Here we are in the golden age of information. Insane amounts of knowledge from mankind all uploaded to a digital medium that we can all access from wherever we are. It definitely has it’s ups. The rate that people can learn information and hear about new technologies is incredible but have you ever thought about the downsides? Just as good information can make its way around the world faster than ever, so can wrong information.
There was an article posted on Wine Enthusiast just four days ago called “Why Ultra-Aged Spirits Are Ripping You Off” and it’s been making its way around the whisky communities that I frequent. Unfortunately for the author, it’s full of the most ignorant perspective about whisky that I’ve ever read. The basic premise of the article can be summed up in a sentence from the first paragraph: “If you sip a 40-year-old Bourbon or 50-year-old Scotch, you’re basically sipping on oak tannins, bragging rights, a sense of history and little else.”
This might sound fantastic to someone who’s looking to have an opinion on whisky they’ll never be able to afford but it doesn’t make it true. This wine writer makes a few claims throughout the article with out making any real distinctions to relevant nuances. Let’s dig in.
(Full Disclosure: The article makes my blood boil.)
Claim: “every barrel-aged spirit has a sweet spot in terms of the maturity where it tastes best.”
This is true. Unfortunately, it’s effect is compounded in bourbon where the type of cask is specifically limited by law. Fortunately for scotch whisky, there are no limitations and specific woods that are known for being less active over time can be used to age spirits that will move the sweet spot of the spirits age well into the 50s that I’ve personally tasted (can we talk about the vibrancy of the Balvenie 50 cask 191?!) and I’m sure into even older ranges. To ignore the fact that every barrel is truly different is to ignore the entire idea of an older whisky that doesn’t taste like “sipping oak tannins”.
Claim: “Here’s a guide, informed by input from the experts”
Based on the reference in her article, it looks like the writer did little to ask any “experts” outside of the bourbon industry. Of course there will be age limitations to American whisky casks that must be aged in charred virgin oak barrels. The difference between the first time use of a barrel and the second is vast and the difference between a first time use and a fourth time use as some of the distilleries in Scotland do, is astronomical. The spirit interaction with the cask as that point may require decades upon decades to develop any great flavors at all! (I have a glenfarclas 1981 that was aged in fourth use sherry casks and it’s beyond mild for a 36 year old whisky.)
Claim: “He deems a Scotch too old when the wood notes overtake the distillery character and flavor compounds that have developed over time. In other words, “the whisky loses its cohesiveness,” he says.”
A quote from the man, John Glasser himself! But with NO reference to a specific time period because he knows as well as we all do that every cask is different. It’s funny that she chose Glasser because he specifically sources whiskies to blend into compass box and creates a product based purely on flavor profiles. The price for him to get an exceptional cask at 40+ years wouldn’t be financially wise considering the CB fan base. But who knows, Tobias and Angel went for $700 a bottle and people scooped them up like hotcakes for a chance to sip a 30+ year old Caol Ila and 24 year old Clynelish blend. Too old you say? These old casks don’t speak “broke”.
The end of the article props up Armagnac as the go to spirit for over 50 years of age but isn’t this a WINE magazine?
Getting through the article for the fifth time, I’m still convinced that the writer is trolling for brands to send them expensive, ridiculously aged whisky samples… and I hope none of them fall for it. If this article was actually meant to be a troll, it’s fantastic. It’s perpetuating false information in the spirits community and confusing the heck out of beginners just jumping into the whisky pool. And the worst part about the internet? All of that misinformation is here forever.