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Is older whisky always better?

It is often thought that an older single malt will be a better one. But is a number on a bottle the best thing to consider when you’re looking for a great-tasting whisky? We spoke to Gillian Macdonald, Head of Analytics & Whisky Creation at Glenmorangie and Ardbeg, to find out how to choose a single malt.

By law, Scotch whisky must be aged for at least 3 years. And many of the bottles you’ll find on Clos19 are a decade old, or more. But while age often spells extra rarity, it seems it doesn’t always mean extra taste.

“People do often look for age as a hallmark,” explains Gillian. “But an older whisky isn’t necessarily better than a younger whisky. In fact, age is just one of many elements to consider when you’re looking for a delicious dram.”

Where does whisky’s flavour come from?

By the time a whisky’s spirit is distilled, it has already gained around 40% of its final taste and flavour – the distinctive distillery character. The remaining 60% is down to what happens in the cask, as spirit matures into whisky. That can be influenced by many factors such as the type of oak used, how the cask has been heat-treated, the climate, what the cask previously held – perhaps wine or another spirit... and how long the whisky spends inside.

“When you age whisky, the interaction between spirit and wood over time, increases the flavour and complexity of the spirit,” says Gillian. “Every time spirit moves in and out of the oak through the charcoal on the inside of a cask, it picks up flavour from the wood. Addition reactions add character, colour and sweetness. Subtraction reactions remove any less desirable flavours and raw spirit character resulting in mellowing flavours and bringing about delicacy from oxidative reactions.”

The effects of age

So you might assume the older a whisky, the tastier it will become. But it’s not that simple. “Different flavours develop at different points. You’ll find amazing flavours in whisky that is 4 years old. Leave it for 6 years, and you’ll find different, but equally amazing flavours... and so on.”

By way of example, Gillian points to two of Ardbeg’s latest releases, both matured in bourbon and sherry casks. At 5 years old, Ardbeg Wee Beastie is the Islay Distillery’s youngest ever whisky. Contrast that to Ardbeg Traigh Bhan, a small-batch release aged 19 years.

“Wee Beastie is a big, characterful whisky, with lots of rawness and the influence of Ardbeg’s smoky distillery character. At the opposite end of the scale is the 19-year-old. It’s been mellowed over the years by the wood, to create tropical, rich vanilla flavours – and tastes much less peaty. They’re both stunning whiskies, but completely different.”

What about whiskies which give no age?

“Whiskies without age statements give whisky creators much more room to play with flavour – they have the flexibility of their entire stock. For example, Glenmorangie Signet is a very complex recipe with many different elements, and some of Glenmorangie’s oldest stock. There’s no need for a number on the bottle – its tastes of mocha coffee, dark chocolate and sweet spice speak for themselves.”

In fact, the real skill of a whisky creator is identifying the right time to take a whisky out of its cask and how to combine it with other casks. “A really great whisky is all about balance. You want to keep a sense of the distillery character, and mellow it long enough in wood so that it gains those lovely contributing flavours, with any harsher flavours removed. Then explore which cask combinations make the whisky shine.”

And, as it turns out, great age isn’t always a good thing. “Leave it in too long, and sometimes the wood can overdominate the distillery character. At other times, you reach an equilibrium after a certain point, where the wood isn’t necessarily adding anything else.”

How to pick a whisky

Firstly, don’t get too hung up on age. Instead, “Think about what flavours you love to indulge in. Look for words, colours and clues that will hint at what flavours you can expect from the whisky,’ suggests Gillian. “And definitely read through the tasting notes!”