DIALOGOS Debate: Angus MacRaild

IN

Ever opinionated whisky expert Angus MacRaild gave us his personal take on the ideal age of single malt Scotch. The following article was commissioned by the distillery but has remained unedited in the spirit of presenting an unbiased view:

A big part of what inspires love for fine alcohols is their relationship to time. Time spent in their
creation. Time taken to appreciate them, both in anticipation and eventual consumption. In drinking
them we claim a little of all that time for ourselves, we think on the journey that got them to our
glass and the people and places that gave them accent and personality. It’s the closest we can get to
‘buying’ ourselves time. Apart from the hedonism of intoxication, a fragrant glass full of stories and
time is the other edge of alcohol’s decadent allure.

For non-distilled alcohols such as wine a large part of the ‘time’ aspect is patience. The best wines
express a unique annual culmination of geology, weather and winemaking that grows stronger and
more defined with cellaring. Until they peak, waver and gradually fade. Increasingly, many beers
are being considered, and ‘cellared’, in a similar fashion. For stauncher drinks such as whisky,
however, concepts such as age and time remain lopsidedly in the remit of the producer, not the
consumer, and are thus more contentious.

Much of the endless debate that has arisen around NAS (non age statement) whiskies in recent
years is because the industry spent decades telling the consumer that age was important. Years were
counted, described as ‘long’ and ‘slow’ and age statements carried an accordingly ascending price
tag. The age of a whisky bestowed it with implication and meaning. It was an understandable
approach, Scotland’s bonded warehouses bristled for much of the 20th century with an
embarrassment of riches. A mature treasure trove which, unsurprisingly, provided a springboard for
a swift and far-reaching embrace of Scottish single malts towards the turn of the millennium. The
resultant push back by an industry with dwindling stocks and the ensuing arguments about
embracing ‘flavour led’ whiskies and age being ‘just a number’ were inevitable.

NAS whiskies went from being the ‘introduction’ or ‘statement’ bottling in a single malt range, to a
‘composition’. A bottling which justified its higher price tag by way of the ‘blender’s art’; age was
increasingly talked down. However, a lesser discussed result of this debate was that it distracted
from the idea of single malts as having an ‘ideal age’. A point, not unlike the drinking window of a
wine, where a specific malt really shines. It’s notable that the big names from companies which
maintained age-statement based ranges, often talk about their favourite expression in terms of it
‘being the perfect age’ for their whisky. David Stewart has professed such for Balvenie 21 Port
Wood, just as the Grants of Glenfarclas often do for their 15 year old. It’s also a concept which is
discussed frequently and with fervour in the circles of whisky geekdom.

One of the great straw man arguments by proponents of NAS whiskies is that old whiskies are
misconstrued as being better. The reality is that old whiskies can be, and frequently are, excellent.
They are not, however, uniquely representative of a specific distillery’s style. They are often not
the very best expressions of the distillery in question. And they are certainly not the only type of
whisky consumers are crying out for. In fact, proponents of age statements frequently site the
prevalence of younger bottling ages – 5 and 8 years old – that were common in commercial malt
whiskies of the 1980s and earlier decades.

Indeed, the opportunity to taste whiskies from a single distillery from 5 up to 30 years of age is
greatly illuminating. The segregation of information provided by the different ages builds a vivid
picture of the life and evolution of distillery character. Malts like Clynelish sang beautifully at 5
years of age when they were bottled as such in the 1970s. Glenfiddich at 8 years old was similarly
excellent. Recently a Benromach at 5 years old personified the best qualities of youth in malt
whisky. Just as a 1980s bottling of Balblair 5 year old felt thin and lacking at such tender years.
Whatever the perception of quality, these youngster bottlings provide a benchmark from which to
found impressions. The older sibling bottlings add colour and richness to this impression.

Over the years I’ve formed fairly thorough opinions – and I’m not alone in doing so – about most
distilleries and their respective ‘peak’ ages. Balvenie needs at least 15 years; Glen Grant can work
at 5 but is better after 30; Clynelish can hit brilliance from 5 onwards; Ardbeg struggles past 30. In
fact Ardbeg is illuminating in that sense, the impression of running out of steam after 30+ years is
something it shares with the other southern Islay distilleries and most peated makes. Peat can go to
war with the wood over time whereas it masks many sins of youth at the start of a whisky’s life.
New make spirit can be grizzly, feinty, sulphur-flecked stuff. The whole purpose of ageing is to
mature a whisky, to round the edges off and bring it out of itself so to speak. Peat gives this process
a helping hand earlier on. It’s one of the reasons why Port Charlotte, and especially Octomore, have
worked well at younger ages. They are exceptionally well made distillates but the peat drapes an
extra wee cloak over the remnant clumsiness of youth. The Octomores in particular are not cheap
bottlings but are commercial and critically successful, a success that proves age statements such as
5 can and do still work. Whether old or young, what consumers want most of all is good whisky.
Which nudges us in the direction of quality and the inescapable fact that it isn’t just about a
particular age but about ingredients as well. Shoddily produced whisky can be rescued by the right
cask and correct amount of time. Just as excessive or nasty wood will kill most whiskies eventually.
Great distillate can sing in the tiredest of refills. Bland distillate can be coloured by a clean and
generous cask. The most common complaints around older whiskies is that they are too woody,
which many are. Just as the charge against younger drams is that they simply are not ready. The
best whiskies at any age all share the triumvirate of the best ingredients, careful production and a
stately, lengthier pace of production of the initial spirit. Time expended in malting, mashing,
fermentation and distillation counts for a great deal in a whisky’s final character.

At the risk of taking a somewhat generalised stance, I do believe that Scotch Whisky has a loose
‘drinking window’ in which a majority of whiskies, out of most cask types, fall. For me it’s 12 – 20
years of age. Most of the greatest whiskies ever made sit within this timeframe. Of course there are
exceptions and even extremes of youth and age at which whisky can dazzle. But, around these ages
is where most malts seem to find firm footing, clarity of voice and achieve that most desired thing:
balance.

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