Whisky – The Age-Old Question

Are age statements the holy grail or a poisoned chalice for the whisky industry and consumers? As Loch Lomond joins the elite band of distilleries to release a prized 50-year-old malt, Sarah Halford meets some liquid golden oldies and charts the rise and rise of their less age-conscious counterparts

Is age just a number? In whisky terms, certainly, the date on the bottle became something of a fixation when Chivas Brothers made a splash with its The Age Matters campaign, in 2010. The campaign flagged up the importance of age statements, after research revealed 94 per cent of consumers believed age statements indicated quality; 93 per cent that older meant better and 89 per cent said statements were a major influence when buying. However, in the ensuing years aged whisky may have become the victim of its own success, with demand outstripping supply. At the same time and partly for the same reason non-age-statemented whiskies (NAS) have enjoyed a parallel rise to fame.    

Loch Lomond Distillery is one of those for which releasing an old and rare gem is the crowning glory of its own upward mobility. The distillery joined that elite band to bottle a 50-year-old single malt on November 17 2017, half a century to the day after it was casked. After maturing in American oak for 31 years the spirit was re-casked in 1998 in European oak, a marriage which eventually produced a deep amber liquid brimming with rich oak spice and tropical fruit. Bottled at 46.2% ABV, the Loch Lomond 50 Year Old was released in December 2017 with a £12,000 price tag. Just 60 decanters are being produced from a single 1967 cask, the distillery’s oldest.

The Loch Lomond 50 Year Old is distinctive partly because of pioneering distillation techniques, in particular straight-neck stills with rectification plates.

The Loch Lomond 50 Year Old in its bespoke solid oak, leather and brass case, The Tempest Chest, each hand carved by artisans at Method Studio. Photo courtesy of Method Studio © Graeme Hunter Pictures

 

The outside of The Tempest Chest, hand sculpted with waves to represent the wild, inky loch at twilight. Photo courtesy of Method Studio © Graeme Hunter Pictures

Production Director John Peterson said: “Our straight neck pot stills were unique in 1966 when they were installed, and they are still unique to this day, providing us with greater control over the quality and flavour profile of the spirit. These stills are the result of remarkably forward thinking; they are sophisticated in their ability to capture lighter, fruitier notes and hold back the heavier element. They ensure we get it right from the beginning. Therefore, anything that reaches 50 years old at Loch Lomond is going to be very, very special”.

The distillery’s hallmark fruit-noted spirit is also developed through a focus on yeast and longer fermentation times. Master Brewer Michael Henry, from a brewery background, said this had had a formative influence on the 50-year-old he had been looking after for a decade. He added: “Our stills are synonymous with the fruity notes they give to the whisky. The Loch Lomond 50 Year Old has been granted the time to truly concentrate that character, resulting in a rich, tropical fruit flavour. The expectations are high when you are working with a whisky as special and scarce as this and it came with great responsibility, but selecting and perfecting this single malt was a true honour”.

He described the finished whisky as of heady oak spice of clove and cinnamon with sweeter notes of sultanas and raisins with creamy vanilla fudge on the nose; a silky mouthfeel that rolls over the tongue with intense, vibrant tropical fruit, fresh pineapple and ripe banana, with a honey sweetness to taste and a lasting finish of warming stem ginger, bursts of gooseberry and elderflower and waves of tangy grapefruit citrus.

The few who get to own a Loch Lomond 50 Year Old not only get a distinctive whisky but also a one-of-a-kind work of art. The distillery’s motto ‘Never Follow’ drove its collaboration with Method Studio, founded by Marisa Giannasi and her husband Callum Robinson, which created a bespoke solid oak presentation case. The couple created The Tempest Chest in homage to the wild waters of the loch and the distillery’s independent spirit. It is leather-lined and stamped with the number of each bottle; hand sculpted to resemble waves on the outside and indigo dyed until almost black.

Callum said: “There are few distilleries named after a body of water as opposed to a place, and we drew great inspiration from Scotland’s most romantic, dramatic and historic loch. The Loch Lomond 50 Year Old is borne out of a truly mystical place of wood, fire, water and metal and our aim was to harness this energetic, elemental group of ingredients to create something unique, and worthy of its heritage.

Even when creating the miniature included with the 50-year-old, ordinary was not on the cards. The team came up with a solid brass, glass-lined vial in the shape of the unique straight-neck pot still.

The solid brass, glass-lined miniature accompanying the Loch Lomond 50 Year Old pays homage to the unique straight-neck suite stills that make the whisky distinctive. Photo courtesy of Method Studio © Graeme Hunter Pictures

CEO Colin Matthews said the 50-year-old was the pinnacle of a £25m overhaul at the distillery and would propel it into the global spotlight. He added: “For 50 years the Loch Lomond Distillery has been one of Scotland’s best kept secrets. With the launch of the 50 Year Old single malt, we are putting Loch Lomond firmly on the Scotch whisky map and we are proud to become one of a very select few distilleries in the world which have released a 50-year-old whisky.”

Scotland’s most famous loch, Loch Lomond, at twilight

One of the oldest and rarest single malts in the world was unveiled recently by Gordon & MacPhail –it’s Private Collection Glenlivet 1943, of which only 40 decanters have been released for sale worldwide, costing £30,000 each. A small number of decanters will be available from Gordon & MacPhail’s historic retail shop in Elgin. Gordon & MacPhail’s oldest whisky was the 75-year-old Mortlach it released in 2015. However, its single cask of 70-year-old World War II whisky is exceptionally rare because most distilleries fell silent during wartime and mature whiskies from this period were in demand so, by the late 1940s and early 1950s, available casks were extremely limited. Its Rare Vintage range has more than 40 whiskies over 50.

Nevertheless, stocks are finite and the oldies’ rarity is, of course, what drives demand.

Gordon & MacPhail’s historic 70-year-old World War ll whisky

Consequently, there is a serious shortage of aged whisky and specialist online retailer of 30 years Master of Malt said this was not only a Scotch problem, with Japanese and some American producers struggling too.

Master of Malt’s editor Kristiane Sherry said as a result they had seen almost all age-statement expressions pulled and replaced by NAS bottlings. She added: “We’ve seen a tremendous rise in the number of no-age-statement single malt launches over the past six years or so. Our Master of Malt data suggests a number of distillers are experiencing a swing of 10-20% of sales towards no-age-statement whisky since 2011, while others have seen significantly bigger swings.”

Ms Sherry said demand for aged whisky accelerated in the wake of staunch support for labels carrying minimum maturation age and supply simply couldn’t meet demand. She added: “It’s basic maths – 10 years ago (and further back), forecasters got it wrong and didn’t lay down enough spirit. You simply can’t make 10-year-old whisky if the 10-year-old stock has all sold out. It’s an industry-wide problem, and as a result of the supply/demand situation, many brands were left with no choice than to replace some of their core age-statement range with no-age-statement alternatives.”

She pointed out all NAS Scotch is at least three years old because Scotch must be aged in oak for three years before it can be released. Age statements also refer to the youngest liquid in that batch, so single malts made at one distillery could contain liquid from 40 or more casks of different ages. NAS whiskies may contain older liquids alongside three-year-old ones.

Ms Sherry called on the industry to bust the aged-is-better myth: “The whisky industry has to take some responsibility that NAS whisky has become associated with lower-quality whisky. If you release substandard spirit it will be criticised, regardless of age. But there is a persistent, and widely-held myth that aged whisky is better whisky, and the age statement is the most important factor when shopping for whisky. Actually, many NAS whiskies offer fantastic flavour experiences, and people shouldn’t be afraid to try them.

“The key to NAS whiskies being successful is the quality of the liquid, and that they have a genuine point of difference to set them apart from their age-statement siblings or predecessors. Ardbeg An Oa is proving popular because it’s really, really good whisky. Glenmorangie Signet is not only good whisky, but is also produced using chocolate malt (a heavily roasted malted barley) so it really is offering something innovative when it comes to production and flavour. NAS expressions that don’t work are ones where the quality just isn’t there, and shoppers end up feeling cheated – perhaps their favourite age-statement whisky has been replaced with something NAS, and it doesn’t taste as good. Then the negative perception of NAS as a whole comes in.”

The message appears to be getting through and Master of Malt, for one, has seen many NAS whiskies even outperforming aged counterparts. Ms Sherry added:  “On the question of whether NAS whiskies are worth tasting and buying – they absolutely are! There are plenty of examples of NAS whisky that have become top sellers for us and generate a lot of shopper interest. A recent example is Ardbeg An Oa, which has accounted for two thirds of all Ardbeg sales through Master of Malt since its launch in September 2017. By comparison, Ardbeg 10 Year Old accounted for around 10% of the brand’s sales during the same period.”

Other successful bottlings included those from Macallan, where the Edition No.2 and Gold, Sienna and Amber from the 1824 series, all consistently outperformed the Macallan 12 Year Old bottlings on an individual product basis throughout 2017. Both Longmorn Distiller’s Choice versus 16 Year Old and Laphroaig Quarter Cask versus 10 Year Old showed similar sales performance through 2017 across the NAS and aged versions. It isn’t just at the relatively entry-level end of the single malt market where NAS whiskies are flourishing – Glenmorangie Signet sold twice as much as 10 Year Old ‘The Original’ through Master of Malt last year.

NAS is turning necessity into virtues of creativity, innovation and flexibility for many producers, in terms of the liquid itself and expanding consumer choice.

Jennifer Masson from Tomatin said: “NAS whisky has come about due to shortages with older stocks which is affecting many whisky companies. Tomatin is very fortunate that it has a healthy inventory of older casks. We have introduced a NAS whisky into our core range, Legacy. Legacy was introduced as an entry-level whisky and, importantly, is priced as though it had an age on the label. We are not trying to deceive the consumer and in fact we are happy to divulge the age of Legacy to anyone who requests that information.”

She added that therefore in Tomatin’s case NAS was not a differentiator when it came to a good investment.

Renowned whisky innovator Richard Paterson, Master Distiller at The Dalmore, said: “There will always be room for both non-aged statements and aged whiskies. I believe that non-aged statements have made the industry more exciting. As a distiller it allows me more opportunity to be creative with cask finishes, which in turn means that the consumer is getting an even better choice of whiskies which have been created based on a very specific attempt to achieve a flavour profile, rather than simply driven by a specific number. It’s not necessarily about the age, but the taste or finish of the whisky. It’s important to find a whisky that suits your own individual palate.”

As Irish whiskey sees its own renaissance The Dingle Distillery’s Head Distiller, Michael Walsh, said there were many other factors than age that made a quality whisky. As demand for Irish whiskey soared by 11.2 per cent in the past year according to the International Wine and Spirits Research report, The Dingle Distillery launched Batch #1 Single Malt Whiskey, Ireland’s first genuinely new single malt to emerge in the UK, as well as #Batch 2 Single Malt and its first Pot Still Whiskey.

Mr Walsh added: “A whisk(e)y’s flavour is a result of a variety of factors and a whisk(e)y’s age does not necessarily denote quality, nor does it guarantee a specific taste or end result. There are other factors to consider such as the situation of the distillery, the environment in which it is matured and so on. These all contribute to the final product, which may or may not be to your taste, given that taste is subjective. I’d therefore say NAS whiskies are worth tasting, and if the flavour works for you, then they’re worth the investment.

“I personally like to know the age of a whiskey, because I like to know as much about a whiskey and its story as possible. However, that encompasses the whole creation process, not just its age.”

The need to know a whisky’s story and provenance is one rationale for age statements, particularly amid concerns over fake rare Scotch. One partnership may have the answer by marrying old and new, tradition and technology. Adelphi, which owns and operates Ardnamurchan Distillery, has teamed up with tech firm arc-net to create an app that means every bottle from the distillery has its own story and whisky drinkers can trace every detail of their dram, from the field where the barley was farmed to who bottled it and when. The technology, which uses Blockchain software, means whisky importers and collectors can have absolute certainty in what they are buying by scanning a unique code on the bottle.

Adelphi Managing Director Alex Bruce said: “I believe NAS bottlings can offer the blender more flexibility by being able to select casks of different ages on their own merits, rather than be restricted by an age statement, assuming this is the intention.

“By adopting the Blockchain principle, we will be fully transparent in terms of what casks we have selected, even if we don’t then adopt an age statement on the actual label, as all the relevant information will be available to the consumer via the QR code.”

GOLDEN OLDIES

Half a century is a landmark in anyone’s book but in whisky terms 50-year-olds are the chosen few. Here are six to have reached the zenith

THE DALMORE 50-YEAR-OLD  – £50,000

This magnificent single malt marks pioneer Master Distiller Richard Paterson’s 50 years in the industry. Matured in American white oak; Matusalem Oloroso sherry casks from Gonzalez Bypass Bodega and port Colheita pipes from Portugal, the whisky was finished in Domaine Henri Giraud champagne casks. ABV 40%.
Contact The Dalmore Distillery on +44 (0) 1349 882 362
Also available from Master of Malt

THE BALVENIE 50-YEAR-OLD – £30,000

Produced by and in honour of Malt Master David Stewart’s 50th year with William Grant’s, this 1962 vintage single malt Scotch has been around at Balvenie as long as David has. Bottled from cask 5576, a European oak sherry hogshead, at natural cask strength. 70Cl / 44.1%.
Available from The Whisky Exchange

GLENFIDDICH 50-YEAR-OLD – £22,850

This flagship malt is the rare and precious product of over half a century in oak casks and captures the very essence of Glenfiddich. Every bottle is hand-blown, individually numbered in wax and finished in Scottish silver by sixth generation silversmith, Thomas Fattorini. The case is lined in hand-woven silk and wrapped in hand-stitched black leather. ABV 40%
Available from Master of Malt

TAMDHU 50-YEAR-OLD – £16,000

Distilled on 2 November 1963 and bottled after more than 50 years in a first-fill European oak sherry butt, this is the oldest ever release from Tamdhu. With just 100 bottles being produced, this 55.6% ABV single malt is a rare chance to own a piece of history.
Available from The Whiskey Exchange and Master of Malt

GLEN GRANT 50-YEAR-OLD – £9,000

When a young Dennis Malcolm filled sherry butt 5171 he may not have foreseen that 50 years later not only would he become Master Distiller but that he would also select that same cask for bottling. This release from Glen Grant was filled on 28 October 1963 and left to mature until 25 November 2013.  Just 150 decanters, replicas of the Glen Grant stills, have been produced, each decorated with 18-carat gold and presented in a Scottish oak box. 54.4%.
Available from The Whisky Exchange 

NORTH OF SCOTLAND 50-YEAR-OLD – £950

This is truly a unique opportunity for a taste of history – as the first and only official bottling from the North of Scotland Distillery Co, Alloa. North of Scotland Distillery started producing whisky in 1957 and closed in 1980. A single-grain Scotch whisky aged in bourbon casks for more than 50 years. 40.4%
Available from The Whisky Exchange

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