Scotch of Ages

Extra time in the barrel brings out the best in Scotch whisky.

At a recent whisky tasting in Los Angeles, the invitation-only crowd of spirits experts was typically abuzz with discussion until they reached the final glass—the Bowmore 1968. A silence fell over the room as the tasters nosed and sipped the astounding 37-year-old Islay single malt. “Sauvignon Blanc,” one bold soul offered, finally breaking the reverential silence. Others nodded. “Grapefruit,” ventured another. “Fresh mango.” “Candied fruit.” Gradually, each taster added his or her own note until the room was a symphony of appreciation. Thinking back to 1968, the year the Beatles released the White Album, I jotted down my own score: 100 points.

Old Scotch whisky is a dram of history. Not everyone can afford the exquisite Bowmore 1968, which retails for around $1,300 a bottle, but there are myriad other old Scotches on the market at less daunting prices. For example, the recently-released Bowmore 18 Year Old (which takes the place of the much-loved Bowmore 17 Year Old in Bowmore’s core line-up), shows sweet ripe fruit and treacle with a judicious touch of Islay peat and sells for a small fraction of the cost of its ’60s-born counterpart.

By law, Scotch can’t be called Scotch until it’s at least three years old, but most malt whiskies receive far more than the minimum time in barrel. While ten or twelve years of age is enough to round out a new spirit, smooth off its edges, and impart proper color, texture, and wood notes, extra time in barrel can create whiskies that are far more distinctive and memorable than a distillery’s standard releases.

From High to Low

Distilleries in every region of Scotland offer ranges of older whiskies to complement their younger releases. Speyside, in the eastern Highlands, is the heartland of Scotch whisky and produces some of the country’s most accessible single malts. Sixteen years of aging and bottling at cask strength (114.4 proof) gives the elegantly creamy Glenlivet Nàdurra a strong beginning, a rich middle, and a complex finish. Silky, stylish, and superb, the Glenlivet 21 Year Old reveals layers of fruit, malt, and smoke and is a definitive Speyside whisky. Vintage-dating has been a specialty of The Glenrothes, which bottles Speyside whiskies drawn from the distillery’s best casks from a given year’s production. The rich Glenrothes 1991 exudes sweet oak, caramel, licorice, and honey, while the 1987, bottled in 2004 but still available, shows more citrus and vanilla.

From the northern Highlands, the stately Dalmore 21 Year Old has lovely honey tones both to the eye and the palate, and the sublime Glenmorangie 18 Year Old, lighter in color and weight than most single malts in its age range, delivers a stunning spectrum of flavor. A perennial favorite with single malt aficionados, the gorgeous Highland Park 18 Year Old, from the island of Orkney, exhibits deep spice, toffee, flora, and light smoke in the nose and dried fruit, vanilla, butter, and spice cake on the palate. Auchentoshan, the only single-malt distillery still operating in the Lowlands, makes a powerful, edgy sherry-matured 18 Year Old with complex wood and grass flavors.

Whiskies from the sea-swept island of Islay are known for their peat, seaweed, and salt flavors—characteristic Islay tones that can be integrated and mellowed by further aging. Of the island’s seven extant distilleries, Laphroaig makes the most extreme single malts; their almost medicinal intensity can be an acquired taste. “Further aging certainly does change the typical flavor profile of Laphroaig,” says distillery manager John Campbell. “The difference on the nose is a more mellow smoke profile with obvious hints of vanilla and a citrus note that isn’t as evident on initial smell. More cask influence adds additional spice, sweetness, and body on the palate and gentler peat flavor. The background characteristics like the citrus notes and sweetness are enhanced and the finish becomes very long, with a gentle balance between salt and sweet.” The amazing Laphroaig 15 Year Old—as a personal favorite of Prince Charles, it wears his coat of arms—is suave on the palate and alive with complex peaty, toasty flavors.

Stopping in Wood

“Wood aging is a necessary and sometimes mysterious aspect of whisky,” according to Scotch expert Sean Ludford, director of online-based Beverage Experts and a designated International Consul for Speyside’s renowned Craigellachie Hotel. “Roughly two-thirds or more of a whisky’s flavor profile is derived from wood, but the desired wood impression is a matter of personal preference, much like an individual’s tolerance of heat and spice in cuisine, or how they take their coffee.”

“Maturation is a combination of absorption into the wood, extraction from the wood, and interaction of components within the spirit,” notes Bob Dalgarno, Master of Spirit for The Macallan. “Some of these interactions are very slow to take place, so whiskies will become much more complex the older they get.” Loss of alcohol during aging also concentrates the whisky and delivers texture, according to Dalgarno. “Older whiskies have a less alcoholic aroma along with increasing complexity,” he says.

In spite of the benefits of extra maturation, however, most experts agree that whiskies can’t improve indefinitely. “There is a point of diminishing returns when aging whisky,” warns Sean Ludford. “If left in cask indefinitely, a whisky will become too ‘woody’ and lose its individual charm and character.”

Law prohibits the use of woods other than oak, but the type of barrels employed greatly influences the final result. David Mair, Global Brand Ambassador for The Balvenie, explains that ex-bourbon barrels bring “an increasingly golden color, pleasant vanilla and honeyish notes, and a slight spiciness,” while sherry casks, or butts, deliver “a darker color with slightly sweeter notes.” Port casks (pipes) “enhance the deep color and rich fruitiness.” The soft, lush Balvenie Portwood 21 Year Old, matured in American oak and then finished in port pipes, has an enticing beeswax nose followed by sweet and dense  toffee and vanilla flavors.

Glenfiddich’s 21 Year Old sees some time in Caribbean rum barrels, giving it a distinct, buttery sweetness and a lavish mouthfeel. The components of the rewarding Glenfiddich 15 Year Old Solera Reserve spend years in bourbon, sherry, and new wood before being “married” in a solera system similar to those used in Jerez; the solera vat is always kept half full, increasing the complexity of the final whisky.

The Macallan 18 Year Old shows a richer robe of burnished color and deeper wood and spice tones than the standard 12 year old release, though both have the oloroso-laced flavors that are a signature of The Macallan’s Sherry Oak whiskies. The distillery more recently introduced a sibling line of Fine Oak whiskies, aged in bourbon barrels and geared to younger drinkers; the meaty Macallan Fine Oak 15 Year Old is dense with mineral and herb notes and shows lovely balance.

An Age for Every Occasion

Older whiskies take their natural place alongside younger releases in Scotch lovers’ affections. “It really comes down to personal preference,” says The Balvenie’s David Mair. “Some of us love a 12- or 15-year-old pre- or post-lunch, or a 30-year-old after having enjoyed dinner.” For those with deep pockets and the time to search, there are many even older Scotches to be had, dating back several decades.

It’s lovely to think that even as you read this, tomorrow’s whiskies are aging peacefully in barrel, waiting for their moment to shine.

Venerable Blends

While extra-aged single malts get the most attention, don’t overlook the charms of older blended Scotch. Not just a 12 year old sporting six extra years, the Chivas Regal 18 Year Old is instead blended ad hoc from specially selected component whiskies, including malts from the Strathisla and Longmorn distilleries. Its lush aromas of smoke, dry hay, and toasted oak lead to lovely, nuanced flavors on the palate and a long finish.

Likewise, Johnnie Walker Gold Label, a blend recreated from notes kept by Sir Alexander Walker himself, consists of whiskies with a minimum of 18 years of age. This is one of the few whiskies that can (some say should) be consumed ice-cold.

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