Many people believe, and often rightly, that older whisky is better than younger whisky.
Indeed, the longer spirit matures in the cask, it becomes softer, smoother and more complex.
Drawn in and out of the oak through a thin layer of char, the whisky is flavoured by a host of organic compounds within the wood. And impurities are mellowed and filtered out.
There are also specific flavours commonly associated with old casks that simply cannot be found in a younger whisky. These can take the form of leathery, dusty, or ‘old book’ notes. With peated malts, the phenol compounds that give the whisky its distinctive flavour are broken down. A 30 year old Caol Ila will taste completely different to a 5 year old.
As mentioned in our previous article, ‘1st fill vs refill’, first fill casks mature more quickly and impart more flavour from the oak. On the other hand, refill casks will mature more slowly, allowing for more distillery character.
Despite the rarity, complexity, and smoothness of older whiskies, there are also many compelling reasons to bottle whiskies at younger ages. An extremely active cask can result in a whisky being fully mature after only eight years of maturation. Any longer and the intensity of the flavour may either become too strong. Or else disappear entirely.
If the desired character of a whisky is to be a ‘peat monster’ in the classic Islay style, then a youthful whisky is infinitely preferable. The peat will be much more prominent. Furthermore, the alcohol percentage will be higher, resulting in more power. This is essential with some casks. Often the alcohol is an integral part of the flavour where the sweetness of the spirit and sweetness from the oak are intrinsically connected. With a loss of alcoholic strength, the entire flavour structure of a whisky can often fall apart.
On the other hand, the alcoholic strength can mask more subtle flavours. And the whisky can come across as ‘spirity’ and harsh. The organic flavour molecules are often bound to the alcohol. All that is needed is a couple of drops of water to help break down the chemical bonds. As well as release the full taste potential of a whisky. This trick can also do wonders for the texture and mouthfeel as well.
More youthful flavours include a clear and spirity sweetness, fresh fruits, coconut and banana, and notes of malt from the barley. Many distilleries these days have been experimenting with local and organic barley. Often from one farm, and this can have a distinctive effect on the whisky. These flavours will be much more distinctive at a younger age, and with too long, a maturation will become lost.
Think of flavour in whisky as being something akin to a building. All great whiskies have structure. A combination of flavours and textures working together to create a truly pleasurable sensation that is more than just taste. An old, fine and rare whisky such as a 38-year-old Port Ellen could be likened to Westminster Abbey. However, other old buildings, whilst historically valuable, can be in appalling condition with the structure entirely disintegrated.
We could compare cheap blends and young grain to a 1970’s council estate in Birmingham. But there is no reason that an 8-year-old Bruichladdich Organic Barley can’t be as wonderful and inspiring as the Sydney Opera House.
So, is older whisky “better” than young whisky? There is no wrong or right answer and it completely depends on your flavour preferences.