Chivas Brothers have recently launched a new global educational campaign entitled ‘Great Things Take Time’.
To declare such a grand concept – Chivas treated us to a delicious lunch, courtesy of Mark Hix, at Brown’s Hotel to explain why age is important – undoubtedly because they have a lot of old whisky that needs selling, and selling is what we do. I am always happy to listen so I settled down to be wooed by these giants of blending.
According to their research only 10% of whisky consumers understand what the age statement on a bottle of whisky means, and 94% of people believe an age statement is an indicator of quality. This is understandable; it’s not immediately apparent, or indeed, at all apparent on the bottle that the age statement refers to the youngest whisky inside. Plus, it’s easy to see why older whisky should be better; older whisky is more expensive, if it’s more expensive surely it should be of a higher quality – that’s a fair assumption to make. However, this got me thinking as we tasted our way through the Chivas range with Master Blender Colin Scott: does age matter?
We were then ferried to the grotto of antiquities that is the Victoria & Albert Museum to watch a debate addressing the question whether age matters or not take place. The debate took place between historian Bettany Hughes and Peter Aspden from the Financial Times, however their inclination to agree with one another lended a bias to the argument that age does matter (remember old whisky is at stake here). Despite this what they had to say was interesting.
Now, although the debate wasn’t specifically about whisky it translates rather nicely and can help answer my own quandary.
Whisky without a doubt takes time to make – it has to hang around in an oak cask like a teenager in a public space for at least three years – and often a lot longer. It would be as redundant as a Betamax tape to say that age doesn’t matter because age irrefutably affects the character of a whisky. Bettany Hughes drew parallels with the Bronze Age where ‘made in Egypt’ was a mark of quality – the reason being that they were producing artefacts that took time and skill to make, in the same way that Scotch requires time and skill to produce.
Both take time to make...
Bearing this in mind, ‘age matters’ is very different to ‘age is most important’. Whisky needs a degree of time to extract flavour from the cask, this much is true. Plus, whisky has to be at least three years old to be able to call itself whisky, also true. Considering these two facts, age matters.
However, implying that age is most important is dangerous. The implication is that age is the strongest influence on a whisky’s flavour, character and quality, this most certainly isn’t true. Whisky is most affected by how many times the cask has been used previously, a first-fill sherry butt is going to have much more effect in a shorter period of time than a third-fill over the same or even longer period of time. Therefore I would argue that age certainly isn’t the most important aspect, rather, the skill of the people making it is; those who balance all the variables that fashion a whisky's character against one another to produce something mind-blowing.
Now, it would be damned foolish of me to simply imply that older whiskies have no merit at all — try our recent Speyside bottlings to see why. Peter Aspden argued that a complex journey often results in greater value, ergo, the longer a whisky sits in a cask, the longer it is evolving and developing. Highly-aged whiskies can boast immense complexity and serenely long finishes that would put younger whipper-snapper malts to shame.
Old and delicious.
Age is also a grand statement when you put it into perspective – Bettany Hughes told us that it took eighteen years to build the Great Pyramid of Giza, that's the same amount of time it takes to make many of our favourite whiskies, that's certainly an impressive amount of time when you think about it in that context.
The Pyramid at Giza
Similarly highly aged whiskies have a sense of provenance about them. There’s nothing quite like wondering what was happening in the world when a whisky was being made – what major event/celebration/cataclysmic disaster was occurring at the same time? These questions we think about are as intrinsically linked to the whisky drinking experience as time, place and company. Likewise – as Bettany said – the reason ancient peoples appreciated antiquities was because they stimulated conversation.
To bring it back to the beginning, it is completely understandable why Chivas would want to put focus back on age with some brands leaning towards no-age statement bottlings and whisky connoisseurs bigging-up innovative expressions from artisan producers. Chivas sell whiskies proudly bearing age statements like a five-year old with a golden sticker; they have a vested interest in the perception that older is better, contrary to reality. It is also worth remembering that the price of a whisky is mostly controlled by scarcity – it’s those intangible, shrouded figures in the dark, the so-called *market forces*, that make old whiskies expensive.
Market forces at work.
So, yes, age matters to a certain extent and old whiskies can be incredible, but age mattering isn’t synonymous with older meaning better. Age informs how we perceive a whisky but there is a danger that it informs how we perceive its quality and therefore what we are willing to pay for it. As the debate demonstrated, humans appreciate history, and whisky is symbolic of this appreciation, hence we will continue to seek out old whisky. The thing is, whisky is only as good as it tastes, whether it is five years old or fifty. If you like it, it’s good. Simple as.