Why age doesn't always mean quality when it comes to booze

I've been lucky to try some rare old liquor in my time. Some of it's been ethereal. Some of it ... not.

Just last week I tried an old number twice my age that was about as tasty as licking damp logs and leather boots. In fact, some of the most interesting drams I've encountered recently have been "young": an eight-year-old single malt, a seven-year-old single cask armagnac, a five-year-old rum, and other spirits that haven't even bothered to carry an age statement.

Wait – older always means better, right? We've been trained to believe this. But now the same industries we learned it from have changed their minds.

In the whisky industry, Macallan has been telling us that age is now a limitation since the release of its no-age-statement 1824 series. And Glenlivet, whose parent company quite recently told us that age matters, has now pulled its 12 year old from the UK and German markets and replaced it with a no-age-statement alternative.

Change in age

What's behind the change? Some distilleries are simply running out of older stock as their brands have unexpectedly grown in popularity. Others are looking to genuinely innovate and question the orthodoxy that older spirits are the best in the land.

There's no doubt that maturation does lovely things to a distillate. It softens its rougher edges, adds new and interesting flavours, and removes all the undesirable stuff. But I've often found that some distillates are more interesting when they're younger, while others can get a bit boring when they get older.

And with booze companies now asking us to part with hundreds and even thousands of dollars for older, extensively matured spirits, it's worth questioning when age means quality, and when it's just making up the numbers.

Age vs maturation

Every barrel of spirit will reach maturity at a different time. As pointed out in out a previous exploration on barrels, the history and type of barrel used to mature a spirit is crucial to its final flavour. But there are many other factors that influence how a spirit matures.

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The size of the barrel is one of them. New world distilleries in particular are experimenting with putting their spirit in smaller casks, speeding up the whole maturation process. The Australian industry has actually been at the forefront of this trend.

Tim Duckett, the internationally renowned independent bottler of Heartwood Malt Whisky's, puts it this way: "A whisky matured for 18 years in a 200 litre barrel matures much more quickly than 18 year old whisky in a 500 litre barrel."

Basically, more of the liquid is in contact with a larger surface area in smaller casks, so maturation occurs faster. Larger whisky, rum and brandy producers will use bigger barrels, between 200-600 litres, but smaller barrels are now being used in Taiwan, Japan and here in Australian to create award-winning whiskies.

The heat is on

Climate also plays a pivotal role in how quickly and intensely a spirit matures. The distilleries that are scattered throughout the far reaches of Australia brilliantly illustrate this point.

The Hoochery Distillery, located just outside Kununurra in Western Australia's Kimberley region, has produced quality rum for some years now. So good the Australian Distilled Spirits Awards crowned it Australia's best last week.

Spike Dessert, founder and creator of Hoochery's Ord River Rum knows all about how important climate is to maturation. "Kununurra is truly a rum climate. When you go to the Caribbean, where some of the very best rums are made, you find that our climate here in the Kununurra is very similar," he told me.

The angel's share (how much spirit evaporates through the cask every year) is significant in such climates. "It's huge. We lose 10 to 15 per cent of the total volume of the cask in the first year, and five to 10 per cent every year after that," Spike says. The spirit is maturing so quickly as it drives in and out of the barrel through the wet and dry seasons that it would virtually make a 25 year old rum impossible – there wouldn't be any liquid left in the cask.

Cool customers

But at the McHenry Distillery, one of the world's most southern distilleries near Port Arthur in Tasmania, the opposite climate has the opposite effect. Its founder and distiller, William McHenry, says the conditions where the distillery is located are more akin to Scottish climes:

"We've chosen to go as far south as we can physically go to try and build a different influence into our whisky. The cool, moist and temperate climate here means the spirit matures much more slowly, allowing the whisky to gently pick up flavour over a longer period of time."

Other producers want to exert a bit more control over Mother Nature. The Bass & Flinders Distillery in the Mornington Peninsula has this week launched Ochre, a four-year-old cognac-inspired brandy. "We wanted to have a bit more control of the maturation of our spirit," co-founder Bob Laing told me. "So we climate control our bond store to try and keep the humidity to around 80 per cent," he says.

This mimic's the conditions you find in the damp, humid cellars used to mature cognac, and helps them to create a refined but still very flavourful spirit.

Don't be ageist

These new approaches to the aging of spirits, and the growing move to no-age-statement spirits abroad makes you wonder – are age-statements still relevant and helpful?

"The age statement is not gospel. It's a little bit of smoke and mirrors, a little bit of misdirection," says Tim Duckett. McHenry shares a similar sentiment, but says that the spirits industry has to do a lot more to educate consumers. "The industry does have to educate drinkers not just to look first at the age statement, because there's more going on. It's not just about age. How big is the barrel? What's its history and quality? And under what conditions has the spirit been matured."

This is sound advice. Take bourbon, for instance, it's matured in brand new oak casks in climates conducive to faster maturation. So bottlings upwards of 15 years should be approached with caution (the Pappy Van Winkle 23 year old, while ridiculously collectable, is, I think, an example of a whisky that's spent too long in the cask).

And if you're still not convinced, here's some younger examples you can try for yourself.

Whisky

Woodford Reserve Bourbon - USA

Kavalan Soloist Sherry Cask - Taiwan

Ardbeg Uigeadail – Scotland

Rum

Ord River Rum – Premium - Western Australia

Clement VSOP Rhum Vieux Rum - Martinique

Damoiseau Vieux Rhum Agricole 5 year old - Guadeloupe

Brandy

Ochre Aged Grape Spirit - Victoria

Maison Gelas Bas Armagnac Single Cask Cadillac 7 year old - France

What do you think - is older alcohol better?

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