The Story of Age
By Fred Minnick
In American whiskey, we’ve seen a vast discontinuation of age statements over the past decade. Elijah Craig 12-year-old, Jim Beam Black 8-year-old, Very Old Barton 6-year-old, Wild Turkey 101 8-year-old, Noah’s Mill 15-year-old, Fighting Cock 6-year-old, and Old Charter 8-year-old are just a few that are now non-age stated. What happens is that once companies state an age on a whiskey label they are beholden to that age. By law, the stated age must represent the youngest barrel in the batch. So if a bottling contains 400 barrels of 23-year-old bourbon and only one 6-year-old, the age statement, per regulation, must be labeled 6 years old.
Of course, that’s an absurd analogy. Most age-stated products are using stocks near the age of number on the bottle. They omit the age statement and can now include lower age stocks, such as 4-year-old, and still charge the same price. I’ve long considered age statements valuable tools for consumers. When we pick up a bottle, we aren’t given much information. For a long time, we could compare the flavors of products of similar age. Now, we must investigate to get the age ranges in the small-batch composite. (Fortunately, I did that for you in my book, Bourbon Curious.)
“The first thing I tell everybody is please, please, please, don’t get hung up in things that quality is based on, like age,” says Denny Potter, master distiller for Heaven Hill Brands. This is true.
So much is involved in creating the flavor quality that age is only a small factor, but knowledge is power, and if somebody is marketing a bourbon north of 20 years old, you know that the whiskey has been in new charred oak for that time period and there’s a good chance it tastes a lot like wood. I’ve never tasted a bourbon older than 23 years that I liked or even thought was palatable. The great Pappy Van Winkle is an anomaly, because it’s usually tasty year in and year out. I give full credit to the maker, Julian Van Winkle, and his incredible palate.
Recently, a 45-year-old bourbon came onto the market. Fewer than 250 bottles of Final Reserve, James Thompson & Brother Bourbon sold for $2,000 apiece at the Frazier Museum in Louisville. All proceeds went to charity, and that’s honorable, but there’s no way anything that old in new American oak is any good. I have not tasted it, but I’ve queried those who have, and it’s listed as one of the worst bourbons they’ve tasted. So, in bourbon, stay away from ultra-old unless you like tasting wood.
For Scotch, on the other hand, age can yield sophisticated flavors. The reason for the difference: Bourbon goes into new charred oak and Scotch is aged in used barrels, meaning there are more tannins drawn from the new oak. Furthermore, Scotland’s weather is fairly consistent, while Kentucky has four full seasons. In the Kentucky heat and cold, the whiskey goes in and out of the wood at a more rapid rate than in Scotland.
So when you see something like Laphroaig 27-year-old with a $750 price tag, you can rest assured it won’t be over-oaked. This particular expression features mature Laphroaig previously aged in refill hogsheads, then transferred into first-fill, ex-bourbon barrels and refill quarter casks. It’s beautiful, with fruit, nuts, vanilla, smoke, citrus, leather, and cigar tobacco as the leading notes. If you see this, buy it, as it’s a delicious complex taste.
Of course, Scotch can get a little ridiculous. Recently, Gordon & MacPhail released a Private Collection from Linkwood Distillery 1956 by Gordon & MacPhail. Cask 20, a first-fill Sherry hogshead, is the last 1950s cask from Linkwood Distillery in Gordon & MacPhail’s inventory; it is believed to be the final remaining 1950s cask globally. So what does extinct whisky cost? More than $30,000. Because there were only 53 decanters, I was not privileged to get a sample. But my good friend Jonny McCormick did. McCormick is a rare-whisky specialist and fellow Whisky Advocate contributor. He called it “remarkable” and a “world-class whisky exhibiting maturity and complexity from the fifties.”
I’ll take his word for it. But I doubt he thinks this merely because of its age. The whisky’s complexity begins with its barley, drying, fermentation, distillation, and of course, maturation. Perhaps the most important factor, maturation age, is still just a number. You’ll find many delicious, non-age-stated and younger products on the market. That said, can I borrow $30,000?