Conventional wisdom holds that the older the whiskey, the better it is. And in most cases that is accurate—but not always. Whiskey ages in wooden barrels—not bottles—so the longer a particular whiskey ages the more the character it takes on from the barrel. Which is not always a good thing.
Take, for example, an expensive 50-year-old Scotch. These bottles run into the tens of thousands of dollars because of the rarity and status attached to them. In most cases the drinker is tasting strong notes of vanilla and spice from the wood, moreso than the particular grain(s). Some critics believe that aging for an excessively long period actually hides the quality of the grain. Since the grain is the basis for any great whiskey, this process can be more of a detriment than a plus.
On the flip side, there are 12-, 15- and 18-year-aged whiskeys that are cheaper than and as flavorful as older Scotch. The next time you’re sampling Scotch, pay close attention to the character, nose and legs of 20-year-plus aged offerings. The differences are often minimal, particularly when it comes to taste.
Another thing to take into consideration when ordering at your local bar or liquor store is the way whiskey is labeled. Any beverage that bears the whiskey name must be aged at least three years. However, unless a bottle is advertised as being from a single barrel, the whiskey is derived from several barrels of different ages. The age notation only refers to the youngest barrel in the batch. Most times we have no idea how old a bottle is, because there is no average age given. What’s up with that?
Due to demand, the way many distillers are getting around the age labels is by crafting No Age Statement (NAS) Scotch. NAS Scotch has become increasingly popular over the past few years among serious whiskey drinkers and casual sippers alike. Part of the reason is because distillers are making more NAS bottles out of necessity. The other reason is because many of them are damn good. Legally, if a bottle is marked as a 25-year-old whiskey, every single drop of that bottle must be older than 25 years. And since time machines don’t exist, these brands cannot go back in time to age more whiskey. So it is either wait decades or create non-traditional blends.
So the next time you’re in a situation that calls for a round of expensive neat Scotches, don’t automatically go for the oldest one on the menu. There are great NAS, teenaged and OG options to suit various palates and tax brackets.