I write this article with the full knowledge and understanding that I’ll probably piss off a lot of folks in the whiskey industry: anyone from distillers to marketing teams to distributors to retailers. However, what I’m suggesting is being said without malice. Rather, I’m just dispelling two big whiskey myths, and both can have an impact on the average whiskey drinker’s bank account. Also, these two myths tend to go hand in hand.
Myth 1: Age Matters
The natural school of thought is that the older a whiskey is, the better it is. This is contrary to reality. An older whiskey is not necessarily a better whiskey, and a younger whiskey is not necessarily going to be “young” or harsh.
Blending barrels is the norm of most distilleries. Single barrels/casks are the exceptions to the rule. I’ll start with the #1 best-selling Single Malt Scotch in the world. When you see a bottle of Glenfiddich 12, the “12” refers to the age of the Scotch inside. However, it doesn’t mean all the barrels in the blend are that old. What the age statement suggests is nothing in the bottle is less than the published age. If Glenfiddich used 100 casks to blend the batch for that year, legally, only one of those barrels has to be twelve years old. The rest can be much older, however, none can be younger. In theory, nothing in that batch has to be only twelve years old.
Conversely, let’s talk about single barrels. Because a single barrel consists of (you guessed it) one barrel, everything in it will always be the same age. That bottle of Henry McKenna Single Barrel is going to always be at least ten years old. It might be (but likely isn’t) eleven. Like the Glenfiddich 12 example, there’s no hard, fast rule that it must be only ten years old.
Moreover, different whiskey types age differently. Bourbon is always matured in new, charred oak containers. Assuming you aren’t only letting the Bourbon kiss oak, it is going to take on characteristics of the barrel the older it remains inside it. Eventually, the oak will overtake the grain and will become over-oaked. Some folks do enjoy that, for others, it is like chewing on a barrel stave.
Scotch, on the other hand, is typically aged in used casks. Those containers could have held anything: Bourbon, Rye, wine, sherry, etc. Distilleries can also reuse those containers as often as they’d like, although, by the time you get to the third or fourth fill, they’re pretty much lived their life expectancy. Scotch is also aged in a cooler climate than most Bourbon, and as such, it can take longer to mature. Also, the more times a barrel has been filled, the longer it will take to exact any flavors from it.
Throw your preconceived notions out the door: A whiskey is properly-aged when the whiskey is good.
So, what ages really matter in terms of whiskey? By my count, there are only five, and they are:
- Two Years: The minimum age for a whiskey to be called Straight.
- Three Years: The minimum age for a whiskey to be considered Scotch, Irish, or Canadian whiskeys.
- Four Years: The minimum age for a whiskey not to have an age statement on the label, and the minimum age for anything to be called Bottled-in-Bond.
- Sixteen Years: The age in most states where you can drive your parents to the liquor store.
- Sixty-Two Years: The minimum age you can say “Screw it” and day drink all you want because you don’t have to work anymore and can collect social security.
Myth 2: Price Equals Quality
If you are buying a whiskey because you saw it on the store shelf and it is expensive, the only people you will make happy are the marketers and retailers. Chances are you’ll walk away disappointed.
Whiskey can be expensive because of age. Keep in mind the longer a whiskey stays in the barrel, the longer the money is tied up on product waiting to become ready for market. Also, there’s the whole angel’s share to contend with - the loss of product due to natural evaporation. Opening up a distillery takes millions of dollars. Then you have the whole economies of scale thing - the major distilleries have lower costs of doing business because their production is much higher than a craft distiller. As such, the major players can afford to sell older whiskey for less than their craft counterparts.
But, beyond that lays a lot of marketing hype. Suddenly on your liquor store shelf is a brand you (and no one else, either) have never heard of commanding a huge price tag. The shelf-talker tells you this is the most amazing new thing in whiskey and is splashed with delicious-sounding tasting notes, many of which have no basis in reality.
You can find three-year Bourbons that that are simply hideous and obnoxiously priced. My friend and fellow Bourbon & Banter contributor Luke Castle told you all about Lusty Claw, which retails for about $60.00. To quote him:
“The [brand’s] website calls this, ‘Not only one of the world’s best Bourbons, Lusty Claw is one of the world’s best whiskeys.’ What it should say is, ‘We know the stuff in the bottle is terrible so we spent all of our money on a really cool bottle.’”
Compare that to, say Elijah Craig Small Batch, which carries no age statement. The Bourbon inside is generally between eight and twelve years old, yet costs only $25.00. If you polled most Bourbon drinkers in a blind tasting, I’ll stake my entire reputation they’ll find the cheaper Bourbon to be better.
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The Proof: Blind Tastings
A blind tasting is where the proof is in the pudding and will disprove both the above-cited myths. No matter what kind of whiskey you’re sampling in a blind tasting, it removes all the marketing and hype.
If you’re going to do a blind tasting, make sure you’re using the same category of whiskey. Scotch to Scotch, Irish to Irish, Bourbon to Bourbon, Rye to Rye, etc. Or, you could compare American single malts to single malt Scotch, Irish, Japanese, and Indian whiskeys.
I’ve found people who only drink single malt Scotch choose a blended Scotch as their favorite. I’ve found people who spend their lives chasing allocated Bourbons select an under-$30 easy-to-find Bourbon as their top choice. Instead of an ah-ha moment, a few participants refuse to accept the results and cite how some component was unfair. Most, however, are pleased to learn their opportunities in the whiskey world have suddenly expanded.
And that, my friends, is how to #DrinkCurious. Cheers!