This commonly asked question about whisky is one that keeps cropping up amongst drinkers and consumers. It is also a common view in a similar way to the way one thinks about older wines. It is often heard or assumed that the increased age of a whisky therefore makes it the better than its younger counterparts. But is this statement true or is it a common misconception?
Two things are for certain - old whiskies are relatively rare and they carry a high price tag. There are a number of reasons for this. Wherever a whisky is maturing in the world, it is losing some of its volume each day. This is through evaporation and the rate of evaporation is different depending on the climate. Looking at Scotland as an example - most distilleries lose around 2% of what is in every cask each year. Therefore after a number of years there will be considerable less in the cask than when it was filled.
If you add the evaporation to the time spent waiting to bottle an older whisky, then you have the two main factors. You could be waiting 25, 30, 40 or even 50 years to bottle it - that involves a lot of time, patience, monitoring and expertise. On top of this can be the possibility of the whisky being from just a single cask, which adds to its rarity and price, and being at the natural alcohol strength.
There are two schools of thought within the industry - "age matters" and "no, it doesn't". A large number of brands, especially single malts, will position their core ranges at various rigid age points - 10, 12, 15 and 18 years old, for example. Some however will have their introductory whisky with no age statement, just a creative name. This will be because it may be less than 10 years of age and the public perception may be stigmatised as 'too young' if marked with a six or eight-year-old statement.
One company heavily focussed on age are Chivas Brothers, the second biggest player in the Scottish industry. In 2010 they launched a global consumer campaign named The Age Matters. This had the tagline, "Look for the number... a guarantee of age and quality". Their message was clear and it is therefore unsurprising that their flagship blended whisky of Chivas Regal carries age statements of 12, 18 and 25 years. This is something that many of the competitors of Chivas Regal do not have. Pernod seemed to be tapping in to the public's subconscious that Chivas has an age stated, therefore it must be better than its contemporaries. Check out the video for the campaign below.
On the other side is the recent news that Macallan, the iconic Speyside single malt, may be removing some of their entry level whiskies with age statements (such as the 10, 12 and 15 years olds) and replacing them with younger expressions with no stated ages. If true, this is revolutionary and slightly risky for such a big brand with a large worldwide fan base of drinkers.
The move will initially happen in the UK market, but how long before it spreads around the globe? Macallan's argument is that they are creating new whiskies to fit various flavour profiles and tastes, rather than sticking to the rigid format of age statements. This is an increasing trend across the industry, as now most brands/distilleries will have at least one expression within their core range that carries no age and is created to fit a specific style.
Ultimately only you can decide whether an older whisky is better than a younger one, or whether it is worth spending the extra money to obtain it. Older whiskies tend to have more depth and complexity than younger whiskies, and will also be richer, sweeter or spicier. In the case of the smoky style, the smokiness lessens and becomes more integrated. The longer a whisky has spent in a cask, then the more characteristics that it will have naturally pulled from that cask.
This is where you choice comes in - if you like feisty, peaty and full on smoky whiskies, then you are not generally going to find these characteristics in a whisky of significant age. Therefore, are older whiskies better for you? Probably not, as only a younger whisky will offer you what you prefer.
In reality, some older whiskies are better than their younger expressions and some are not, having become almost 'too old'. What can safely be said is that older whiskies are different and more complex than younger whiskies, and it is a great deal of fun finding out if they are better or not!