Whisky Advocate

What does a whisky’s age really mean?

June 28th, 2010

Maybe WDJK readers know, but apparently most people don’t what the age statement on a bottle of whisky means.

Chivas Brothers conducted a study (details below in their press release) and only 10% of the people queried knew that it was the age of the youngest whisky in the bottle. Nearly half of the people thought it referred to the average age, and 35% thought it meant the oldest age in the bottle.

We all know that there’s a lot of ignorance when it comes to understanding the fundamentals concepts of whisky (in this instance, age statement).  Chivas Brothers is launching a new global campaign titled “The Age Matters” to help demystify and clarify what the age statement really means.

Congrats to Chivas Brothers for embarking on something that will benefit everyone!

Additional note, which I am putting up after my original post: I do need to formally state though that I wish they were more clear that “older doesn’t always mean better”. To much of a good thing can work against you. Using Chivas as an example, I must say that I like Chivas 18 better than the younger AND older marks.

——————————

THE AGE MATTERS

Chivas Brothers launches global consumer campaign
on the importance of Scotch whisky age statements

 Today, 28 June 2010, the world’s leading producer of luxury Scotch whisky, Chivas Brothers, is launching a global campaign to advocate the importance and value of the age statements to consumers.

According to new research commissioned by Chivas Brothers, 94% of consumers believe the age statement serves as an indicator of quality, 93% believe that older whiskies are better quality and 89% actively look for an age statement when making a decision to purchase.

However, there is a global lack of knowledge about what the age statement actually means: only 10% understand that it refers to the youngest whisky in the bottle, nearly half (48%) believe an age statement refers to the average age and 35% believe it signifies the oldest whisky present.  The Scotch Whisky Regulations (2009) make clear what an age statement means – the age of the youngest whisky in the bottle.

Chivas Brothers, Distiller of the Year 2009, is responding with a campaign called The Age Matters, which will manifest itself through stand-alone activity as well as through integration across the company’s aged whisky portfolio, which includes the Ballantine’s, Chivas Regal, The Glenlivet, and Royal Salute brands.

The aim of the campaign is to enable consumers to understand fully the age statement and to appreciate the value of the premium product they are purchasing.

One of the greatest influences on the flavour of whisky comes from maturation. Much of the complexity of Scotch whisky comes mainly from its time in oak casks in Scotland; with outstanding spirit and excellent wood management, it follows that the longer the maturation period, the more complex the whisky.

From 1 July 2010, consumers will be encouraged to look for age statements on Scotch whisky, via point-of-sale materials, advertising and public relations.  A logo using the language Guaranteed Age Whisky has been created for usage in retail, and will be visible in the environment of Chivas Brothers brands that carry an age statement. 

Christian Porta, Chairman and CEO of Chivas Brothers Limited, says: “The revelation that so many existing whisky drinkers do not understand that the age statement refers to youngest age of the whisky, shows that there is an opportunity for us to inform them.

“In an age when consumers of luxury goods increasingly demand transparency and authenticity from brands, it is vital that we empower consumers with knowledge, so that they fully understand the value of what they are buying.”

No Responses to “What does a whisky’s age really mean?”

  1. B.J. Reed says:

    I think anything that helps educate consumers is a good thing. Understanding age and the influence of casks on whisky is among the most important – In talking with various distillery people they all agree that the wood makes up 60% or more of the character of the whisky. Therefore knowing the age in the cask is fundamental to knowing what you are tasting. Still knowing that there is no age statement doesn’t mean that there isn’t older stock in that bottle is also important as well as that the age statement is the minimum age. I can see how casual consumers can get confused but this effort by Chivas is a nice way to help clarify what age means.

  2. ps says:

    I agree that anything helping to educate consumers is great. However, are Chivas also going to clear up the misconception that older whisky = better whisky?! “94% of consumers believe the age statement serves as an indicator of quality, 93% believe that older whiskies are better quality”. hmmm.
    Also, could this be a way of making bourbon and it’s relative youth seem more unappealing to consumers?

    • John Hansell says:

      Both are excellent points! Older is better to a point. Then it can be counterproductive by dominating a whisky’s flavor profile. Not to mention that the quality of the wood is also important.

  3. bgulien says:

    Old age in bad wood = bad whisky, while young(ish) whisky in excellent wood = pretty good whisky (See Kilchoman Inaugural)
    Age statemen could be a indication of quality, but not always.
    The fact, that a distillery will let a cask mature for that long, indicates that people believe in it.
    But some bad ones materialize now and then.

  4. two-bit cowboy says:

    John and B.J.,

    I agree that this will be a great tool to inform, but I’m a little skeptical of Chivas’ good intentions. How many of Chivas’ products don’t have age statements? Is their real purpose to inform consumers that NAS whiskies don’t stand up to the stable of Pernod Ricard’s 12 years old and older products, single malt or blend: Strathisla, The Glenlivet, Chivas and others? Marketing with an educational veneer?

    • Louis says:

      Very good point, as Johnnie Walker Blue does not have an age statement, and I just heard that the Gold has lost it as well.

      • Paul M says:

        I had heard that Johnnie Walker Blue has the youngest whisky in their line-up which is one reason that they do not put an age statement on it.

        • Louis says:

          There are two reasons that I know of for Blue not having an age satement. One is that the supply of older malts varies, so they don’t want to lock themselves into a single age. Second, the grain whisky might be in the low twenties age-wise, while some of the malts might be in the high twenties.

    • B.J. Reed says:

      I can’t speak for Chivas so I don’t know but I am going to give them the benefit of a doubt until we see what they communicate – Chivas (Pernod) has been pretty good in my experience in representing the industry while promoting their own products. I assume they will do the same here.

  5. It would be foolish to believe that Chivas started this campaign out of pure altruism. They want to underline the age statements of their blends to get an edge in the battle with their NAS competitors.

    And if those percentage figures really are representative, I have my doubts that Chivas will go at lengths to explain to the people that older does not necessarily have to mean better, as we all here tend to agree.

    • John Hansell says:

      Many of the Chivas Brothers products (e.g. Chivas, Glenlivet) have line extentions that go past 25 years old, so educating the consumer will also benefit them. So, I think that they’re initiating a camaign that will benefit the consumer and themselves. I see nothing wrong with that.

      • I don’t think it’s wrong either. Educating the customers is always a good thing, if they are not mislead. My point is just that I am convinced the original intention was marketing driven. And Chivas decided that their goals can best be reached by consumer education. Both are happy, and that’s just fine.

  6. JC Skinner says:

    I see no problem in them informing the public about an aspect many were ill-informed about.
    And in the context of the growing trend towards NAS (which all too often is an excuse to charge over the top prices for youthful whiskey), this is extremely welcome indeed.

    • John Hansell says:

      I agree with Serge. You make an excellent point, JC. There are a lot of whiskies on the market with no age statements, fancy names, and high prices.

      • B.J. Reed says:

        This is really an important point – NAS whiskies priced correctly and with a mix of older and younger casks can be exceptional – Younger whiskies can be wonderful (I am still floored by how good Kilchomen releases are as well as the PC series from Bruichladdich) – NAS whiskies that exceed price points that are reasonable run the risk of alienating people from the brand – This goes back to whether buying “new make” spirit for $40 or $50 makes any sense at all – In my view it doesn’t.

  7. Serge says:

    Well said JC Skinner.

  8. MrTH says:

    The standards for age statements on cognac are different, no? Perhaps that adds to some of the confusion.

    I agree that any commercial enterprise’s “educational” campaigns are going to put that company’s products in the best light possible. I see nothing wrong with that, as long as they are reasonably honest and truthful. Smart consumers can read between the lines without being overly cynical about it.

  9. Steffen Bräuner says:

    I hope the next thing they will educate us about is chillfiltration and E150 !

    Macdeffe

    • MARS says:

      lol
      As they are chillfiltrering a lot, I don’t think so!

      MARS

    • B.J. Reed says:

      Steffen if you have not watched the short videos from Gerry Tosh and Highland Park on chill filtration there are really good – Haven’t seen anything that explains the process better – Think they are on youtube

    • Steffen Bräuner says:

      I am just very careful with taking education from a group who’s people has stated to me that CF doesnt change the flavour of whisky at all…

      Steffen

  10. Michael says:

    I can only say that although I have many bottles of young and NAS whiskies and like a lot of them (such as Kilchoman, Ardbeg ANB, Corryvreckan, Laphroaig QC, CS, Caol Ila CS etc) – I have realized that I prefer older whiskies. Interestingly, I decided over the weekend that from now on, I would only buy whiskies that are at least 25 YO. It may be influenced by my limited storage space and financial means ;-)
    By the way, in contrast to many reviewers, I like Chivas 25YO quite a bit and prefer Highland Park 25YO to HP 18YO

    • Ardbeg ANB does have an age statement- 1990. And if you bought the 2008 edition you were getting an 18 Year Old. I think that’s a pretty decent age for a whisky.

      • Michael says:

        You are indeed right. I thought of that but I meant that Ardbeg does not really emphasizes age of their whisky (in case of ARNB, it can be 16-18 but one has to look at bottling year to see it).

  11. kallaskander says:

    Hi there,

    well, that press release by Chivas seems to go against the grain a bit in these days, doesn`t it?

    We have discussed the trend towards NAS bottlings and even white dog and new make bottlings at some length and now this from an important player in the whisky world.

    Makes one wonder.

    Alas, here is an interesting point.

    “According to new research commissioned by Chivas Brothers, 94% of consumers believe the age statement serves as an indicator of quality, 93% believe that older whiskies are better quality and 89% actively look for an age statement when making a decision to purchase.”

    94% think age serves as an indicator of quality. Is there any better news fo a whisky producer?

    It would suggest that it suffices to put a big and bright two digit number prominently onto your label and almost all your marketing is done.

    Coming form the social sciences I do only trust in statistics which I have created myself. In the light of the recent developments of the last 2 years one wonders why only Chivas found out about the advantages of maturing whisky at some length.

    Serge is pointing out a very interesting fact. You can rave about the quality of matured old aged whisky if you have the casks to prove it and to bottle the proof.

    If you are named Ardbeg or Bruichladdich with prolonged times of being mothballed or if you are named Glen-a-recently-opened you better be quiet about old age whisky.

    We will see if this stratagem of which I approve overall will do the trick. And what the trick is of course.

    Greetings
    kallaskander

    • John Hansell says:

      Like you said, Chivas Brothers has a big advantage over many of their competition in that they have mature stocks of quality whisky and can bottle an extensive (and older) range of whiskies. Can’t blame them for doing this and, like we have all said, the new campaign is overall a positive for the consumer.

  12. kallaskander says:

    Hi there,

    here a bit of back-ground.

    http://www.moodiereport.com/document.php?c_id=31&doc_id=24548

    Greetings
    kallaskander

    • Matt L says:

      That’s quite a candid interview. I personally find it refreshing that Chivas’ man admits that they are hoping to use this campaign to eventually raise prices on certain older bottling. Not that I like seeing higher prices, but profit is the legitimate goal of business.

  13. Serge says:

    Indeed, Kallaskander, they all push the pawns they have.
    I’ve read comments here and there saying that there are examples of young whiskies that are excellent, which proves that Chivas’ statement is bollocks. I disagree, we’re talking about ‘global’ rules, not about exceptions. Sure there are some tired, over-oaky old whiskies and quite some brilliant young Port Charlottes, Ardbegs, Aberlours, Bowmores and so on (and of course bourbons) but their bottlers sure selected outstanding casks – or casks that were designed for short ageing in the first place – and I’d dare saying that they’re usually flavour-packed, but not always very complex.
    Now, does a great whisky, just like a great wine, have to be complex? For me, yes, but I wouldn’t try to impose my views on other whisky lovers. I perfectly understand that some drinkers prefer “big” whiskies, which, indeed, leaves quite some room for more NAS in the future.

    • Sjoerd de Haan says:

      Hi Serge (and others),

      I fully agree with your statement. Age does not always imply greatness and quality, but overall there is some merit to stating it.

      What my personal issue against NAS whiskies is that I would like more information. If I am tasting one I would like to know as much as there is to know. Or at least, after tasting and considering whether it is worth buying.

      If I find a whisky I like but its 100 euros while only 3 years old, I will most likely not buy since I do not consider it a fair deal, although I might like it more than a 120 euro 18 year old that I will buy. Its simply a situation of being willing to pay the dime… Especially since I usually get bored rather quickly with whiskies that show a lack of complexity (which is quite often the case with young whiskies).

    • Steffen Bräuner says:

      I disagree. It’s just your kind of complexity, the kind of complexity you prefer – The kind of complexity that is in older aged whiskies. I’ve been reading your reviews for many years and there’s no doubt that you have a side for older whiskies (and sherried and peaty) and nothing wrong with that. Younger whiskies, which I find very complex, and GREAT, you tend to dislike (rating wise). So for you age is better and more complex but not (neceserily) for me.

      So we can fully agree that a whisky has to be copmplex to be great. But I don’t agree with the fact that a whisky has to be old to show great complexity, not at all

      The whiskies I found most complex whiskies was all below 20yo

      PS Don’t get the impression I don’t like old whiskies, I like them as well :-)

      Macdeffe

      • Michael says:

        Steffen,
        If I may, which whiskies (under 20YO) did you find the most complex? Just curious.

        • Steffen Bräuner says:

          Hi Michael

          I don’t keep particualr records of what I am drinking, but straight of my mind I can mention :
          Amrut Fusion (NAS, 5yo?), Arran Peacock (approx 12yo), an Old Pulteney bottled at the distillery (15yo), Bladnoch 8yo 55%, Rollercoaster, Balblair 97 (10ish)

          I do find a lot of complexity in OB’s like Glenmorangie 10, Cragganmore 12, Glenlivet 12 if my palate is rather fresh

          In the case of Ardbeg i’ll have to admit that older versions have shown me the greatest complexity I have seen from this distillery, especially a LOTI, 21yo and PING1, but I had several other expressions in this catagory which I found less complex than the rollercoaster

          Sprinbanks, my favourites are spread even over the age spectrum, nothing beats the 100 proof (European version) for me

          BenRiach, I found the 25yo much superior to the 30yo, but I guess both is considered old)

          • Michael says:

            Thank you Steffen. I read it with great interest. I believe that with so many casks (and ages) “blended” in, Ardbeg Rollercoaster has to be very complex ;-)

          • Serge says:

            Hi Steffen, you’re right, some young whiskies can be complex as well. There are always many exceptions so I guess it all comes down to each drinker’s experience. BTW I just toyed with some figures and published an E-pistle on Malt Maniacs about that very topic. You’ll find the link in the ‘good new bad news’ section.
            Very globally, I find it a bit stressful that whisky would lose its key factors one after the other. Own maltings, gone. Own cooperage, gone. Own warehouses, gone. Own way of firing the stills, gone. Sherry, almost gone. Now age… gone? ;-)

          • Steffen Bräuner says:

            Well, I don’t agree on the fact that a whisky’s age has gone from bottlings, or that there is a trend its not been putting on anymore. What we have seen is an addition of bottlings with NAS (it started many years ago), but not on the expense off bottlings with an age statement.
            I still feel that the large majority of bottlings have an age statement of some kind.
            NAS whiskies are also hard to catagorize as you can find almost any kind of whisky in this catagory, from very young to very old, from general expressions to very limited ones. One factor why some bottlings don’t have age on it is that there is a lot of age=quality misbeliefs among the general public, or the people who bottle whisky are afraid there is this misbelief

            Macdeffe

  14. Gal says:

    Not very surprising…

  15. Seth Nadel says:

    Sounds like a lot of marketing/pr to me. I have no problem with that, of course.

  16. Excellent debate. Good reading. As always, you can read our thoughts at caskstrength.net but let me throw this one in for fun:

    why not ban age statements altogether? If a whisky is good / great, then it shouldn’t matter how old it is….

    • Michael says:

      I am afraid that it will not be well received by many. Some would like to see all the details about casks and length of aging (in different casks). You may also underestimate the importance of collectors in this business. I do not think many would pay $400+ for NAS whisky.

    • mongo says:

      you can make delicious meals out of ingredients that cost a total of $5 and ingredients that cost a total of $50. if you’ve done the former you shouldn’t charge me very much more than $15, and if you’ve done the latter i can’t expect you to charge me less than $50. not an exact analogy, of course.

      • I’m not sure I get your point? Do you think that a 40 year old whisky costs a lot more to make than a 15 year old whisky? Apart from the obvious fact that there tends to be less whisky in a cask over time, the only additional cost is warehousing which is minimal.

        From figures I’ve heard in the business, there isn’t much difference between the actual cost of a 10 year old and that of something much older, save for the fact that there will be less of it in the cask.

        So your point works on blends, where the drinks companies may be selling each other older stock at a higher cost, but when it comes to a single malt then they all cost pretty much the same to make, whatever the age.

        Joel

        • Serge says:

          Plus financing, Joel. Say 70cl cost £2, after 40 years without any sales, I guess the costs will lie between £15 and £20 plus warehousing indeed. Not saying that justifies a £1,000 price tag, of course.

        • mongo says:

          i assume that if a distillery puts x% of their distillate away for longer periods that takes up warehouse space and reduces the amount they have available for the younger versions. also in the time that a 21 year old takes to get bottled those casks could have been used twice for 10 year old whisky. if cask prices are also insignificant that may not matter either, but i’ve read that high quality casks (sherry in particular) are in short supply for many distilleries.

          but if these result in negligible cost differences in reality then the analogy does not hold, and i’m due vast refunds from the distilleries.

          (and please note that i’ve not said anything about the subjective issue of “quality” differences between younger and older whiskies–i don’t believe age is an automatic improvement; i’m just assuming there are rational cost differentials–though like serge i also would not say that these justify any particular markup.)

  17. David says:

    It is agreed that aging plays a very important role in the final taste of the whiskey. My thought is if the wanted to really educate the consumer they would publish the percentages of aged whiskey that goes into their blend. I also like it when I’m told the placed in barrel date and bottled date for single malts. They more information on the bottle or packaging the better.

    • Henry H. says:

      Indeed, the more information the better. But let’s not stop at age and dates. How about detailed cask and vatting information? For example, Arran tells us the Peacock is a vatting of 13 bourbon barrels and 7 sherry hogsheads, which is great to know. Yet there is more: How many refills? What type of sherry? Again, the more information the better.

  18. mongo says:

    i’m curious: are there any rules about what whiskies can be sold with no age statement? can any distiller decide to sell a bottle that is all whisky of one age (say, all 3 year old whisky from one cask) with no age statement? is the posting of age statements completely at the discretion of the distiller?

    • Michael says:

      I believe that the only restriction is that whisky is spirit matured for minimum of 3 years(in Scotland).
      Otherwise, age statement is optional and those who have lots of young whisky would follow the example of Ardbeg, Glenmorangie and Bruichladdich, among many more, and will drop the age statement and give their whiskies some fancy names. If there are more who accept this concept, the age statement will start disappearing. Fortunately, there are still distilleries that do not play this game.

  19. […] there are some exceptions. Some producers are sitting on older stocks, and they are poised to take advantage of […]

  20. Neil says:

    Age just means they can’t sell it. In the old days, they stored what they could not sell as a way to avoid paying taxes. These days, the goverment says anything older than 4 years they have to pay taxes on. With temperature controlled environment, the product can be forced in and out of the inside of the barrel. There is no benefit where you see them store the barrels in old barns, that just represents what they can’t sell!!

    • Michael says:

      You are simplifying things, to put it mildly. Is Laphroaig 30YO just a 15 YO that did not sell (you know history behind it, do you?)? Is Highland Park 30YO just unsold 12YO, 15YO or may be 18YO? How about Karuizawa single cask whiskies? I could go on and on.

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