The New World of Scotch Whisky

I like Scotch, and I have noticed the slow disappearance of the age statement from some bottles.  Having tried a few, I find some mixed results.  This article, from the Wall Street Journal, explains it a little.  What I find most interesting is the push, not just in Scotch whisky, but also American whiskey, to get more product out the door to meet growing demand.  Why not raise the prices a little (more)?

No-Age-Statement Scotches Worth Losing Track of Time Over
You don’t have to choose your Scotch by the numbers. Increasingly, distillers are dispensing with age statements and focusing on the many other factors that make their spirits sing

April 24, 2015 2:48 p.m. ET

IN SCOTCH AISLES across the country, a reformation is quietly under way. Among the stolid contingent of age-emblazoned single-malts—the Glenlivet 12, the Macallan 15, Talisker 18—a mysterious new crowd is creeping in, and their labels are defiantly numeral-free.

For decades, the Scotch industry has marketed its single malts with the prominent use of age statements—that number on the bottle that, by law, represents the youngest whisky therein. Now, more and more distillers are omitting the information entirely from their new releases, unshackling themselves from the constraints that those numbers impose.

In the past year alone, the Glenlivet and the Macallan as well as Laphroaig, Highland Park, Glennglassough, Bowmore, Auchentoshan, Mortlach and Oban have all added bottles without age statements to their core product lines in the U.S. Globally, the Macallan is leading the charge, replacing its 10-, 12- and 15-year stalwarts in some markets with the 1824 Series, a quartet of bottlings differentiated by the whisky’s color (as well as its price). The Glenlivet, in addition to its two new non-age-declared offerings in the U.S., recently unveiled an expression called Founder’s Reserve to the U.K. and Germany; it is reportedly being teed up to replace the distillery’s benchmark 12-year-old.

Although distillers spin the move away from age declarations as “innovation,” skeptics have been quick to suss out the pragmatism at play. The growing global thirst for whisky has left the Scotch industry struggling to keep up with demand, especially when it comes to older liquids, and age statements can leave distillers with their hands tied, unable to produce a given bottling without a sufficient quantity of whisky that has met the particular age hurdle. Removing the numbers might allow a blender to combine, say, 8- or 9-year-old whisky with a small quantity of a much older one to approximate the taste of a 12-year-old expression.

‘While a number might be reassuring, age is an imprecise measure of quality.’
So after years of cultivating an almost pathological obsession with age among Scotch drinkers, distillers have begun to backpedal, emphasizing other aspects of the process that drive taste and value. “Now the industry has new mantras: It’s all about the quality of the wood used, or it’s all about the master distiller’s secrets,” said Ian Buxton, the Scotch expert and author of “101 Legendary Whiskies.”

Ulterior motives aside, I’m inclined to embrace the proliferation of age-free bottles. After all, age statements started out as nothing more than a marketing gimmick: When single malts were first widely exported in the 1960s (before that all the malt whisky made went into blended Scotch), age was touted in an effort to imply superiority over the blends that consumers were used to.

And while a number might be reassuring, age is an imprecise measure of quality at best. Old whisky matured in poor conditions can be dreadful, while many people argue that a Scotch at just 5 or 6 years old is a truer expression of the malt. There is no particular magic in the 12-, 15- and 18-year age hurdles. “Every cask hits its peak at a slightly different time,” said Gregor Mina, the brand director of Ardbeg, which has had tremendous success with ageless bottlings including Uigeadail and Supernova. “Imagine if you were baking a cake, and it was perfect in 10 minutes. You wouldn’t leave it another 10 minutes to be ‘extra’ perfect.”

Although whisky experts suspect that most age-free releases skew younger than their age-declared counterparts, that’s not necessarily indicative of lower quality, particularly at a time when distillers have more control than ever over blending and aging. “The industry’s scientific understanding of what exactly is happening inside the cask has come on immeasurably in the past 20 years,” said Mr. Buxton. “So there’s better choices of wood now and better management, and that’s having a positive impact on the quality of younger whiskies.”

The bottom line? There are many other factors besides vintage to consider when selecting a Scotch. The flowchart below can guide you to a bottle you’ll enjoy. As Mr. Buxton put it, “If you like the taste, then it’s the right thing for you. Don’t worry so much about age.”