How is a 25-Year-Old whisky better than a 12-Year-Old?

Whisky barrels at the Glenlivet Distillery

Did you know why a 12-Year-Old bottle of whisky is significantly more expensive than a 25-Year-Old whisky from the same distillery? Does the age of a whisky really make it better, and matter enough to command a higher price?

Remember looking at a bottle of your father’s favourite whisky, wondering what the words ‘12-Year-Old’ or ’18-Year-Old’ meant? Or why he played fast and loose with the 12-Year-Old but treasured the 25-Year-Old bottle, only bringing it out for special occasions?

What does the age of a whisky really mean?

The Glenlivet 18 year old Scotch

The number usually carried by whisky bottles denotes the number of years the whisky has spent in a barrel, undergoing a process that is known as Maturation.

Maturation takes place after the whisky has been distilled, and a clear spirit has been obtained as a result of distillation of alcoholic vapours from the fermented mash of malted barley, or whatever grain was used in the mash.

This clear spirit is the whisky itself, at a much higher alcohol content and has no discernible flavours except for the harsh bite of ethanol. Much of the whisky’s flavours, aromas and colours are obtained during the process of Maturation, while the other determining factors are the country, or in case of Scotch whisky, the region the whisky belongs to.

What is Maturation?

The process of maturation is set in motion the moment whisky barrels are filled up with the spirit, corked and stored in warehouses for at least three years. When the whisky comes into contact with the Oak barrels, the reaction of the alcoholic spirit with the wood is what imparts a distinct personality to the whisky.

Bladnoch Scotch Barrels

Barrels at the Scottish Lowland distillery of Bladnoch being moved from one place in the warehouse to another. This helps the whisky makers to control the conditions that the whisky matures in, helping them achieve a desired maturation result from the whisky.

Ex-bourbon barrels are used by Scotch whisky and Irish whiskey distillers because legally, Bourbon whiskey must always be matured in new, charred Oak barrels, and therefore barrels once used, cannot be reused.

Oak barrels are porous in nature, and depending on the type of Oak used to make the barrels; American Oak, Spanish Oak or Japanese Oak, the flavours and aromas too vary. The charred inside of the barrels eliminates the harshness of the spirit, and imparts the caramelized colour and flavour to the drink over time.

The Glenlivet being prepared in Bourbon barrels

Ex-Bourbon barrels at The Glenlivet warehouse.

The longer a whisky is allowed to remain in an Oak barrel and interact with the wood, the smoother it turns out to be. Climate conditions, temperature, and the environment of the warehouses where the barrels are placed for maturation also play a considerable role in the process of maturation.

The age of a whisky signifies the number of years it has spent in a barrel. For example, single malt Scotch whiskies like The Glenlivet 12-Year-Old have been matured for at least 12 years in ex-Bourbon barrels.

The Glenlivet 12 Scotch Whisky

In case of Blended Scotch whiskies, Blended Malt whiskies, or any other Blended Whiskies, the age statement on their bottles is legally required to display the age of the youngest whisky used in the blend.

Let’s consider the Chivas Regal 18-Year-Old, a blended Scotch whisky which may or may not have a source whisky older than 18 years, but since the youngest whisky used in the blend is an 18 year old, it is legally allowed to refer to itself as an 18-Year-Old blended Scotch whisky.

Chivas Regal 18 Blended Scotch

Single malt whiskies in India such as Amrut single malt are matured far sooner than their Scottish counterparts owing to the warmer and more humid conditions in the country. Whiskies in Scotland and Ireland have to be aged for longer due to the colder climate conditions in the country.

Whiskies matured in regions and warehouses with a warmer environment tend to undergo the process of maturation much sooner, and lose a far greater amount of spirit to evaporation.

What is Angel’s Share?

The amount of spirit each barrel loses throughout the entirety of the maturation process, due to evaporation, is known as the Angel’s Share. This ‘lost spirit’ is much of the harsh portion of the whisky, allowing the matured whisky in the barrel to develop a smooth finish and texture.

Whisky ageing process

Distilleries in Scotland and Ireland, relatively cooler and less humid regions have been noted to lose nearly 2% to 3% of a barrel’s contents each year. The longer a whisky is matured in a barrel, the larger amount of whisky is lost to angel’s share.

On the other hand, in India, the creators of the first Indian single malt, Amrut Distilleries observed that the tropical Indian weather conditions and humidity contributed to a significantly greater amount of whisky being lost, much sooner than their Scottish or Irish counterparts.

Amrut single malt whisky

The people at Amrut Distilleries noticed that the loss to Angel’s Share in India was nearly 11% to 12%, which also meant the process of maturation in India did not require more than a year to produce a whisky as smooth as a Scotch matured for three years in Scotland.

What is ‘Finishing’?

A lot of whisky brands, and expressions from said brands are different from each other based on the region they were distilled in, the nature of the resources, the number of years it was matured for and the type of barrel used for maturation.

Apart from these steps, whisky brands are also known to practice ‘finishing’ a whisky in special ‘Ex-barrels’ that add a unique spin to the single malts and blended whiskies. These Ex-barrels could have been used to age wine, sherry, cognac and even Caribbean spiced rum.

The Glenlivet 15 Scotch Whisky

The Glenlivet 15-Year-Old is an excellent example of a single malt Scotch finished in French Limousin Oak barrels previously used to mature French cognacs. This gives the single malt a unique spicy tinge, which blends wonderfully with the Speyside single malts fruity sweetness.

Finishing a whisky in such special Ex-barrels is a practice that allows whisky makers to create new, inspired single malts and blends offering a fresh new experience to whisky lovers all over the world.

The Glenfiddich 21-Year-Old is another such example of a single malt Scotch being finished in Gran Reserva ex-Caribbean rum barrels for four months.

Chivas Regal Extra Scotch

The Chivas Extra is a blended Scotch whisky selectively finished in first-fill Oloroso Sherry barrels, creating an infusion of flavour into this no-age-statement barrel.

How long does the whisky continue to age?

As soon as the whisky exits the barrel, and is bottled, it ages no further. After the whisky is bottled, it undergoes no more changes, and you could store it for a decade without a single decipherable change. This doesn’t necessarily mean that whiskies with an older statement are automatically superior, and that younger whiskies are inferior. It merely is a choice, as you may have noticed, the love for whisky tasting is more about the journey, not the destination.

It is not to arrive at the world’s best whisky, but to taste the world’s best, and that is WHISKY!