In Whiskey, Age Isn’t Everything

In theory, a whiskey age statement has a simple task: It conveys how many years a spirit spent in barrel and, thus, its presumed level of maturity. But these numbers have often carried more weight than that. For many, they’re a symbol of sophistication, class and expertise—a shorthand for both the consumer and the brand to communicate worth. And today, more than ever, the age statement is a data point that drinkers consider when evaluating the merits of a whiskey. But its roots tell a different story.

Age statements as a matter of course for whiskey are a fairly recent development. Though outside the United States, most whiskeys have a minimum maturation period, the rules around aging whiskey aren’t static, and neither are perceptions of age and maturity. Nicholas Morgan, a Scotch historian and author, points out that as early as the 18th century, long before whisky was even put into bottles, a language of age had developed around it, with monikers like “very very fine” to indicate more maturity; that language kept evolving. “‘Well-aged’ in 1850 meant something very different from ‘well-aged’ in 1860 or ’70, and something very different from ‘well-aged’ at the turn of the century,” Morgan says.

Age wasn’t just an indicator of how the Scotch whisky might taste. When early mover Johnnie Walker debuted a trio of age-stated whiskies—5, 8 and 12 years old—in 1906, it did so in the midst of a debate about whether whisky made on column stills, like the grain whiskies used in blends, could be considered whisky at all. The very identity of the spirit was in question. So the introduction of age statements, Morgan says, was “very much an assurance to consumers” of the integrity of the blended whisky. But long after the debate was settled, Johnnie Walker’s age statements stayed, thanks to their popularity—and because the company could keep offering them, having planned and laid down stock accordingly.

For bourbon and American whiskey, the bonding period generally dictated maximum age statements; until the 1950s, eight years was as high as it went. “Brands like Very Old Barton or Very Old Fitzgerald were 8 years old because that was as old as it could get before you paid the taxes,” says Michael Veach, bourbon historian and author. “That was considered old whiskey.”

But the midcentury proved to be a watershed period for age statements on both sides of the Atlantic. In the early 1950s, whiskey tycoon Lewis Rosenstiel—head of Schenley, one of America’s “Big Four” whiskey producers—predicted that the Korean War would be as significant as World War II, with similar rationing, and he aggressively laid down stocks of bourbon and rye in preparation.

Once his wartime prediction flopped, Rosenstiel was left with a glut of maturing bourbon and rye. Facing down a massive tax bill, he did the American thing: Looking to turn a profit, Rosenstiel lobbied to increase the bonding period to 20 years. He succeeded, and began selling whiskeys with ever-increasing age statements, usually priced below what his competitors could match. Other distillers had no choice but to try to keep up, even as the effort was driving them out of business, and as consumer tastes failed to adapt. “Most people didn’t really like whiskey that old,” Veach says. “They were used to, since Prohibition, a lighter whisky style like they make in Canada and Scotland.” For many reasons, including the undercutting Rosenstiel put in motion, bourbon began declining from the 1960s onward.

Around the same time, another whisky tycoon, Sam Bronfman of Seagram’s, debuted Chivas Regal 12 year old. Though several Scotch producers had been exporting age-stated blends to the U.S. before then, Chivas Regal 12 changed the game. “[It] was a big moment for the Scotch business in the States,” Morgan says, explaining that the brand’s marketing targeted the sophisticated drinker, and it was priced accordingly. Chivas Regal 12’s resounding success in the U.S. market led to a wave of age-stated products among competing brands. (Johnnie Walker was forced to bring its age statements back after discontinuing them during World War II, when alcohol production was largely diverted to the war effort and the brand was unable to keep supplying older stocks.)

“The numbers thing sank home in the [Scotch] industry because of its importance in the United States,” Morgan says. “[But] it’s only really when single malts appear that ages become more of a generality,” with statements employed more broadly by other brands.

The first widely released single malt in the U.S. came from Glenfiddich in 1963 with no age statement, but by the next decade, the bottle bore an 8. “No one knew what a single malt was and no one knew what a Glenfiddich was,” Morgan says. “The number was an easy mark of connoisseurship.” Whisky producers, eager to take up more shelf space, began adding more age-stated expressions.

Meanwhile, bourbon was foundering; even with mature age statements and eye-catching decanters, the industry couldn’t find enough takers for its massive surplus. So barrels sat in warehouses and their contents kept maturing, until the 1990s when things finally started to change. “Whiskey starts to go up in sales, frankly, thanks to the Scots,” says Veach. “They had introduced single malt Scotch into the United States and convinced people that whiskey can be enjoyed for the flavor; it wasn’t just something you knock back at a bar to get drunk.” Extra-mature bourbons that emerged in this period, like Pappy Van Winkle and the legendary A.H. Hirsch 16 year old, showed that bourbon could stand shoulder to shoulder with its Scottish counterparts.

The two decades surrounding the new millennium was something of a golden age for age-stated whiskies, with Scotch companies still bottling old malts from the “whisky loch” of the 1980s and bourbon producers discovering a market for all their well-aged barrels. Age statements proliferated, and consumers lapped them up. But from the mid-aughts to today, age statements have been harder to find, as supply and demand dynamics work themselves out. Many Scotch brands dropped some of their age statements a decade or so ago, and are just now beginning to reintroduce them. Bourbon is following a similar pattern, albeit a few steps behind, with age-stated products currently commanding prices that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago.

The conversation, however, is starting to shift. Though a number on the bottle is still often seen as mark of connoisseurship—or rather, spending power—it’s now far from the only thing considered when talking about a spirit’s quality and caliber. Just as the concept of “well-aged” developed over the last three centuries, it continues to evolve. Drinkers today are more curious and educated about spirits than previous generations, and whiskey—especially on the craft side—is more transparent than ever, offering enough information on the label to prove that age isn’t everything. As Morgan says, “It is actually ultimately all about what something tastes like.”

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