Facts about Cask Maturation and Age Statements

First, it is important to know the facts: According to Scottish law, a Whisky has to mature in the cask for at least three years and one day to be called Whisky. Therefore Whiskies with no age statement are still at least three years old.

Another significant law is, that when Whiskies from different casks with different ages are blended and the age is stated, the one of the youngest cask has to be stated. Knowing those facts we can have a closer look.

Why Questioning the Age?

It is interesting with what kind of motivation the question is asked. Most of the questioners want to determine the value or worth of the Whisky with the age, thinking that ‘Old Whiskies are good.’ Since the price gets higher the older the Whisky is, one can certainly get the impression. But while in many cases this is true, it does not always apply. If we look at how the cask maturation is working, we see that with the additive and subtractive maturation, a Whisky can stay in a cask for too long, gaining too many oak notes from the cask. Of course, this depends on each cask individually and how often it was used. Still – age is an important tool for the marketing of the bottles and is important to the customers.

Reasons for not Stating the Age

Hiding the Age

Well, it’s simple: Most distilleries are not stating the age in order to hide the young age. A one-digit number does not look as good as a double-digit one. A while ago (in the 1990s and 2000s) there were bottlings of Macallan or Glen Grant among others, that stated their five or seven years of age. But since the market was more fond of the 12, 15 and 18 year old ones, the age statement was left out by the following batches.

Using Young Casks

Another reason for leaving out the age can be to use young casks. Sometimes an older, milder cask is refreshed with an intense young one. Additionally Whisky in a first-fill cask matures faster. But as already mentioned, if the age is stated it has to be the one of the youngest cask, which brings us back to the first reason.

An added bonus is the reduction of costs when the pricier and older casks are mixed with cheaper, younger ones. This works better for peated Whisky since the young, ‘metallic’ distillery character is easier hidden in a smoky character.

The Duration of the Finish

Oftentimes Whiskies are finished in different casks like Sherry or Wine casks. The duration of the finish is most commonly shorter than the original one and can only be for a few months. With each usage of the finish cask, the duration is lengthened in order to gain the same result of extracted aromas. For example, the first usage of the finish cask can be for six months, the second for eight, the third for twelve and so on. That is problematic for standard bottlings with such a finish, like the Laphroaig Quarter Cask. If the age would be stated, then for each batch new labels with different ages had to be printed. And not only this, but the marketing has to make sure people know, that the taste is still the same. But most likely many customers will be confused. Another way to reach the same age is that the duration of the maturation or finish has to be adapted, which results in different or even unwanted results in taste. Therefore those standard bottlings often have no age statement.

Those three are the most likely reasons for not stating the age. But since we do not know what the distilleries or companies are thinking, we can not be certain.

The Market and the Short-Sight of Distilleries and Companies

If the demand for older Whisky on the market is rising, why not sell only old Whisky? Well, the matter is not as easy as that. We speak about years of production and only a limited amount of space in warehouses and production capacity. The quickly rising demand can not be met with the long duration of production.

The biggest problem is that the marketing of the distilleries or companies is operating separately from the production. The goal of the marketing is to sell as much as possible. If older Whisky is no longer in the warehouse, then the younger ones will be sold. That those young ones will later be missing in the numbers of older Whiskies is oftentimes overlooked. This matter is aggravated by the fact that most distilleries are owned by about eight international corporations. They tend to see the numbers more than they see the status of the warehouses.

Another factor is that the distillery managers are staying in the distilleries for only a few years. They are not required to have a foresight of for example ten years. They are also more interested in selling more bottles, than in saving casks for the future. Privately owned distilleries, which are mostly run by families, have it easier in that matter. They often have more foresight and plan longer, which results in old age bottlings. A good example is Glenfarclas, which is capable of releasing old Whiskies every year, through good planning.

When we look at the market there are bottlings with no age statement far and wide. It is not true, that all of them are bad or worse than older Whiskies and taste is and will always be a subjective matter. But it is quite unfortunate if older bottlings from few distilleries are pulled from the market due to a shortage of old casks in the warehouse. A silver lining is the amount of newly built distilleries, which tend to keep their casks in the warehouse longer.