Production

Age before beauty

Does older always mean better with whisky? Gavin Smith looks at the facts
By Gavin D. Smith
There is an influential school of whisky thought that considers older necessarily equals better. Older also usually equals more expensive, and paying a high price for whisky reflects the status of the consumer in many important markets.
Today, there is an increasing trend for mainstream Scotch single malts to be bottled at 12 years old rather than the previously-common eight or 10, and it is interesting to note the prestigious International Wine & Spirit Competition now offers a trophy for the ‘Best Single Malt Scotch Whisky Under Twelve Years’. According to Neil Boyd, Marketing Director for John Dewar & Sons Ltd, “There’s an international perception that age is a key differentiator in terms of quality, second only to price, which I don’t believe is really the case, as all whiskies age differently. However, 12 is now seen as the necessary ‘entry point’ by quite a lot of companies. Eight is just not special enough any more.“I personally believe not too much whisky really improves as it gets older,” says Boyd. “When we decided to launch our own
Aberfeldy bottling, we analysed and sampled it at 10, 11, 12, 13, 14 and 15 years old. United Distillers had previously bottled Aberfeldy at 15 in its Flora & Fauna range. We took the view that the 12-year-old was very good indeed, so why keep it another three years, losing some in the barrel and making it more expensive and exclusive along the way? What we really wanted was to get consumers drinking Aberfeldy, and at 12 we could offer it at a good price. “It seems to me some companies identify a price then find an age of whisky to fill the gap so they can have one at £19.95, another at £29.95, a third at £39.95 etc. I wonder if they’re really offering anything different when you see some brand range extensions.”Nicholas Morgan, UDV’s Marketing Director for Premier Malts, reckons that the move to sell malts at 12 was influenced by deluxe blends like Johnnie Walker Black Label. “12 was probably a benchmark from the deluxe blends, of which Johnnie Walker was the first 12-year-old,” he says. “It was launched in 1909, when Walker’s relaunched all their whiskies. They had large stocks of mature whiskies dating back to the 1890s whisky crash, and that influenced their decision to make Black Label a 12-year-old.”He points out UDV has resisted the temptation to bottle Talisker at 12, and is keeping it in its current 10-year-old incarnation. “Talisker alters a lot as it gets older,” he says, “and at 10 it has all the characteristics people most associate with it.”Dr Bill Lumsden, Glenmorangie plc’s Head of Distilling & Maturation, is sceptical of the fashion for 12-year-olds, insisting: “Only the quality of the whisky matters. For Glenmorangie the ideal combination of flavours from new-make spirit and ex-bourbon casks peaks at 10. In terms of subtlety and complexity it’s great at 10, and exemplifies house style. At 12 it would be a different product.”Glenfiddich Special Reserve is one of the highest-profile examples of a single malt now being marketed at 12, a development which came after many years with no age statement at all.According to Wm Grant & Sons’ Master Blender David Stewart: “It had previously been made with whiskies between eight and 12 years old, but we built up stocks of mature whisky so we could make it specifically a 12-year-old, and began to label it as such two years ago. Glenfiddich is good at 12, fully-matured, well-balanced, with nice wood notes. It’s a better product, I think, than it used to be.“Consumers are certainly looking for an age statement on single malts,” he maintains. “It was a combination of 12 being a good age for the whisky, and 12 being the age the marketing people liked.”Richard Joynson of Loch Fyne Whiskies sums up the age issue from the retailer’s side by noting, “12 is better than 10 to the purchaser, it’s simple as that. Eight is no longer acceptable for most malts – even some cheap whiskies have ‘eight-year-old’ on them.”Joynson also makes a point regarding the apparent sanctity of certain ‘benchmark’ ages when, tongue-in-cheek, he notes the lack of 13-year-old whiskies tailored to the non-superstitious market. “And why aren’t distillers offering 11-year-olds?” he muses.