In contemporary times we have all adjusted to the concept that age is just a number. Forty is the new 30 and 50 is the new 40 while 100 is, well 100 is still 100 and a damn impressive milestone if you ask me. We have learned to take measure of the individual rather than simply checking the odometer of life.
Unfortunately, we haven’t fully evolved our thinking in regards to understanding the number in regards to aged spirits.
I suppose that we can’t begin a discussion of age in regards to spirits without first laying down some simple definitions. When you encounter an age statement on a bottle of Whiskey, Brandy, or any spirit the number is an indicator of the years spent in wood. Wood aging is the only age that counts. If you buy a bottle of 10 year-old Whiskey today and lock it away for 20 years it’s still a 10 year-old Whiskey.
Most wood-aged spirits are sold with some indicator of age. In the case of Single Malt Scotch Whisky, many Irish Whiskies, Rum, and Bourbon as well the age statement is often boldly presented on the label (10, 15, 20 years-old and so on). Cognac and other Brandies often employ an indicator of age via a grading system (VS, VSOP, XO, and so on) that offers an approximate statement of age. See our Cognac aging grade decoder.
It is also important to know that age statements made on spirits bottles are an indicator of the minimum age. If you were to drop a shot glass full of 10 year-old Whisky into a swimming pool full of 25 year-old Whisky the entire lot is now a 10 year-old Whiskey.
Wood aging is absolutely essential to Whiskey, Brandy, and Rum. The world’s most famous Whiskey categories all have minimum aging requirements as do the best brandy producing regions. In many Rum-producing nations the spirit cannot legally be labeled as Rum without a minimum rest in wood casks (this holds true for white Rums as well).
There are spirits that do not reach their full potential until aged in wood for a period of time that far exceeds the required minimum aging. Vintage Armagnac for one is a spirit that typically needs a decade or more to fully mature (three decades is not uncommon).
Minimums have been legally established but there are no maximum age limitations – and there should not be any limit established. However, I am continually puzzled by the fascination with old spirits and the older is more desirable mantra of most consumers, as well as some in the business.
The Reflexive Urge to Grab Old Spirits
The most dangerous drinking game on the planet is standing near the booth of a prominent Whiskey maker at a major Whiskey festival taking a shot of spirit each time a punter arrives at the table and asks, “What’s the oldest whisky you got?” You’ll be flat on you back side before reaching the second verse of “Auld Lang Syne”…
Allow me to give you an insider’s perspective; those of us who have been involved in the drinks business for decades are the last to be impressed by an unknown old spirit. In fact, we are likely to be very skeptical. We know that wood aging is a careful art and science and that there is most certainly a point of diminishing returns. At a point the spirit will become so much more of the cask and less of the spirit that it is no longer enjoyable. On more than 100 occasions I have tasted old spirits from both cask and bottle and thought to myself, or said aloud, “this is a shame – it was probably beautiful years ago.”
Of course distillers and blenders know this too so why might you ask do they age a portion of their spirits past their prime? The answer is simple, you’ll buy them. Not only will you buy them but you (not you – you’re too smart but the next guy…) will pay a king’s ransom for ultra-old spirits.
Of course at the end of the day it is all subjective. For instance, I have an on-going gentle debate with a distiller friend of mine. He feels that his 21 year-old Whisky is the distillery’s best expression while I prefer the 17 year-old. Neither of us is wrong. Different strokes for different folks.
Please don’t misunderstand me, the purpose of this story is not to disparage very old spirits (25 years-old and beyond). Some of the greatest spirits I have ever tasted have been aged in cask for decades. I simply want to put an end to the reflexive belief that the oldest spirit is the best spirit. This is simply not true. Buy carefully.