The laws of physics and time’s arrow mean we all inevitably get older. But if you’re a bourbon brand then your age is more like the aging Beverly Hills socialite: deliberately obscure.
The conversation about age statements is a touchy one. Producers swear up and down that they’re only taking off the age statement to allow more flexibility to ensure consistent quality and flavor, while the consumers are saying that age is the flavor they want. You can’t blame them, the whiskey world has spent decades convincing drinkers that the number on the bottle was a mark of quality only to sing a different tune as the numbers fade. And to be fair the high numbers don’t equal high quality. And the laws doesn’t care about high numbers either. American whiskey is only required to have an age statement if it’s less than 4 years old, and Irish/Scotch have a 3-year minimum but after that the only requirement is that the age is the youngest whiskey in the bottle. So a changing age statement doesn’t technically mean a change in quality, but listing or not listing it does signal a change.
Look at the post-Prohibition whiskey world. Stocks were low and production high with everyone rushing to refill the thirsty nations barrels.
But as the years ticked on the age statement on bonded whiskey slowly followed. Whiskey that only had a 4 year requirement was 5,6 or 7 years old. Now we would look at those with joy but producers were rightfully dismayed. The whiskey was only getting older because no one was drinking it, which means no one was buying it, which means they weren’t making money. So, corners were cut, quality went down, even less whiskey was bought and what was just kept getting older. To keep the whiskey that was ‘past its prime’ from going to waste in was blended into younger stock, creating better whiskey and, as the young barrels caught up, added up to the big fat number on your bottle. Better whiskey means more people start drinking it until the young-uns aren’t keeping pace and we’re right back where we started.
Make no mistake, we’re in a brilliant age for whiskey. The quality of distillation, aging, mash, everything overshadows the source these “pre-prohibition’ spirits are so proud of. Quality that’s clearly being appreciated, which means more production and more quality in the future. We’re in a mix up the old and the new which is always a difficult time. But don’t let the past, and the age blind you to the present.
Doesn’t mean I don’t covet the flavor of 12 year whiskey. So I’m going to drink it up whenever I can. I am definitely part of the problem.