Does whisky really get better with age?
It’s easy to assume that all whisky will continue to improve with age. After all, don’t we all? However, the cost of very old whiskies is not always reflected in their taste. In recent years new craft whisky distilleries have been producing young whiskies that have been giving the ‘old timers’ a run for their money. When we delve into the modern era of whisky making and the mechanisms of whisky maturation, we can begin to see how. So if you want to know does whisky really get better with age, keep reading to find out.
What is the best Scotch whisky?
Before we take a running jump into whisky maturation, we firstly need to consider the what do we mean by better? Broadly speaking, the goal of whisky maturation is to reduce the undesirable flavours in a spirit and to enhance or add desirable ones. For example, it’s common for new make spirit to be dominated by oily, cerealy and sulphury aromas, which are often unpleasant and overpowering. With time some of these will be reduced through their interaction with the burnt layer of charred oak within the cask.
Others will be masked by new flavours that will be leached from the wood itself. The most easily identifiable examples are oak lactones such as coconut and vanilla flavours. Some undesirable compounds will be converted to more pleasant ones through oxidation. Of course the whisky will also gain all of it’s colour from the oak and take on character from the previous cask filling such as sherry, madeira or port. It’s important to understand that whisky maturation refers to the time spent in an oak cask. Once the whisky is bottled it will take many decades for any noticeable changes to occur.
There is a challenge however. We all have differing levels of sensitivity to different aromas. For example, some people simply do not detect sulphury or smoky aromas very easily while others may be extremely sensitive to them. So the term ‘better’ is very much a subjective opinion. This is also related to personal taste. If you are a fan of heavily peated whiskies, the intensity of that smoky flavour diminishes through maturation, so a 30 year old Islay could appear less appealing than a 10 year old version, but to someone who does not enjoy heavy peat it may be a revelation. The point is that ‘better’ is an entirely subjective experience that will be dependent on our own sensitivities, preferences and experience, and even the concept of balance is a personal choice.
Old malt scotch whisky
While the balance of flavour itself is largely subjective, we can generally agree that a more mellow and complex character is desirable over a rough and raw spirit. The concept of using oak casks to improve the flavour of whisky in a systematic way has surprisingly only been commonplace since the 1970’s. Since then the industry has come on leaps and bounds with regards to our understanding of both making and maturing whisky, especially within the last 20 years.
The old practices were renowned for creating extremely variable new make spirit in terms of it’s quality. The technology simply wasn’t available to make the same tasting spirit week in, week out. A lack of understanding of the maturation process would mean that the quality of casks was extremely variable too. Whisky casks, being made from wood, each have their own personality and have a limited lifespan before they become inactive. An inactive cask means that it has reached the end of its life and will have very little impact on the flavour of whisky regardless of the length of maturation.
Hence, when old and tired casks were filled with spirit of variable quality, it could take decades to achieve something palatable, if ever at all. You would be surprised how many truly bogging casks of whisky were created in this era. This brought about the notion that older whisky is better, which was certainly grounded in the state of the industry at the time. In recent years though, a great deal of research has gone into the impacts of barley selection, yeast strains, fermentation and distillation processes, plus of course how the spirit interacts with oak during maturation. So what does this mean for a scotch whisky and age?
A new age for malt scotch whisky
A better understanding of how the flavour compounds in scotch whisky are created and developed, paired with technological advances, has led to very consistent new make spirit. It has also enabled the character of that spirit to be fine tuned. At Crafty Distillery we create a new make spirit that demonstrates balance and quality straight from the still. The common sulphury off-notes are undetectable and the desirable fruity compounds are accentuated to create a new make spirit that is mellow and flavoursome, even without any maturation.
We achieve this through a number of ways that were unheard of in whisky making in the past. We are able to control the temperature of the wort (the sugar-rich water from steeping barley) to extend the fermentation time to an exceptionally long seven days. We use a very specific yeast and barley variety, and we use unique stills of our own design. This all adds up to a great tasting new make spirit. A far cry from the struck-match rough spirits that required additional ageing to iron out the off-notes.
With a deeper level of understanding about the maturation process we can now take a great tasting spirit and fill it into high quality casks. There are many factors that make a cask high quality. The variety of oak, where it was grown, how it was seasoned, how it is treated with heat, what it is filled with before whisky goes in, and of course the skill of the cooper. Add to this the impact of cask size and we can carefully control the development of flavours as the spirit matures.
For example, we are meticulous about using only exceptionally high quality casks, some of which have a small capacity that have been previously filled with madeira, port, sherry or moscatel wine. A small capacity cask increases the ratio of wood to spirit, thereby increasing the interaction between the two and influencing the character of the spirit at a faster rate. So armed with all this knowledge you are now better equipped to answer the question at hand.
Does whisky really get better with age?
The process of maturing whisky brings about a great many and complex series of changes. The style of the spirit, the species of oak, where it’s grown, how it’s seasoned, the size of the cask and many other factors, all influence the flavour of the whisky. As we mentioned earlier, the defining measure of quality will be balance which brings with it an element of subjective perspective.
So it is possible to age a particular style of high quality spirit in small oak casks and create a whisky that will taste fantastic after only three or four years. Could it taste better with a longer maturation? Well maybe, but it’s important to understand the concept of balance when it comes to whisky and oak. Much like making a cup of tea, there’s an optimal length of time to steep the tea leaves to achieve the perfect balance of flavour. Too short and it’s bland and insipid, too long and it will bitter and harsh to the point of being undrinkable.
Scotch whisky is the same. Too long in a cask will make the wood derived flavours dominate the whisky. The character of the spirit will be pushed to one side and harsh, woody and spicy flavours will overpower the palate. This why second hand casks are favoured for maturing scotch whisky, such as those that previously matured bourbon whiskey. Some of that intensity from the oak has been stripped away already.
The bottom line is that it really depends on many influencing factors, but there is a definite cut-off point, after which the balance of the whisky will deteriorate. If you’ve ever had the unfortunate experience of tasting whisky that has been in a cask too long you will know how undrinkable it can be! Scotch whisky should express the distillery’s character in the spirit, not simply taste of oak.
Finding the perfect balance
Because we understand that flavour is such a subjective experience we adopted an unusual approach when we created our style of new make spirit. Through our Billy & Co Founders Club we sent out samples of different spirit styles from Crafty Distillery to hundreds of club members. Collating their feedback we were able to understand very clearly what style of spirit people enjoyed the most, leaving nothing to chance.
Rather than relying on the preferences of just a few, we used sampling on a mass scale to reduce the influence of subjective opinion. So this is how we arrived at a new make spirit that has great balance straight from the still. By filling it into only the finest oak casks we are leaving no stone unturned when it comes to creating quality, balance and great taste. It’s now a matter of allowing it to rest within the casks, changing and developing over time, simply waiting to find the perfect balance.
A more accurate question therefore may be does whisky become more balanced with age. As we have seen with the example of making a cup of tea, it does, but only to a certain point before it loses balance. Exactly where that point in time is will be dependent on many, many factors and individual taste. So with great excitement we are looking forward to sharing what is possible in the modern era of whisky making with our own Billy & Co single malt whisky. Watch this space!