Thursday 13 June 2013

The Allure of Old Whisky (And the Reality)

At a Mulberry Bank pre-auction tasting tonight, we enjoyed ten drams, none of which were distilled after 1977. This post does not describe any of these very fine spirits. Instead, this post is aimed more at the idea of old spirits.

What is it about old whisky that gives it such allure? Well, price obviously - everyone likes a little luxury and old whisky never comes cheap. And the idea that you're tasting something that has been thirty, forty, fifty years in the making is intriguing. To taste something from another age, made by people who likely had no intention of waiting so long to sell their product, is a kind of time travel.

I've been lucky enough in the course of my work to taste a few spirits as old or older than me, and I think I have learned a few things which bear repeating.

In all spirits, the fierce fire of youth gradually damps down to the mellow heat of glowing coals and then on to the faint warmth of embers. Ardent spirit gives way to "whisky long in the wood and mild as milk". Texturally, all whiskies smooth out, like a pebble made glassy by waves.

Most importantly, as spirits age, the character of the cask in which they are stored comes to dominate. Very old rums, whiskies, and brandies are more like each other than they are like other, younger, rums, whiskies, or brandies. Given (and this is a very important proviso) good quality wood, old spirits take on a woody, solvent-y, lifted, floral character which is like no other flavour, and to which there is no short cut.

For those spirits aged in very inert casks with little flavour to impart the evolution is different. Fresh fruit flavours transform into dried fruits, and, further down the line, become herbal or spicy.

These considerations aside, there is the matter of taste. As remarked above some aromas and flavours only come with extended ageing. The intense wood flavours of some old whiskies (or indeed cognacs, armagnacs, or rums) are so far removed from the usual taste that they can be shocking or unpleasant to the novice taster. They are certainly an acquired taste.

And this, I think, is central to the allure of old whisky. Tasting something that has been aged for thirty or forty or fifty years allows one to experience a flavour unlike any other.