As I have developed my knowledge of whisky it has become clear to me that the whiskies I enjoy are those which are at their sweet spot. Defining when this has largely been achieved by trial and error and my industry friends explain what I am tasting in technical and scientific terms. The sweet spot can be 12, 15, 18 or even 21 years old but also might be 13,14, 17 or 20.
The flavour profile comes from a variety of things. Fundamentally at every age this is based on the distillery profile which comes from fermentation, distillation and components such as barley, yeast and water. The most distinct and consistent distillery profile example to me is that of Talisker which is there through every year of maturation and every expression, aged or NAS.
The barrel contributes in 4 distinct phases which I described as the 4 F’s. My description, not any others!
Flavour: In the initial 6 months of being filled into a barrel their area flavour effects from the barrel itself. This includes the previous contents and the interior of the wood including the char. This is the key component of finished expressions.
Filtration: The second stage of barrel influence I described as filtration. This is the effect the barrel has on the immature spirit. It smoothes the spirit burn. It removes the vegetal and sulphur and other unpleasant notes. This stage starts from day one.
Many NAS expressions give a big flavour hit from the young distillery spirit plus the ‘flavour’ stage and have just enough Filtration to produce a pleasant whisky.
Finessing; the third stage I identify is Finessing. Slowly over time from day one the barrel imparts taste from lignin and tannins and esters to add complexity and interest to the whisky.
The combined of Distillery characteristic, Flavouring, Filtration and Finessing bring many whiskies to a sweet spot at the 10-12 year point. You will be familiar with many of these. Others are not released until later as the Finessing stage continues to add more flavour and depth. I include Lagavulin and Clynelish in this category.
Some whisky is very good at 12 years old, with the quality and body to continue to improve for years to come. Macallan, Dalmore, Springbank, Glengoyne for example.
Finalising; Good quality barrels allow the Finalising process to continue and improve in future. It is this that permits many whiskies to improve up to 30-40 year old and even beyond. In some the Finalising process is much more destructive as wood overwhelms the flavours.
For me many sweet spots occur at 15 years old or beyond. Some slightly less, including Aberfeldy and Clynelish, Other slightly more such as Glengoyne, Glencadam, Craigellachie and Mortlach.
We do not know what the actually age of the whisky placed in the barrels are – just the minimum age. We do not know the quality of the barrels. In the end it is all about personal preference, yours may be very different from mine. Second barrels or finishes also change both timelines and taste profiles.
Different distilleries treat these benchmarks differently. There are 18’s, 21’s and 25’s I love. There are 13’s, 14’s 17’s that do not appear as standard bottling but are among the best whiskies I tasted last year.
The 15 year sweet spot seems less popular now with distillers. There are some great examples at this age but others seem to be steering away from it as the market becomes more sophisticated. At around 15 the whole character of a malt changes adding complexity and layers of flavour. It is easy to see how some of these would be rougher at 12 and need the extra few years to Smooth them out, add flavour and filter out poor odours.
I could be cynical and suggest that 10-12 is really an economic sweet spot for distilleries. 12 used to be the quality benchmark but is now a real competitive point between many quality whiskies. Large price differences exist been the traditional highs quality 12’s and the quality ‘volume seekers’. Equally cynical might be the view that sticking a 15 year Statement on a whisky just creates a marketing differentiation point and that at 14-17 there are expressions much closer to the actually sweet spot. I am equally cynical about the 18 year old price point which delivers some expensive but not ideal whisky. 21 delivers many better whiskies than are found at the 25 mark. I fear this is all about barrels and the actual mix of ages batted together.
If you are left asking – so how do I chose? You can really only use two measures. The first is priced and the second is a combination of your own taste and advice from the reviewers you trust.