Joel Harrison | The time factor for spirits6 min read . Updated: 02 Dec 2015, 02:42 AM IST
Every drink you can buy behind the bar owes, in some respect, to a lot to time
With the focus in this magazine on one of life’s great luxuries, the timepiece, I thought it would be only fitting to write about the influence of time on some of the greatest spirits in the world.
Every drink you can buy behind the bar owes, in some respect, to a lot to time. It could be the influence of time on experience. On a recent visit to the Bordeaux region of France, I was able to explore the history and lineage of some of the most important named Château wines in the region. If it hadn’t been for the dedication of the founders, the ranking system of first to fifth growth wines, and of course the diligence of these winemakers to keep their vine stocks and production processes alive, we wouldn’t have one of the most important wine-producing regions in the world operating—at the same level of quality it has always done—today.
Similarly, in the huge growth area of craft gin, the newest produces owe a great deal to the original founders of some of the world’s best gin brands. From Charles Tanqueray through to James Burrough, the founder of Beefeater, it was these brands that have stood the test of time and put the market in a position where smaller producers can now flourish.
But time is most important in any spirit we would class as “aged". These range from Cognac and Armagnac, through to American, Irish, and Scotch whiskies, rums and aged tequilas, each of these requiring a period of time slumbering away in an old oak cask.
When each of these spirits is distilled—Cognac and Armagnac from grapes, whisk(e)y from grain, rum from molasses or sugar, and tequila from the agave plant—it runs crystal clear, with the appearance of water.
Take these clear spirits and mature them in a handmade oak cask, and something magical happens: the mix of wood, atmosphere, environment and time add a magical quality to each of them. An enhanced, rich flavour is imparted, leaving a coloured spirit ranging from a light white-wine colour through to that of dark, rich coffee.
Different spirits react differently over long periods of time. In every case, as the spirit matures, evaporation from the cask occurs. This is rather romantically known as the “angels’ share". Those spirits left to mature in hot countries, such as rum (or whisky in India), rarely stay in a cask for over a decade.
The reason being twofold: Firstly, due to the angels’ share, there would be hardly any liquid left in a barrel at the end of the maturation period. Secondly, no spirit producer wants too much influence from their cask; the aim being for the flavours of their spirit and the wood in which it has been matured to be in harmony.
However, in some of the cooler climates, such as Scotland, spirits can be aged for much longer. It is not unusual to see a range of Scotch whiskies start at 12 years old and then move up to 30, 40, or even 50 years of age. It is this ability to slowly mature for long periods of time that gives Scotch such a premium status. To drink anything that has been matured for well over half a century means you are not just drinking a Scotch, you are drinking liquid history.
Until recently, it has been a fashion for Scotch distillers to proclaim the minimum length of maturation that their whisky has undergone, on their labels. For example, a bottle of The Balvenie 12 years old will have lain in an oak cask, in Scotland, for a minimum of 12 years. As Scotch whiskies increase in age, the idea is that they take on a greater influence from the cask in which they have been matured. This means a 25-year-old single malt should, by rule of thumb, be a darker, richer and spicier liquid than one that is, say, 15 years old.
There are, however, some whiskies that, in the business, are known as carrying “no age statement", or NAS. The most famous of these would be Johnny Walker Blue Label; an exceptional whisky, yet it does not inform its drinkers of its minimum age.
This debate, about the growth in the market of NAS whiskies, is one the industry is fighting at the moment. It is the belief of most producers that age is a burden, that the consumer should trust them to produce excellent whiskies befitting the price at which they are selling them.
And to some degree, they have point. We all trust wine producers to dictate which vintages are better than others, and therefore to sell them at a higher price point. But for some reason, there is a group of consumers who feel that a Scotch whisky that does not carry an age on the label is cheating.
I disagree. Yes, there is a certain amount of understanding about a whisky when you know the age of it. But I want to leave the construction of the products up to the experts, and not assume that a 12-year-old single malt is going to be better, whatever that means, than a 10-year-old single malt.
I am a huge watch fan, despite only owning a couple of key timepieces. But I am diligent in looking after them, caring for them and wearing them. However, once I have finished my writing for the day, I shall retire to my garden for a glass of whisky and a cigar. And I shall remove my watch, as I don’t want to have to consider “time" in my moment of relaxation. The same is true for the whisky I shall pour. It will be right for the moment, not judged on age, but on flavour, complexity and balance. And the last thing I want to think about when I sit down to relax is time.
THREE OF THE BEST NAS SCOTCH WHISKIES
Johnnie Walker Blue Label
The class-leading “no age statement" (NAS ) Scotch, JW Blue is the aspirational, top-level blend from the world’s biggest selling Scotch whisky. Where, on the one hand, Johnnie Walker Red Label is also a NAS product, with Black Label carrying a minimum age of 12 years old, Blue Label simply carries a statement of luxury. Time here, of course, plays a major part in the flavour of the spirit, but it is the quality in the complex blending process of some of Scotland’s rarest malt and grain whiskies that makes this product stand apart from the rest of the Walker range. Look for notes of oak, a hint of smoke and a smoothness rarely found in Scotch whisky.
The Macallan Sienna
The Macallan has been described as “the Rolls Royce of Scotch", and has traditionally relied on a range of whiskies carrying age statements from 10 to 30 years old. Recently, however, four new NAS products have been launched as core range expressions: Gold (only available in the brand’s home market of the UK), Amber, Sienna and Ruby, all increasingly more flavoursome due to the influence of expensive ex-sherry casks, which give a richer colour and more complex flavour to the expression as their price increases. My pick of the bunch is Sienna, which delivers a vast amount of flavour on a palate of summer fruits and chilled Bordeaux wines, perfect for those who like honey, rather than smoke, in their drams.
Highland Park Dark Origins
Highland Park’s biggest selling expression is its 12-year-old version, but hardcore Scotch lovers will always cite the 18-year-old as one of the best whiskies in the world. However, demand for the 18-year-old has constantly exceeded supply and, as with any good commodity, this has seen prices rise from around $50 a bottle to well over the €150 mark in the past few years. In order to plug the gap between the stupidly affordable 12-year-old and its older brother, the 18-year-old, Highland Park has developed the NAS Dark Origins. Housed in a beautifully manly matte-black bottle, with silver trim, the price is accessible (around $60) and the liquid has a floral smoke with hints of vanilla. It’ll look stunning on any shelf in your house.
Joel Harrison a drinks writer and consultant. He also runs the website WorldsBestSpirits. com and tweets on @joeldram.