In my many tastings and travels I have observed almost the entire range of emotions and opinions regarding the perfect age of a Single Malt. Comments like ”I never drink anything younger than 15 years old” and ”for me 18 years is the perfect age” discount completely the possibility that a younger or older dram can not only be worth trying but might just be earth shattering in expanding perceptions and pallets.
There are such a large number of “ingredients” that go into making a Single Malt what it is once it hits the bottle. Barley strains, water, still shapes, weather, barrels, humidity, skill of the distillers, cooperage of the barrel, warehousing, filtering, coloring……..and on and on. it is all of these things and more that I believe make Single Malt Whisky the most diverse spirit available on the planet today. How you could throw in all of those variables and end up with one perfect age for all Single Malts is a mystery to me.
As far as I’m concerned it’s all about balance and for me even an extremely youthful malt can still be well balanced. “No you can’t be serious gimme more peat I don’t want balance I want PEAT I demand to spontaneously combust every time I take a sip SMOKEY, PEATY YES YES YES”. I’m sorry but this is where some Islay soaked Single Malt lovers and I depart company when it comes to amazing malt. Don’t get me wrong I love a good peaty dram…wow they can just be mind blowing especially when they are lovingly balanced. Take a massively tannic red wine which depending on the quality of the fruit can be carefully cellared for years to allow the balance to be obtained as the tannins slowly fade into the background. Single Malt on the other hand is set in stone once taken from the barrel and locked away in the bottle. So once bottled either a Single Malt is balanced or it is not.
So where does that leave us with Single Malts that hit 20, 30, 40 or 50 years and beyond? Having tasted some amazing older whiskies I can say that for me some can be absolutely stunning but for everyone that is there seems to be many that fall short especially when considering the hefty price tag. Old Single Malt by its very definition has to be a lot more expensive. Take 2% or more a year of “Angels Share” and then the cost of warehousing a barrel for so many years and it doesn’t leave you with much malt to get a return on your investment. Any given commodity is realistically worth what the market will bear so while personally I don’t see the differential in value between an amazing 20 or 30 year old ranging from several hundred to over a thousand to a 50 year old that commands 10’s of thousands but obviously some consumers do.
The real killer for an older malt is how much barrel influence it gets. When the barrel dominates, the fruit withers and finally dies leaving a dry and dusty carcase. Why someone would want to pay top dollar for something that died a long time ago is any one’s guess.
However when a Malt can retain lovely layers of youthful spirit and fruit over such a long time the depth of complexity that can be obtained from the extended time in barrel is absolutely mind blowing and can be the pinnacle Single Malt experience for any enthusiast. So if you are eager to delve into the land of old malts here are some tips:
Independent bottling of single cask older whiskies will keep your wallet much happier than a distillery bottling. Current independent bottlers available in Alberta include A.D. Rattray, Gordon & MacPhail, Murray Mc David, Signatory and . Adelphi has been available in the past and there are most likely still bottles out there if you hunt around.
Do some homework, talk to the sales staff at your local store or better yet go to some whisky tastings that include older drams and make up your own mind but at some point I hope you all get to taste one of those rare and amazing old barrels that produces a magical balance. It is a dram to savor and one that is definitely becoming an endangered species.
Men’s Domain note: This guest article is from Jonathan Bray , who writes a blog on whisky and other alcohol related subjects. Be sure to check out his blog at Purple Valley