A modest proposal, dear Scotland, keep your age statements but give me the proof.
Saturday afternoon my charge was to bring the drinks for a catch-up session with an old friend. Sure, I’ve got Pimm’s Cups on the brain right now, but I didn’t want to hit a grocer to buy an entire salad to garnish them with. Instead, I dug a single bottle out of the cabinet, a no-age-statement* bottle of Talisker 57° North, an at-the-distillery-only-bottling of eponymous proof. It was the perfect choice for a breezy Bay Area afternoon. We sat around a battered wooden picnic table, pretending that the screams of children playing were the cries of seagulls circling the Isle of Skye and that the Matchbox cars were, well, we just kind of played with them. I'm thinking of getting some. Vroom vroom. I was concerned that taking an oddball, no-age-statement* bottle over would be ill received because those expressions are less understood. But they will be increasingly more common.
Age statements are disappearing from scotch bottles and status-minded-white-guys are freaking out. But they shouldn’t be, Johnnie Walker Blue seems to have been doing fine for them this whole time. Let us gather the electron microscope to view the tiniest orchestra playing “sad, status-minded-white-guy concerto in b minor.” Just to refresh, an age statement, in most English speaking countries, refers to the youngest spirit blended into that bottling. And remember, unless the bottle is labeled “single barrel”** it is blended with other barrels. Almost everything is blended. Blend is not a bad word. Blend is dynamic, but more on that later.*** But many distilleries are releasing whiskies bereft of age statements for several reasons, some sympathetic and some shameful.
To rip off the shame band-aid quickly, when single malts really came into popularity in the 80's, age statements became synonymous with quality. This is true enough for price when it is set by supply and demand, slightly less so for actual margin, but has nothing to do with quality. You’ll be hard pressed to find a whisky writer or just a writer, that will turn down a free dram, but when no one else is listening, you’ll hear them admit that they prefer whisky much younger than the crystal decanters of 50-year-old-go-fuck-yourself whisky monuments.*** Sympathetically, whisky demand has gone way up. The whisky industry is a victim of success, the kind of victim that cries all the way to the bank, but still a victim. Planning takes a long time in the whisky world, a simile about steering an oil tanker comes to mind. But it’s probably more like steering an oil tanker that is locked in ice and instead of a steering wheel, you only have curling brooms to brush in your desired direction. And that kids, is how you “torture a simile.”
Neither sympathetic nor shameful would be the complexity of learning a new whisky lexicon. When I started tending bar, it was simple, you drank the age statement you could afford. Some bars would even price scotch at $1 a year. Some bars still do and I seek them out. But an age statement is, just as a newly divorced, Ed Hardy clad 50 year old would say to a cocktail server “ain’t nothing but a number.” In whisky, that isn’t a creepy saying, rather, it is quite accurate. Age is just another fact and it’s increasingly one of the least important facts. New no-age-statement whiskies require that consumers and bartenders figure out why they are (or aren’t) worth the price. When I reach for a a no-age-statement whisky I consider 4 factors
Higher proof means more whisky in the bottle. Almost every bottle of liquor is actually a bottle of 60% water. A cask strength whisky can easily flip that ratio. While that raises the cost, it will also give you more of the 3 things you want: whisky, flavor and aroma. It also means that the distiller/blender wants you to have the full flavor of the whisky.
Judging whisky by its’ color is like looking where a close up magician tells you to look, and then, “voila, where did your wallet go?” Caramel coloring is very common in the whisky world. This is a video of what spirit caramel looks like. Brands say it’s for consistency and I’m sympathetic to that because it’s difficult to explain that whisky is a natural product. Whisky has different colors the same way that salmon grow to different sizes and asparagus to different shapes. But my more sinister view is that consumers and brands view caramel color as a value multiplier. Brands that aren’t using it will generally proclaim it on the bottle. And they will likely explain the color by listing that barrel type.
Wood, or barrel type, is exactly as it sounds: it's wood. It’s easy to make jokes about frugal distillers wanting used barrels but that’s not exactly the case. A used bourbon barrel can retain 70% of its value. A used sherry barrel will often cost 4 times as much as an american oak barrel. Better brands use better wood, fewer times. Wood is responsible for most of whisky’s flavor so know more about what is being used is important. Here as a too long video explaining general corollaries about wood.
I like to see a bottle with a lot o’ words. When the words are facts, I quilt them into a warm blanket and swaddle myself in comfortable information. This is were you’ll find information about chill filtration AKA: the flavor thief and caramel coloring AKA whisky’s bronzing lotion. A great example of providing information is High West Whiskey. Each bottle has a novella in 8 point type printed on the back. You will have few questions when are done reading it. But sometimes, in scotch whisky, this information can’t be passed along. For example, the whisky makers at Compass Box want to tell consumers what is blended into their whisky. But the Scotch Whisky Association has decided that some of that information being passed along is illegal. If you would like more information about what goes into your whisky, visit Whisky Transparency.
Whisky is just grain, water, wood and time.
But the real truth on the cost of whisky is demand, age, status, reviews and marketing. I was recently asked how much is too much to spend on a bottle of whisky. And while I have several bottles that cost more, there are too many amazing expressions for $100 to really seek out something more costly. Past the $100 mark you are paying for rarity in outrun, an award that drives up the price for sycophants or even worse, a lazy TV writer that googled “expensive whisky” and mentioned Pappy, again, in some hacky shit show. In choosing how to spend that $100, look for a bottle that packs on information like a supply mule on the Oregon trail. Also, look for proof.
*No-age-statement NAS- Bloggers will abbreviate no-age-statement as NAS. I try to avoid acronyms because I think of them as exclusive. Acronyms are for nerds that hoard knowledge and a nerd that hoards knowledge is not a nerd, that, is an asshole.
**Single Barrel- God damn it, unless it says single barrel and what bottle of the barrel it is, then it’s a bunch of barrels blended together, of various ages, quality and perhaps types. EVERYTHING IS BLENDED, BLENDED TO BE MADE BETTER.
***Talisker- Ok it wasn’t later, it was “below.” I am not a shill for Talisker but I’d love a few bottles if they’d like to ship ‘em. I chose Talisker because the 57° North is truly amazing but also because that brand and distillery have been subject of several other points in this little think piece. The Talisker 18 won “Best Whisky in the World” in 2007, one of the first to be given that award, and it tripled in price thereafter. I assume that is because awards are so delicious. Talisker 10 year is their standard expression and while it is great, and it tastes like the fishing trip I want to be on, it’s a bit “one note.” Talisker Storm is a recent release in the no-age-statement world and while I didn’t like the blend of old and young whisky, I can certainly say that it is vastly more complex than the 10 year. Perhaps an easier and more strait-forward example is this: I like the new Hibiki no-age-statement more than the now extinct 12 year, because, without being bound by an age, it’s more interesting and dynamic. But I wish it cost less dough.
****50 year old whisky- 50 year old whiskies are trophies and investments. You can drink them, and they might taste good, but that is not their job.