I recently came across an interesting study done in June of 2010. The research was commissioned by Chivas Brothers Limited and the data came from over 2,000 people in 9 countries. They found that 93% of people surveyed believe older whiskeys are better quality. While the study is over 6 years old and that 93% has likely dropped, I feel it still represents an interesting truth. A majority of people feel that older whiskey is better whiskey.
Is there wisdom in the masses? Is older whiskey better?
The short answer by technicality is: No. Older whiskey does not automatically mean better whiskey.
For the rest of the article I’m going to talk about why that’s the case, what older does mean, and where the misconception “older equals better” comes from.
Why does older not mean better?
Everyone has unique flavor preferences. That means if you don’t like a heavy wood taste or you like feisty whiskey, older is probably not better for you. You most likely will prefer a moderately aged whiskey. On the other hand, if you prefer more oak then maybe older will be better. It really all depends on personal preference.
Age doesn’t fix a poor product. What does that mean? It means if poor quality hooch comes off the still, then it’ll be poor quality whiskey later. Time in a barrel can’t make bad whiskey good – it just makes it older.
Whiskey can be over aged. Every whiskey has its own sweet spot. Once you age past that sweet spot, the quality of the whiskey starts to diminish. It’s kind of like a weird Benjamin Button syndrome for whiskey.
So then, what does older whiskey mean?
Older means different. As whiskey sleeps in its barrel it can take on more of the wood flavors and develop interesting characteristics. Again, this doesn’t mean it’s better, just different.
Older is rarer. Each year up to 5% or more of the whiskey in a barrel will evaporate. Also, barrels from a batch will get used up for different blends or bottlings. As time goes on that means there are fewer and fewer casks of that age with less and less whiskey inside them.
Older costs more. This is mostly due to the fact that older is rarer. But it’s also due to the fact that folks will pay more for older whiskey. As long as people keep buying at the prices distilleries are charging, we won’t be seeing any price relief. What’s the true value of something? Whatever you can get someone to pay for it.
Where does the misconception, that older equals better, come from?
It partially comes from distilleries, or more accurately, it comes from the distilleries’ ad writers. For example, less than a month after their survey in 2010, Chivas Brothers launched an ad campaign called “The Age Matters.” They correlated age with quality by saying things like, “Look for the number. A guarantee of age. A guarantee of quality.”
Why would they propagate this concept?
At the time, Chivas Brothers owned over 85% of the market share of Scotch whisky aged 21 years old and over. So yeah, if you own a majority of the older whiskey then you want people to think older automatically means quality.
The misconception also partially comes from the fact that, older is more expensive. Most people see a higher price tag and think, “More expensive must be better!”
But you aren’t “most People.” You won’t be fooled. You have a trained palate that can distinguish the quality of a whiskey based on all its merits, and not age alone. Yes, you will taste some whiskeys that age has helped. But you’ll also taste some young vibrant whiskeys that you wouldn’t change at all. You won’t be swayed by advertising or popular opinion. You’ll trust your gut, and help your friends to do the same.
Welcome to our populace empowerment.
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— Zac Smith