Former Drinks International editor Patience Gould takes a look at the great age debate that’s aging in the whisky sector.
Just 20 years ago it would have been unthinkable for a Scotch whisky producer to launch a single malt without an age statement – but now faced with the on-going shortage of aging whisky stocks, and a fervent desire to manage these better, more and more line extensions are being introduced without. At a roundtable gathering (see p6) the trend was discussed between leading producers and retailers.
“Brands which have been built over the years have a consistent guarantee of quality – and that quality must always be there,” says Whyte & Mackay’s Richard Paterson. “With a no age statement you can go for a blend of younger and older whiskies – but quality will out.”
Indeed this was taken a step further by Diageo’s head of whisky outreach Nick Morgan: “If you want your blender to create a great whisky then don’t put an age statement on it – with no age statement innovation comes to the fore.”
This can already be evinced in the respective single malt lines, Whyte & Mackay’s Dalmore and Diageo’s Talisker. Under the Dalmore label W&M has unveiled Alexander 111 which has seen the highland malt matured in wine, Madeira, Sherry, Marsala, Kentucky Bourbon and Port casks. “Not having an age statement gives me the flexibility I’m looking for,” says Paterson.
In recent months Talisker has launched two non-aged variants, Storm and Port Ruighe. Storm is assembled by Diageo’s master blenders from both rejuvenated and refill casks at different ages. While Port Ruighe, is a combination of spirit that has been matured in American Oak and European Oak refill casks in the traditional manner along with spirit that has been filled into specially conditioned deeply charred casks.
Although not at the roundtable meeting, it was perhaps inevitable that Edrington’s activity with The Macallan came up for discussion, in particular the UK launch of its 1824 range which as the names suggest is colour coded, rather than age differentiated; Gold, Amber, Sienna, and Ruby, while the older Macallan variants above 15 Years Old, continue to have age statements.
This for one of the roundtablers, Andy Simpson was a step too far: “I’m speaking as a consumer now but having always had a bottle of Macallan 10 and 12 Year Old in the house, having tasted Gold – the spirit is just not there and while The Macallan 18 Year Old [Sherry] will always be one of my top 10 drams – I’ve now turned my back on The Macallan.”
Oh dear! But as Simpson says: “Hats off to The Macallan for trying”. For without a doubt none of these recent “innovations” would have been possible without the established quality guarantee and reputation of the brand name. A view which is further endorsed by The Whisky Exchange’s Ollie Chiltern: “A non-aged variant of whisky does very well if it is a well-known brand – as provided it had its followers it will sell well. Age on the whole is a useful benchmark, to which the consumer has been conditioned. Fifty, 60 years ago the 12 Year Old was the
be-all and it’s still relevant today.”