The Food Lab, Drinks Edition: Does Longer Aging Improve Whisky?
Back in the heyday of my family's Scotch-whisky-as-ideal-Christmas-present phase, it wasn't uncommon for every member of the family to receive a bottle of fancy single-malt Scotch for Christmas—except for my mother, that is. I think it's written somewhere—on the side of storied ruins of Craigmillar Castle perhaps—that mothers are not allowed to enjoy Scotch. At The Great Christmas of 2007—at least I'm told it was great; I frankly don't remember much of it—a record-shattering 16 bottles of Scotch were given and received between six people.
Clearly, a tasting was in order, so we proceeded to pour ourselves 16 tastes in un-marked glasses, carefully examining, sipping, and knocking back each one before silently voting on our favorite. The results were all over the map with some of us picking out the strongly peated Laphroaig while others veered towards the sweeter, honeyed-notes of Macallan or Dalwhinnie. Age seemed to have little bearing on our preferences either—in a break from U.S. national policy, 12-year-olds were equally represented right alongside 18 and 21-year-olds.
This tasting, conducted in my own home by a group of eager amateurs, was inconclusive to say the least, but it got me thinking: Does longer aging really make for better whisky, and how much of that effect is purely psychological?
I decided to find out.
First off, what exactly is aging, and what is it supposed to accomplish?
Aging is the process of storing whisky in large, breathable oak casks for an extended period of time, from as little as three years (the minimum for a spirit to be labeled as Scotch Whisky) all the way up to 25 or more. The barrels were traditionally repurposed casks used in Sherry production, but these days can come from a variety of sources including bourbon, madeira, or even French wines. As the whisky sits, natural changes in atmosphere cause it to seep in and out of the wood, slowly picking up flavors from both the wood and its previous contents. At the same time, some proportion of the whisky evaporates, resulting in a decrease in its alcohol content (the stuff the floats off into the atmosphere is referred to as the "angel's share"), and a mellowing of its flavor.
The complete nature of changes whisky undergoes during aging are not fully understood. Like a living thing, reactions are constantly taking place between the chemicals in the whisky, the air, and the wood, destroying some flavor compounds while creating brand new, potentially more complex ones.
And of course, there's another thing that aging has a profound effect on: price. The price of whisky tends to go up exponentially with its age. While most single malt whiskies (those are whiskies that are bottled from a single batch as opposed to blended from multiple batches) in the 12-year range hover in the $100-and-under range, there are many 25-year-old whiskies that can top $500 per bottle!
To test whether or not these bottles are really worth the premium they command, our first order of business was to isolate age out of all the other variables—not an easy task! Even amongst the same distilleries, batches of whisky can change from year to year, particularly at the smaller distilleries (larger distilleries have a more codified process with more quality and consistency controls set in place). After that, you've got to find whiskies that were all aged in the same type of barrels. Many producers use multiple types of barrels to distinguish whisky of different ages in their lines.
In the end, we ended up talking to the kind folks at The Macallan, one of the world's largest whisky distilleries producing some of our favorite Highland malts. In the interest of pure scientific inquiry, they agreed to donate three bottles that were perfectly suited for our cause. All three bottles were aged from the same whisky (due to Macallan's large size, we're fairly confident that the starting spirits were similar in nature) and aged in the same Sherry oak casks. The only difference between them is the number of years they have been aged.
Here's what we had:
- The Macallan 12-year-old, around $40 retail. Cost per year in barrel: $3.33
- The Macallan 18-year-old, around $130 retail. Cost per year in barrel: $7.22
- The Macallan 25-year-old, around $500 retail. Cost per year in barrel: $20
Notice that the 25-year-old whisky costs 600% more than the 12-year-old!
In order to gauge whether or not older whiskies are truly better, I assembled a group of a dozen world class whisky drinkers, including such literary luminaries as Jeffrey Steingarten, bar owners like Kenny McCoy and Michael Neff of Ward III, professional distillers and brewers like Colin Spoelman of King's County Distillery and Gable Erenzo of Tuthilltown Spirits, and our own Cocktail 101 columnist Mike Dietsch. A powerhouse of drinkers, to be sure. I assembled them in two separate groups at the rooftop bar of the Gramercy Park Hotel (one of the greatest drinking spots in the city, helmed by bar manager Kevin Denton) in order to conduct several blind tastings.
I divided the tasters into three separate groups.
The first group of tasters knew exactly what they were tasting. They knew the maker, the ages, and which whisky was in which glass. The tasting was completely silent, marked only by the careful sniffs of tasters and the occasional clink of glasses. Indeed, for the first 10 minutes, most tasters didn't even take a sip of their whisky, instead examining its color and aroma. After collecting their scores and comments, I wasn't surprised to find that they unanimously picked the same order for overall quality—after all, they've all had experience with these three bottles in the past—but was surprised to see that in fact, all of them had chosen the 18-year-old as the superior whisky. While the 12-year old was still a little rough around the edges, the 25 was described as being "unbalanced," compared to the 18, with a bit too much vanilla and sweet sherry characteristics.
Interesting and certainly telling that the decision was unanimous, but there was still plenty of room for preconceived bias in this open tasting.
The second group of tasters tasted 100% blind. Tasters were given three identical glasses of whisky. They were not aware of the brand, of the age, or even that there was any difference at all between the three glasses. Thirty minutes later, I looked over their score sheets and found that once again, the Macallan 18 had come out on top, with three out of four tasters picking it as their favorite. For the record, Steingarten was the sole taster who felt the 25-year-old barely edged out the 18, proclaiming, "ah! So I'm the only one who got it right!" when the bottles were revealed.
Very interesting. It seems that the experts do indeed seek out certain characteristics in their Scotch and tend to agree upon what makes one Scotch better than another.
Knowing now that most professionals agree that the 18-year-old Macallan is the best of the three, I decided to shake things up a bit. For my final tasting, the tasters were all told what whiskies they would be drinking, but every sample would be deliberately mislabeled. So a glass labeled 18-year-old might actually be holding 12-year-old. My hope was that perhaps some sort of learned psychological bias on the part of the tasters might influence them enough to override their palates and pick based on the knowledge that the 18-year-old should taste better than the 12 or the 25.
No such luck. The tally was once again unanimously in favor of the 18-year-old Mac, regardless of the label on the glass!
"The Macallan 18 is a classic," said Kenny McCoy. "I could drink this stuff like water."
Stephanie Moreno of Astor Wine and Spirits agreed that the whisky is so well-regarded as to almost be cliché. "People come in all the time asking for it, to the point that I'll sometimes try and steer them towards a more obscure bottle," she says.
In my mind, that cleared up the answer to my initial question once and for all: longer aging does not necessarily make for better tasting whisky. Not that the 25-year-old whisky was bad, per se. Every taster marked it as a close second to the 18-year-old, and indeed, some mentioned that they really enjoyed drinking it if only because it provided an interesting counterpoint to the younger whiskies, clearly demonstrating the effects of aging. To draw a limited analogy, I'd liken it to the fact that I'd never claim Let It Be to be the greatest Beatles album, but I still love listening to it because of the role it plays in the Beatles' oeuvre, and indeed, would pay a premium for it if it was the only hole in my collection.
All of this begs the question, why is The Macallan 25 so much more expensive than the 18?
It's partially a production cost. Barrels are expensive, and they take up space (and space costs money, too.) But even more than that, it's a matter of scarcity. There simply aren't nearly as many bottles of Macallan 25 around, making it a sought-after prize for collectors—even those who might not necessarily drink the whisky.
But there's another thing to consider: amateurs. That is, people who can afford to buy whisky, but don't necessarily have the vocabulary or training to explain why one whisky may be "better" than another, or even whether it's better at all.
I decided to repeat the same series of tests, but this time, my tasting pool would consist of casual whisky drinkers. Those who, like myself, drink whisky fairly regularly, but rarely stop to concretely analyze what makes one whisky better than another.
This time, the results were drastically different: in all three tastings, there was no clear consensus. When tasters were given labeled glasses, the vote was split evenly between the 18- and 25-year-old whiskys (nobody picked the glasses labeled 12 as their favorite)—even when the glasses labeled 25 or 18 were actually holding 12-year-old whisky. In the completely blind tasting (which unfortunately was only held between three people—my pool of friends and supply of whisky is outreached by my curiosity), each whisky ended up receiving a vote.
So what does this all mean? Well for starters, we can say with a good amount of certainty that at least within the criteria of what experts define as "good" whisky—that is, complexity, smoothness, and overall drinkability—the 18-year-old Macallan is clearly superior to the 25. This indicates that if your goal is to align your tastes with the experts, then you'd be a fool to spend the extra $370 on a bottle of the older stuff.
On the other hand, if an expert's opinion has little to no merit to you—which is true for many people, myself included, to a degree—then you're far better off finding a good bottle that you can afford to like and sticking with it, whether it's young or old.
Is this study conclusive? Of course not. My sample size was fairly small, and the whiskies we tasted were all from a single distillery amongst a sea of excellent whiskies. It could easily be the case that Macallan is simply a fluke, that had we repeated the test with whiskies from a different distillery, the results would have been drastically different.
Like any purchasing decision, selecting a bottle of whisky is a cost-benefit analysis. But the knowledge that spending far more money on a bottle just because it's older may not actually deliver a whisky that tastes better to me will figure heavily into my future buys.
With the money I save on next year's Christmas presents, I may buy myself a nice bottle of the Macallan 18.
And in case anyone is wondering, Steingarten's current favorite whisky is Kavalan, a single malt from Taiwan. I've not had it, but I'd love to taste it.
Blind, of course.