Water of Life Society Tasting 14/3
Age is Just a number
Our third tasting of 2014 (14/3) already and this week we are focussing on the effects of ageing and age-statements or lack thereof on bottles of whisky.
The history of cask ageing whisky is almost as old as the history of making whisky itself. Fermentation and distillation of whisky was an excellent solution to dealing with surplus harvested barley. Storing surplus barley crops over winter would often lead to them spoiling or loss to rodents and other vermin. Converting barley to whisky however produced the benefits of both being easily stored/preservable and was no longer palatable to pests. The anecdotal story of whisky suggests distillers soon discovered the benefits of storage in oak casks which also added beneficial flavour qualities to their whisky.
Later in an attempt by the Excise to stop unscrupulous and illicit distillation of whisky, a legal requirement was made for all whisky produced to be subject to a minimum of 3 years maturation in an oak cask (in Scotland) for it to be called Scotch. Distillers with little financial backing couldn’t wait 3 years and soon went out of business (or so we are told).
Normally a tasting looking at the effects of age maturation will take a vertical approach, tackling first the new make spirit or youngest and then building up through the various expressions to depict how increased ageing adds more complexity. This is based on the concept that new make is raw and harsh and increased ageing equates to increased beneficial flavours and aromas in the whisky. Nowadays however some whisky new make spirit is produced of sufficient quality to be drunk young, and it probably all tastes a lot better now than hundreds of years ago(!)
And so we approached this with a view to convincing people that some young whisky can be just as complex and powerful (and enjoyable) as aged whisky. During maturation, oak casks breathe and whisky is lost due to evaporation (the Angel’s Share). Older whiskies tend to be less alcoholic, more expensive and often darker and more fuller-flavoured.
At 24 years old this Miltonduff small batch from Cadenheads has developed a deep golden amber hue from the ex-bourbon casks it has been stored in. With time this has developed both tropical fruity (aged ester) and herbal (aged oak wood) flavours after over two decades of extraction and reaction in its oak cask. A popular choice amongst many.
At 19 years old this Imperial expression is in the peak purchased whisky ageing category (mid- to late-teens) many don’t prefer older whiskies as they may become overly astringent and woody. At ~19 this has been perfectly imbued with sherry cask character but is balanced well against the Imperial spirit nature and qualities – this was my favourite of the evening!
The Benromach 10 is perfectly constructed to reveal a mass of complexity buoyed along by youthful exuberance. This one also found many fans at the tasting, revealing 10 years in an oak cask is more than enough to produce flavourful, enjoyable whisky.
Bottled in 2010 and Distilled no earlier than 2004 this at its oldest can only possibly be 6 years old and may contain younger spirit than this. Impressive for 6 but possibly a little rough around the edges – this was the first to noticeably attract disapproval from a small minority of our tasters, others however loved it.
Islay malts are possibly the most powerful malts with their masses of peat influence. It was hard not to be impressed with Cadenheads Live Islay Cask bottling, it also had the benefit of being a Blended Malt which may have ironed out some of the rougher edges by balancing flavours from different constituents. Perhaps not the favourite of the evening but still just as drinkable as the rest.
Specific tasting notes can be found by clicking on the links for each whisky.