Production

Young at heart

It's a fallacy to state that the older the whisky, the better it is. Young malts can have their own attractions. Ian Wisniewski reports
By Ian Wisniewski
With so many styles of malt to choose from, including cask strength, special finishes and vintages, age statements have become a common denominator that consumers use to finalise choice.But with the industry establishing 10 and 12 year olds as a benchmark of quality, what does this say about younger malts, aged eight years or less ?A certain snobbery towards younger malts is invariably based on a perception of youth, rather than flavour delivery. It’s also easy to be cynical, and dismiss younger malts as the solution to a distillery’s shortage of older stock; though a distillery would hardly release a bottling that might compromise its reputation, and future following.Meanwhile, a flourish of younger malts, from distilleries such as Ardbeg, Benromach, Isle of Jura and Isle of Arran is turning this sector into a hot debate. And however short the maturation period, what happens during that time provides plenty to talk about.While the complex reactions that occur during aging are still not fully understood, maturation divides into three essential elements: subtractive, additive and interactive. Although these occur simultaneously, they also have individual schedules.Subtractive maturation deals with the loss of immaturity, while additive maturation sees the spirit gaining colour and character from the oak cask. Interactive maturation covers the complex reactions between the spirit and oak, promoting an additional range of characteristics that neither possess individually.The influence of oak aging depends on various factors. This includes the ‘fill’ (whether the cask is filled with spirit for the first, second or third time – the cask’s influence diminishing and changing with each successive fill), whether the oak is American or European, the cask size, and aging environment.There’s also the question of distillery character (ie. what’s embodied in the new make spirit) versus the maturation character. As the maturation character continues to evolve it overtakes the distillery character, with around 40-70 per cent of a malt’s eventual character formed during maturation. Where the optimum balance lies between distillery and maturation character ultimately depends on personal preference.Unsurprisingly, how individual malts evolve during aging can vary significantly, and rather than making generalisations, let’s track some specific examples.Auchentoshan’s fruity, nutty (unpeated) new make spirit is aged for around eight years in bourbon barrels, before being bottled as Auchentoshan Select.“After two to three years gentle vanilla comes through from the wood, which works well with the lighter spirit. Sweetness in the spirit reduces and in the mature malt it’s nice and fresh, nutty and almondy, with malty sweetness and marzipan flavours,” says Iain McCallum of Auchentoshan.Also unpeated, Isle of Arran’s new make spirit shows an eaux-de-vie fruit character, with kirsch and grappa hints, which is aged in different fills of bourbon and sherry casks.“Orchard fruits like apples and pears start to evolve with a lot of citrus, backed up by sweetness and richer elements of chocolate and fudge from sherry casks. The more honeyed sweetness is a result of interaction between the spirit and wood,” says Isle of Arran’s Euan Mitchell.Isle of Arran single malt is currently a vatting of seven and eight year old casks, reflecting the distillery’s opening date of 1995. The portfolio also includes a six year old Marsala Cask Finish, with single cask bottlings generally six to eight years old, and the youngest release a five year old single cask (bourbon).An entirely practical factor is anticipating how the malt will continue to evolve. “Wedon’t know when the optimum age will be, at 10 years old it will be a different whisky to the current bottlings, so we hope we’ll take people with us onto the 10 year old,” adds Euan Mitchell.Delivering a waft of peat, the release of Benromach Traditional in March 2004, was the first produced under Gordon & MacPhail’s ownership which dates from 1993, with the distillery operational
since 1998.“Benromach’s new make spirit has a floral, malty character, with estery, pear drop fruityness, plus distinct peat smoke coming through,” says Gordon & MacPhail’s Ewen Mackintosh.The recipe for Benromach Traditional was 80 per cent first fill bourbon barrels, and 20 per cent first fill sherry casks. “Within the first year spirit in bourbon barrels took on vanilla, custard cream sweetness, which together with malty, floral and phenolic notes came through in four separate layers. Sampling at three years old these layers start to become more complex, rounded and merge together,” adds Ewen Mackintosh. “Within a year sherry casks give rich fruityness, which sits with the floral, maltiness and peat, but integrating these layers of flavour takes longer than in a bourbon barrel.”More heavily peated specimens include single casks of Isle of Jura five year old (aged in refill sherry butts), bottled for The Whisky Exchange and the 2005 Limburg Whisky Festival in Germany. An enhanced peating level of around 40 ppm, compared to the usual 2 ppm, yielded quite pungent new make spirit, with smokey, tarry notes, accompanied by Jura’s classic sweetness and zestyness.“Even at three years, a cask of which was released in Japan by an independent bottler, it was remarkably smooth, the cask took out immaturity but also added sherry notes, blackberry richness and cinnamon,” says Isle of Jura’s Michael Heads. “The five year old cask for The Whisky Exchange wasn’t just a hit of smoke, there’s sweetness and complexity for such a young whisky, the
smoke enhances the sweetness, with zesty freshness, citrus, pine and cinnamon.”If you’re into smoke (‘peat-head’ being a technical term for those of us who enjoy that distinction), younger peated malts can certainly deliver, together with a full complement of balancing characteristics.“The six year old has more pungent phenolics than the 10 year old. Ardbeg expresses itself so well at this age,” says Ardbeg’s Stuart Thomson, referring to the recent release of Very Young Ardbeg. Aged in bourbon barrels, this was distilled in 1998, the year after Glenmorangie acquired and re-commissioned the distillery.“Even though our peating level is a minimum of 50 ppm, we have a purifier which means it’s like a two and a half times distillation, with zesty fruit and floral character coming through, so there is a
balance, and the peat isn’t allowed to dominate the new make spirit,” adds Stuart Thomson.Sounds like a great start, but what happens next ?“You’re always going to get vanilla from first fill bourbon barrels, it’s youthful but also rounded because it has phenols and sweetness, and is very zesty, with lemon, lime and oranges, cherry and cinnamon from the wood,” adds Stuart Thomson. “The phenolic level is the same as in the new make spirit, around 25 ppm.”Hamish Torrie, Ardbeg’s marketing manager, adds, “From now on, we intend to follow the path to Ardbeg 10 year old with a limited annual release of 1998 Ardbeg at seven, eight and nine years old.”Greater availability of younger malts inevitably promotes discussion and interest in them, which will undoubtedly prompt more contendors into the arena. But what’s behind this recent youth culture?After several years of increased distillery and consumer focus on older malts, 30-40 years plus, we could be seeing an inevitable swing to the other end of the age spectrum, with younger malts an exciting new area. Meanwhile, the traditional concept that ‘older is better,’ is being replaced by a realisation that ‘older is different,’ and that evaluating older and younger as better or worse is a redundant exercise. Each has different parameters, and should be judged on individual criteria.“You have to sell whisky on it’s merits, not information such as age. Connoisseurs are more open so judge in terms of flavour rather than age statement, as they understand quality doesn’t necessarily increase with age, just complexity,” says Ewen Mackintosh.Euan Mitchell adds: “A growing trend is to judge on flavour rather than the age statement, but it’s not a complete shift. People are really surprised by the quality of our single cask seven year old single malts, and we have found the reaction has been overwhelmingly positive.”Correspondingly younger malts are being re-evaluated as expressions in their own right, rather than as ‘junior versions’ of their older counterparts. Relatively accessible pricing also makes it far easier to experiment with younger malts. This means even more of a triumph if a malt takes you to that special place, and less of a disappointment if it doesn’t.Pricing raises another issue, as some consumers inevitably compare the cost of younger and older malts.“Must an eight year old be less than a 10? Depends on various factors, whether it’s cask strength, or a limited-edition,” says Euan Mitchell.That’s right. Various factors influence price, but once you’ve bought a bottle, it’s only the flavour that determines whether you pour another dram