distilling towards mass production, the old-school distillers promoted their traditional pot stills, hand mashing and rustic techniques as the old ways. This was most conspicuous in the US, where the government recognised four distillery classifications, in 1816. In first ranking was Old Plan, referring to traditional copper pot stills. When the first generation of patent steam apparatuses was superseded, distilleries promoted this as the old-fashioned method. Distillers in Scotland and Ireland were more reluctant to change, using traditional equipment and stills until Coffey’s continuous column system became popular in the 1830s. At the time, only two distilleries used the term ‘old’, both in 1798. Scotch distilleries preferred Gaelic names, with ‘Glen’ being the industry’s favourite whisky prefix.

Merchants selling whisky aged more than weeks or a few months in wood served the new demand for customers wanting better-tasting spirit. The first mention of ‘old’ in print appeared in the Aberdeen Journal, February 1798, advertising Ferintosh Old Malt whisky from the famous Highland distillery shuttered since 1784. Being at least 14 years old, this was exceptionally old whisky for the time, assuming it was bona fide Ferintosh. In England, Old Irish whiskey was advertised in 1827, and generic Old Scotch Malt whisky appeared two years later. Andrew Usher launched the Old Vatted Glenlivet brand in late 1853, capitalising on an August bond amendment to the duties Act. By the early 20th century, demand outstripped supply, forcing popular blended Scotch brands to average two to three years before bottling – in Ireland the average was four years. Grain whisky had minimal aging, no more than two years, while malts lay for an average of eight years. In 1908, James Calder of Leith testified his annual average clearances of a million gallons was three years in wood, of which 25 per cent was one year old.

In America, ‘old Rye whiskey’ (sic) first appeared in print in 1803, followed by Old Maryland in 1812. In 1823, ‘old Monongahela Whiskey for family use’ and Old Kentucky Bourbon whiskey was first advertised in 1821. Most sold as common whiskey (new-make), whereas old (barrel-aged, fancy goods) spent at least two years in a wooden container. In 1849, Binnger’s Old Kentucky Bourbon became the first bottled bourbon brand. By the 1870s, common whisky was a dollar a gallon, two-year-old two dollars, sour mash three, and premium brands like Old Crow and Old Taylor (four years in wood) fetched over four dollars. Laws extending minimum aging before duty allowed distillers to age to three years before tax in 1880, and in 1894 the minimum was extended to eight years. British statutes and amendments, notably the 1823 and 1860 Excise Acts, improved standards for distillers to age and blend sourced whiskies. These regulations encouraged more appetising whisky, promoting premiumisation and propelling the global whisky juggernaut.

The word ‘old’ played an important role in the development of the world’s two mega-brands. In 1865, Alexander Walker blended Old Highland, later adding Very Old Highland and Special Old Highland to the range. In 1906, they became Johnnie Walker White, Red and Black Labels. In America, Jack Daniel’s Old Time Distillery introduced Old No.7 in 1887. Between 1870 and 1920, over 600 brand names used the prefix ‘old’ to garner appeal.

By the mid-20th century, the allure of this prefix became anachronistic, working against successful old-labelled brands, incurring long-term sales declines. Today, ‘old’ is more often a suffix, stating the age of whisky inside the bottle.
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