Maturation is not the prerogative of scotch; it is an important factor and process in a wide variety of alcoholic beverages. However, scotch has arguably the most exacting and painstaking standards when it comes to age statement.
To begin with, the age stated on the label refers to the youngest component in the bottle – note that apart from single cask bottlings, even vintage single malts are the result of blending multiple casks. This stands in stark contrast to Cognac, Armagnac and Calvados etc, which use terms such as V.S., V.S.O.P., Réserve, Napoléon, X.O., Extra, Hors d’âge, Âge Inconnu etc. to denote the duration of barrel maturation.
This is not to say that the older the spirit, the better the quality, although it is invariably the case that the older it gets, the dearer it becomes. Some styles of spirits are meant to be fragrantly refreshing and enjoyed in their youth, yet an unequivocal age statement is as much for the sake of transparency as it is to assure consumers that there is but time and patience, rather than corner-cutting.
Prior to the last “Ice Age” in the 1970s and 1980s, scotch used to be less fastidious with age statement. After all, blended scotch was predominant, and the cornerstone of a blender’s skill is that the whole should be greater than the sum of its parts. The focus used to be more on taste rather than the duration of maturation; as long as the nectar is delicious, who cares how many years it has spent in barrels?
According to one narrative, it was during the last “Ice Age” that distillers and blenders, sitting on large quantities of unsold spirits, began promoting age statement as an indication quality. The marketers have certainly done a good job in conveying the message, but little did they know then that it would be a double-edged sword. By the early 21st century, as stock of aged spirits keeps dwindling, consumers are now being told that No Age Statement (NAS) whiskies are, thanks to technological advance, as good as any with age statement.
More than E150a Caramel Colour and chill filtering, the NAS debate probably is the most divisive issue of our time.
To be continued…
A distillery of blue-blooded origin, Clynelish was established in 1819 by the Marquis of Stafford-Duke of Sutherland family, not without partial intention to subdue bootleggers and moonshiners in the area. The founder, however, was said to be notorious for his role in the Highland Clearances, expelling crofters from his land so as to herd sheep. Its genesis may smack of patrician remoteness, but the distillery is an icon in the world of scotch. During its golden days prior to the Prohibition on the other side of the pond, Clynelish was so popular that it was available only to private customers, not blenders or independent bottlers. Clynelish is the twin brother of the formidable yet prohibitively expensive Brora, which was mothballed in 1983 but still releasing, albeit intermittently.
Scintillating golden with bright jonquil reflex, the chiselled nose offers dried apricot, smoked salt, white clover honey, shortbread and heather. With a buttery mouthfeel, the variegated palate delivers sweet ginger, cardamom, white pepper, salted butter and wood smoke. Full-bodied at 46%, the potent palate continues through an oceanic mid-palate, leading to a structured finish.
One of the oldest distilleries still in existence, Oban was established in 1794, when much of Europe was embroiled in the War of the First Coalition, which led to a litany of new taxes in Britain. For instance, income tax was introduced as “the tax to beat Napoleon”, but even after his fateful defeat at Waterloo in 1815, the tax remains to this day, and possibly will remain until Doomsday. With some of the smallest stills in the country, Oban is also one of the smallest distilleries by production volume, but not reputation. Most of its produce is released as official bottlings of single malt, leaving paltry little for blenders, and independent releases have been extremely rare. Located in urban setting at the top of the Kintyre peninsula, Oban is at times reminiscent of Campeltown or Island in style.
Radiant golden with bright amber reflex, the bucolic nose presents dried fig, dried oregano, hay bale, fleur de sel and kippers. With a creamy mouthfeel, the muscular palate supplies salted lemon, mustard seeds, oat biscuit, burnt sugar and cigar ash. Full-bodied at 46%, the maritime-influenced entry persists through a smoky mid-palate, leading to a muscular finish.
Jacky I.F. Cheong is a legal professional by day and columnist by night. Having spent his formative years in Britain, France, and Germany, he regularly writes about wine, fine arts, classical music, and politics in several languages