Whisky Advocate

Is “young whisky” a style?

June 12th, 2009

I’ve been wanting to discuss this for some time now. First, let me preface this discussion by saying that, with Michael gone, the two people I respect most regarding whisky reviews and tasting notes are Jim Murray and Dave Broom. This blog topic focuses more on Jim, using him as a springboard to discuss how we perceive and rate young whiskies.

Ever since Jim and I have been reviewing whiskies, I have noticed that he and I are pretty much in line with whiskies we like and whiskies we don’t like.  But there is one area where Jim and I part ways. It’s our rating of young whiskies. He rates young whiskies a lot higher than I do. I’ve been meaning to talk with Jim about this, but never remember to bring up the topic when we are together.

I thought this topic would make for a good discussion here, given that there are more new distilleries making young whiskies globally now than any other time in our lifetime. I’d like to know what you think about this.

First let me give you my viewpoint on this. I don’t classify and rate whiskies by age groups. For me, it’s all about quality, regardless of age.  A whiskey (especially those in warmer climates) could peak at 5 years old, while others don’t peak until they reach 30 or 40 years old.

I have tasted many of the young whiskies by the new microdistillers worldwide. Some have disappointed me, while others have really impressed me. Having said this, very rarely have I tasted a whisky (or whiskey) in the 1-3 year old range worthy of a score over 90.  The better ones usually peak in the mid 80s or so. But I’m going through Jim’s Whisky Bible and I’m seeing ratings consistently in the 90s.

For example: Kilchoman spirit (not whisky): 94, McCarthy’s 3 year old: 96. Stranahan’s Colorado whisky: 96, St. Georges (England) New Make Spirit: 93.5, Panimoravintola Beer Hunter’s (Finland) Old Buck: 96, etc.

I’m not trying to single out any given distillery. I’ve tasted many of the young whiskies that Jim gives mid 90s ratings to and I enjoy them very much, but I don’t find them to be in the same quality class of other whiskies I rate in the mid 90s, like Springbank 21 year old or Black Bowmore, for example.

I’m not even trying to question Jim’s ratings here. Like I said earlier, I respect his whisky reviews more than anyone else right now.

The point I’m trying to make here is that what I see emerging, from various sources, is a paradigm shift where young whiskies seem to become grouped together as a style, and then rated and scored based on the relative quality within that style, not on an absolute quality.

What are your thoughts on this?

32 Responses to “Is “young whisky” a style?”

  1. butephoto says:

    I can only comment on the young whiskies I have tried and they tend to be peaty Islay malts. I think, and I’m sure I’ve read a discussion about this, that many peated whiskies tend to be better younger rather than older (or taste matured quicker). Of the young whiskies I’ve tried I really like the Kilchoman and would rate that highly (because at 2yo it doesn’t taste that young), but I have also tasted others that I wouldn’t rate quite as high because they taste ‘young’ (feinty or whatever) and so they are, in my opinion, not quite ready and not something to rate other than saying that it will probably be nicer when it’s a bit older.

    I tried the McCarthy’s and it tasted like it had been flavoured, which I’m putting down to the new wood used to finish it. So I wouldn’t rate that too highly either.

    It seems that when I’m talking about young whiskies they either need to taste like they’re ready (and therefore not too young) or I don’t consider them ‘finished’ products. As you suggest, I don’t know how you can rate something that doesn’t taste ‘ready’ as highly as something that is obviously matured. But then I suppose if you marked them right down then nobody would buy them so perhaps you have to treat them as a different drink, in a way.

    I’m babbling, must be the heat :D

  2. butephoto says:

    Oh, I didn’t answer the original question. I wouldn’t say young whisky is a style, more a financial necessity for those distilleries that are just getting off the ground. Once they get going (and I’m talking about Scotch distilleries such as Kilchoman) they will probably not continue to bottle the youngsters.

  3. John Hansell says:

    butephoto, that’s my point. If a whisky (or spirit) is already getting a 96 rating, how will it taste at 8 or 10 years of age? And what score will it earn? There’s not much more room for improvement between 96 and 100 points. Are these whiskies actually peaking at 1-3 years of age? I doubt it.

  4. Sku says:

    Interesting topic John.

    For my part, I don’t think young whisky is a style any more than old whisky is. The proliferation of young whisky is a function of the current market which will probably not last. In these whisky boom times lots of new distilleries have opened and are trying to turn a quick profit on young spirits. Eventually, the boom will bust or at least flatten out, new distilleries will stop opening, many of the young distilleries will likely fail and those that survive will be in possession of increasingly older stocks which they will market.

    That being said, at butephoto notes, young peated whiskies probably are a style as there is a particular flavor profile of those young whiskies and the successful experiments with young smokers probably means there will always be a place in the market for them.

    But, taking the young American microdistillery whiskies as an example, it’s hard to think of any three whiskies more different in flavor than St. George (the American one), McCarthy’s and Stranhan’s. If this is a “style”, it’s not a coherent one.

    And personally, I think Jim Murray, as a tireless advocate of the whisky industry, sometimes (perhaps subconsciously) inflates the ratings of those whiskies he would like to succeed, especially those from burgeoning industries or neglected geographies like the American micros. I simply can’t think of another reason for the ratings you cite which are on par with ratings of much more refined and complex whiskies with more age.

  5. Josh says:

    John,

    This is a great topic. I think that classifying a young whiskey as a style isn’t necessarily correct since the style really should define the overall structure, nose, and taste of the whiskey instead of the time it’s spent in wood. The other way to look at the high rating Jim Murray has given to some young whiskeys is that he’s identifying characteristics that will follow the liquid through it’s maturation. It’s sort of how Robert Parker (and others) can give astronomical ratings to very young premier cru Bordeaux that aren’t actually drinkable for many years. They give those ratings because they identify the potential and the characteristics that will mark a great wine as it ages. Perhaps that’s what’s going on with Jim Murray’s ratings. I wouldn’t presume to speak for Jim, but it’s a thought. What do you think?

  6. John Hansell says:

    Josh, the big difference here between a 2 year old whisky and a 2 year old First Growth Bordeaux is that the Bordeaux will improve with age, while the 2 year old whisky will pretty much not change with time. I don’t think it’s appropriate to give a 2 year old whisky a 95 based on the assumption that when it becomes 12 or 18 or 25 years old it will actually mature into a whisky that deserves a 95 rating.

  7. Josh says:

    Good point John. I was sort of thinking of barrel tastings, but that really doesn’t happen a lot, does it? Guess my argument doesn’t hold a lot of water.

  8. John Hansell says:

    Let’s wait to hear what others have to say. I’m sure other comments will follow.

  9. Bruichladdict says:

    “But I’m going through Jim’s Whisky Bible and I’m seeing ratings consistently in the 90s.”

    “I’m not even trying to question Jim’s ratings here.”

    I would. When so many whiskies in his bible receive such high marks, it is very difficult to sort the wheat from the chaff. The whole Uigedail thing really called into question how scoring is done and the commercial relationships that exist between tasters and distillers.

    I, for one, appreciate your bringing this topic to the fore. This is the kind of journalism that should make it into WM. I’ve read a few issues of MA and, this post alone has convinced me to subscribe this year.

    Now as for young whisky, you are bang on. They should be judged as whisky, rather than young or old. As a trend, I too think that this is driven by the need to provide revenue to young distillers and cheap malt to lower scale consumers. I personally think that getting away from age statements and the hoky marketing surrounding them is a good thing. People need to learn that quality isn’t a number on a label.

  10. bgulien says:

    First of all, I think, that Jim Murray’s rates are inflated.
    For almost every whisky, not only the new spirit.
    So I don’t bother to check with him anymore. Your ratings and those from the Malt Maniacs and Whisky fun by Serge, I find much more realistic.

    I can understand the need for cash for the startups, like Kilchoman and the others.
    But for some it seems like a new marketing opportunity as well.
    I know now of Kilchoman, Bruichladdich (X4), Glenglassaugh, Tullibardine and St. George (the UK one) who market New Spirit.

    Kilchoman and Bruichladdich are some the great ones.
    The New Spirit of Kilchoman of just a couple of months old or the 2 yo is just fabulous.

    In the discussion about new spirit, remember…. in the old days (couple of hundred years ago) almost everybody drank it fresh from the still.
    So you could market New Spirit as retro.
    When whisky is aging, the whisky is developing more character and complexity, which is lacking in the New Spirit, because it hardly touched wood.
    Curiosity will always make me try new Spirit, and some are worthy of buying, but it can’t touch a proper aged whisky.

  11. Tim F says:

    I think that young, peated Islay whisky is perhaps not so much a style as a trend or movement (apologies for the semantic pedantry), and it certainly has its adherents – as the bonkers prices for Oogling and Very Young will testify. There are so many of them now that it is becoming a kind of sub-category.

    As has already been pointed out, these products are being forced to market by distilleries that are running out of stock of older casks.

    In my view, this is entirely their own doing, as for years they have been shoving down our throats the fallacy that for whisky, old=good, while not being able to produce enough stock during the lean times to keep them going in the boom.

    As a result they now have a shortage of older stock and are having to start putting out younger stuff. But because so many people bought into the old=good line they were spinning, they now can’t declare the age of a single malt whisky under ten years old because nobody will buy it. I’m not saying they should be able to predict the future, just that this present predicament is entirely of their own making.

    The results have been mixed, of course. As butephoto has mentioned, the young Islay examples can work well for one reason or another. The macho, heavily-peated, high-alcoholic malts will always find a fanbase.

    Other examples of young whiskies I’ve had from the distilleries on the Scottish mainland have been more patchy – I’m not a big fan of recent no-age-statement releases from Ardmore, Glenrothes or Auchentoshan, to pick a few off the top of my head.

    As to the logic of giving a 2 year-old malt 94 points, I’m not even going there. Someone else can run with that one :)

    Have a good weekend, everyone.

  12. [...] Hansell sees a trend emerging around young whiskies and wants your [...]

  13. Rick Duff says:

    I think young whiskies deserve their own classification. It’s just tough to determine what is “young”. Young scotch vs young bourbon isn’t fair. As for new make though.. (unaged distillate), definately it’s own category. I think that Woodford Reserve new make tastes like a fine tequila. Glen Garioch’s is so nice, light fruity. Both are excellent on their own. Another great one is Tulthilltown’s Corn Whisky. How about Italy? They seem to prefer their Scotch young at around 5 years of age.
    Interesting subject.. but that’s just it.. it’s subject to so many different opinions.

  14. Louis says:

    Hi John,

    Part of your question is really the age old issue of whether ratings are compared to the entire whisk(e)y population, or jsut within one category. Would a single malt scotch, blended scotch, bourbon, and Irish whiskey with the same rating really all have the same degree of goodness?

    Breaking down things further, how about Speysides and Islay’s, or 18 and 30 year old malts from the same region.

    In all cases, there are different components that contribute to the higher (or lower) rating. These are obviously not the same for all types and styles of whisk(e)y. As I can’t imagine Stranahan’s Colorado whisky being as good as the Black Bowmore, I have to consider Jim Murray’s ratings as comparable only within each class. Or at least for my buying purposes.

    As for the young whisky trend, I would have to say it is more out of financial necessity than just being a trend. New or reopened distilleries need to bring in cash, and even continuously running distilleries need to keep up with world demand (i.e Glen Rothes Special Reserve).

    Slainte.

    Louis

  15. tom says:

    I think young whiskey is becoming a category. Yes, selling young whiskey is sometimes a must for new distilleries. When most of the big distilleries started up, they did the same thing. For instance George Dickel sold a one year old corn whiskey for a while in the 60’s. As a distiller, I feel, that if you are going to release a young whiskey, you had better do your job right. There is less room for error. Because you do not have time on your side to cover it up. I enjoy a lot of the younger whiskies, Mccarthy’s is a great example. Amrut, is a 3 year old, it is outstanding. I also feel that rye is better when young, if you like a lot of flavor. For instance Cascade Peak rye from Oregon. I think that as the mircodistilleries get a few more years on them, you will see some older stuff. But I think that young whiskey will remain.

  16. Chris says:

    My take is that Jim is partial to big flavor and unique flavor profiles. Not surprising given the number of whiskies he’s tried. Also, per the last Bible, he sometimes tastes 30 whiskies a day. These youngsters probably get rated a little higher because he can still taste and smell them after all that. Plus he mostly spits, so he probably doesn’t get as much of the youthful burn as one would drinking these for real.

  17. Rick says:

    I’m likely just echoing what has already been said, nevertheless I’ll chime in as I haven’t contributed in some time.

    I’m presuming Mr. Murray is rating his young whiskeys as a category. In all cases of my limited whiskey tasting experience I have found the older whiskeys to have more complexity, flavor, aroma, and finish.

    I’m sure there are great young whiskeys out there but I find it highly unlikely they will even hold a candle to an older whiskey near it’s prime.

    Cheers,

    Rick

  18. patrick says:

    Hi John,
    My position is very similar to yours concerning the rating of young whiskies. I rate them for what they are regardless of their age. I have tasted quite a few young or very young, whiskies, some which are immature to my taste and some which might be surprisingly good. The young whiskies that I rated the best were almost always peated one. It seems like peat and young age goes better than delicacy and youth.

    I have no wishes to rate by style and this would be most confusing for the whisky enthusiast.
    As soon as you start to make style, where would you stop?
    For example:
    you might classify the style young as whiskies aged between 3 and 7 years.
    1) If you do so, how do you deal with Indian whiskies (e.g., Amrut) which matures very quickly?
    2) If you liked very much a young 7 YO from distillery X and you rated it 92 in the “young style”, how do you deal with the 8 YO version of the same product as part of the “normal style”? Since the product is better than average in this category, you would only rate it 82. Would it be not very confusing?

    If you start with a “young style”, should you not then create an “old style”? Make a distinction between bourbon, grain, rye and blended whisky? What about sherry and bourbon matured whiskies? What about “non-peated, lightly peated and heavily peated”? where do you stop then?

    Rating a whisky is a subjective perception, and personally, I always try to make my ratings compared to some “internal standards”. But if you publish ratings, either be consistent trough all the range of whiskies or explain how you do it.

    my 2cents thoughts.

  19. patrick says:

    I am tired and it is time for me to go to bed, but I just had 2 additional remarks:

    1) Age is not always associated with quality and you might have very young whiskies, which have matured very quickly as you might have old whiskies from inactive or overactive casks. What is important for me is quality and not the age.

    2) Ratings: I am active on several forums and what annoys me nowadays is that many whisky enthusiasts are too focused on the rating alone. I think that it is important to educate the whisky enthusiasts to develop their own opinion and to read the tasting notes with ratings with more critical eyes.

  20. Chris says:

    And to address the question about style more directly, the good younger whiskies tend to fall in the Flavor Monster category, so in that sense I would say it is a style (and one worth marketing). As long as it’s good quality, the age isn’t relevant. But a stellar 3 year old will never have the prestiege of a 30 year old. If I could make something that tastes like Bowmore Black at 3 years, how would it be regarded? Like a great achievement or a cheat?

  21. Abinash says:

    Interesting question and comments indeed. However, the opinion of mine (and any others’ of you commenting and not) is that rating whiskies does not make so much sense. You all know (?) that “the very good whisky” is not so very good one day, even if it is usually. Or that “a bad whisky” might just be tremendous occasionally.

    Anyway, if ratings are in use, in my opinion there should not be any sub category ratings. It is better to just have everything rated equally, were they 1 month old scotch new make, 3 years old bourbon or 30 years old scotch single. Otherwise the reader has no idea of what to think about the ratings.

  22. Neil Fusillo says:

    The answer is yes…. and no. Young whiskies ARE a style, in much the same way peated whiskies are a style or Speyside whiskies are a style. Any time you group a bunch of whiskies together by characteristic X (age, region, peated/non-peated, etc), it becomes a style, and people tend to rate them accordingly.

    I love Rosebank. I call it my favourite lowland whisky. In such a way, I’m making Lowland whiskies a style.

    Jim Murray, I think, does the same thing, but doesn’t note it in his somewhat terse tasting notes. He tastes young whiskies and seems to rate them based as a category of young whiskies. In this sense, he’s creating a style category all its own, and I think his ratings amongst young whiskies are consistent in that category.

    The problem is that I don’t think he’s AWARE that he’s doing that, or, if he is, he doesn’t mention it anywhere — and that leads people who look at ratings to misunderstand the ratings of a particular whisky.

    This has always been my big beef against ratings alone, and why I preferred Michael Jackson’s guides over Jim Murray’s — the more extensive flavour profiling done by Michael Jackson, and, more to the point, the more consistent flavour profiling.

    Jim Murray’s tasting notes are all over the map — from random strings of meaningless (to me, anyway — I’m sure they mean something to him) words, to eloquent descriptions. But to me, that’s where the TRUE value lies.

    If I don’t like leathery whisky, for instance (I’m not personally against it), and I read that Whisky X got a 95, but skip the part where the flavour profile is listed as ‘old leather,’ I’m missing a very important part of the guide, and am liable to be incredibly disappointed.

    But if JM were to consciously be aware of, and group his ratings according to, all the subcategories he creates in his head, it would make for an incredibly jumbled, but possibly more useful, guide indeed.

    SO… again… to reiterate… yes, I think young whiskies are a style, but only if you choose to think of them as such.

  23. Red_Arremer says:

    1.Philosophers sometimes say that the elements of a coherent theory take in eachother’s laundry.

    Murray’s giving high ratings to young whiskies. Does it wash? Which detergent should we try? If young whisky were a bonafide style would that clean up the issue? Then again, such a solution might contain hazardous elements.

    2.John, you do your laundry:

    Numerical ratings are explained by the need for objectivity.

    Tasting without water is explained by the need of reviews to be relevant to everyone, in which case they must apply to experiences, which can be easily duplicated by anyone.

    In other words, both positions are appropriate to a writer of popular whisky reviews, though not to someone who is looking to maximize their enjoyment of whisky. Your laundry is clean. However, the nonreviewer who follows your lead may end up with a bundle of dirty clothes in his closet.

    3. We should not need to do Murray’s laundry for him. He should be as forthcoming as you. He should explain to us how it all comes out in the wash.

  24. MrTH says:

    Rick says:

    I’m presuming Mr. Murray is rating his young whiskeys as a category.
    ***************
    Murray says he tastes everything blind, and the scores are what they are regardless of category. A young whiskey (or a blend, or whatever) that scores 92 is deemed a point better than a 15yo malt (or whatever) that scores a 91, period. Frankly (and with all respect, John), I think scoring whisky is totally bogus, so these kinds of anomalies don’t mean much to me. I just can’t see any point to putting a numerical value to a subjective experience. Not that it can’t be done…but if you develop some objective criteria for judging, say, great paintings, and “Guernica” scores 95 and “The Night Watch” 94, does that really mean anything? All it comes down to is what you like, and, if you can articulate it, why. Either the “objective criteria” are formulated to justify your tastes, or else they fail, sooner or later, to account for something that falls outside of them. I feel no need whatsoever to make the things I enjoy compete with each other.

  25. Serge says:

    Hi all from a sunny Alsatian Saturday morning. John, you should work as a TV show host, you sure know how to ask questions! A few comments:

    – I believe a scoring system should work for just any drink, not only whisky, especially when you’re supposedly tasting blind! That means that I’d probably score gasoline or stale Red Bull 0/100, whilst my favourite malt so far scores 98/100. That’s why scores for SMSW usually range from 65 to 95 and very rarely go under 50. Thank god!

    – Indeed, tasting notes are obligatory. In no way a score plus just a three words drivel should be published. A score is only a way to sum up a complete experience. To the reader, it only makes sense if you know the taster and his tastes (whom should you believe when you’d like to know how good the new BMW is? Michael Schumacher? A NYC cab driver? BMW’s test drivers? A car journalist? Your neighbour? A car blogger? A car dealer? A whisky blogger? BMW’s PR department?… Err…)

    – What is really blind tasting? There are various degrees of ‘blindness’. If, say Duncan Taylor send me three new samples from three different casks of 1972 Caperdonich and I pour them into three glasses, ask someone to number and ‘shuffle’ them in front of me, and then try all three, is it really blind? Or at least as blind as one whisky taken randomly out of hundreds and tasted in a black or blue ISO glass?

    – As for young whiskies, I have no opinions as for them being a category or not since I’m not taking categories into account (again, one single scale for all drinks and even cigars, tea, why not restaurants, CDs… When we were teenagers we were even scoring girls, weren’t we! But I think only matters in which one has a reasonable experience should be published…)

    – Yet, I believe there are two kinds of young whiskies: young whiskies that taste immature and young whiskies that already taste mature because high-quality casks have been used and/or because they were matured in ‘fast places’ (such as Amrut’s in India indeed, or some Americans and so on). What bothers me most is when immature whiskies are sold to us for big bucks because they’re peaty (some punters would now buy anything peaty – heavy peat masks any flaws anyway) and/or because they’re full of new oak (heavy vanilla, ginger and coconut – once again, a good way of masking flaws and immaturity.)

    – In a nutshell, I’m all for trying very young whiskies coming from new distilleries (Kilchoman springs to mind) or as examples of works in progress (Samaroli had some nice series called ‘Ageing Monography’) or because they were filled in outstanding casks (some Port Charlottes and else…) but buying an immature no-age-statement woodbomb or peatbomb bearing a fancy Gaelic name for almost the same price as a 12 years old, no thanks, you can see right through it.

  26. Davindek says:

    I don’t see young whisky as a category. Most of the young whiskies I’ve tasted would improve with ageing. Still some are quite tasty and appropriate for the right occasion. Some new make is really quite good too – Kilchoman, Tullibardine, Bruichladdich, but it will all improve with age.

    I do like scores, but it took me a LONG time and a lot of effort to get onto it. I would not score a nutty Irish pure pot on exactly the same characteristices as a Scotch blend but I would use the same scale. You will never find delicious old corn whisky notes in a Scotch single malt, but they are one of the best features of old Scotch grain whisky and increase the score.

    Similarly, the youthful exhuberance of some young whiskies is lost in old age, but replaced by complexities and syntheses that in a ‘contemplating whisky’, I like better. I can see how a young whisky could score highly based on certain traits that would be lost in ageing, but overall, I think most whiskies improve with age and I am puzzled, as you seem to be John, with a young whisky that scores 90 points? I mean what’s left if it has already peaked?

    Davin

  27. John Hansell says:

    I don’t want this posting to digress into whether one thinks rating a whisky is good or bad, so I am starting a new thread on this topic. Let’s keep this thread focused on young whiskies and how we percieve them.

    For those of you who have commented on the whole “ratings” issue here (due to topic drift), please copy and paste your thoughts on the new posting that addresses this issue specifically. Thanks.

  28. [...] do you feel about rating whiskies? Chime in. (For those of you who commented on ratings in my previous posting due to a drift in the topic, feel free to copy and paste your thoughts here to keep this topic [...]

  29. A great topic and one that I have enjoyed reading, not least because we have recently released “The Spirit Drink that dare not speak its name”.
    By definition this product is not whisky and can’t therefore be compared with the great single malt whiskies from Scotland or elsewhere.
    We were encouraged to bottle our spirit by customers who had tried and liked the independent bottlings over the years and our newer distillery bottlings at 21, 30 and 40 years old.
    Graham Eunson and myself liked the concept and had been bowled over by the flavour of the new make and were therefore happy to release it, as a limited edition run. If it is favourably received then we may release more in future.
    We have also been purchasing different types of casks and are encouraged by the different maturation characteristics that are evident even after a few months, so we are likely to release some of these in the coming years too, probably always in limited edition batches.
    But are these products whisky – no.
    Should we sell it – yes, if there is a demand for it.
    Can we compare it with whisky – no, these under-aged drinks are different but nonetheless can still have complex flavour profiles in their own right and can be equally enjoyable drinks – as I can personally testify.
    Cheers

  30. Dave Pickerell says:

    I believe there are several issues at play here:
    1. New micro distillers that are desparately trying to put out something other than vodka while dealing with financial realities… one would only hope that they will eventually be able to give some extra age once the ante has been paid.
    2. There is definately a trend toward de-aging or moving toward No Age Statement to hide the lesser age… primarily because so many have succombed to the addage that older is always better … (although sometimes it is just older) … Now, the industry is a victim of it’s own success, and there are shortages everywhere (especially in Rye and older Bourbon). It will be YEARS before this de-aging can be rectified … I just hope it doesn’t start to look like post-prohibition America where anything with any age at all was considered premium.
    3. I think there will emerge a true category of whiskey aged in smaller barrels… and we are just beginning to see it now. These products will eventually force us to re-evaluate what we think about age, and we may have to create a special category just to deal with these guys. There’s no denying that whiskey aged in smaller barrels has a lot going on in just a few short months to a year or two.

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