We totally understand how intimidating and frustrating whisky shopping experience can be, whether you are buying a bottle for yourself, or as a gift for someone else, given the variety of different whiskys available on today’s market. To make things even more confusing, many distilleries have been putting out non-age statement botlings, thus erasing any points of reference for consumers. So, we will try to clarify a few things for you, and put you on the right track.
When single malt Scotch whisky is produced, it is usually made up from several casks of varying ages (unless it is a single cask bottling, which should be stated on the label), and by law, the age statement that goes on the label is the age of the youngest drop of whisky in the bottle. Very often customers ask us if the age statement is important, and whether older whisky is always better. Unfortunately, there are no simple answers to those questions, and that is why we decided to make this post.
The age statement is important in a sense that it provides us with a benchmark, or a point of comparison, if you wish. But we should also remember that the age statement is just a number, and it is not necessarily an indicator of quality of the whisky. The age statement does not tell us what kind of casks the whisky was matured in (remember, that more than 90% of flavor comes from the casks), the size of the casks (the ratio of cask surface area to the volume of whisky affects the time of the maturation), or where it was stored (the temperature fluctuation allows the whisky to go in and out of the wood and acquire its flavor). So age is just a nominal number, that does not always equate with quality or maturity, but gives us an idea how much we should be paying for a bottle of whisky. For example, you can expect the price for a 12 year old singe malt to vary a few dollars from one brand to the next, but if you see a $100 difference, that, obviously, raises a lot of questions whether that higher price tag is really warranted. But when there is no age statement on the bottle whatsoever, the producers are free to charge any price they wish.
The question whether older whisky is always better has to do with the concept of maturity. The distilleries are charging more money for older whisky (increasingly so!), but more expensive does not always mean better. It is true, that whisky acquires more complexity with age, but it also follows a bell curve distribution with most casks reaching their maturity around 12 – 18 years of age for Scotch whisky). Keeping that in mind, you, as a consumer, should do your research to find out which whisky is right for you. If you are a beginner malt drinker, for example, you might not be able to appreciate and enjoy an older whisky compared to a more affordable younger one. Also, a super expensive old whisky can be over wooded and past its prime, and a young whisky can deliver beyond your expectations (think Kilchoman for example). And vise versa – you can get a spectacular older whisky at a great price (Balblair 1975!), and an immature younger one. So, to summarize: older whisky can mean better, but proceed with caution!
Finally, getting to the issue of the non-age statement whiskys. Here you really have to do your homework and exercise your best judgement. Non-age statement usually means that there is young whisky and older whisky in the bottle, and there is a certain average age. There are very good NAS whiskys on the market you should look out for like Aberlour A’bunadh, Ardbeg Uegeadail, Old Pulteney Navigator, Kilchoman Machir Bay, and few others, but you should always pay attention to price/value ratio. Do your research online, there is plenty of information available through blogs and reviews, find a commentator that has a similar taste to yours. And find a local bottle shop with a good selection of malts and a whisky specialist that can help you with your selection. Good luck, and spend you money wisely!