By Richard Thomas
The end of the summer has seen whiskey’s two biggest communities bitterly divided over separate, but equally contentious issues. For bourbon, a simmering dispute broke out into the open when Buffalo Trace announced the results of its controversial small barrel aging experiment in late August.
A couple of weeks after Buffalo Trace issued its findings, The Macallan poured gasoline on a running dispute over aging statements in the scotch industry, when Macallan Brand Ambassador Joy Elliot said “Age statements have made [scotch-makers] very lazy and one-dimensional” at the launch of their 1824 Series Gold label. Elliot went on to explain how there are better ways to judge the quality of a whiskey than the aging statement, but her choice of words set off a firestorm in whiskey forums, scotch blogs and liquor publications.
The casual whiskey drinker probably remains ignorant of these interrelated brawls over aging, as the participants consist of whiskey reporters, bloggers, industry professionals, and diehard whiskey lovers. Yet the outcome of these similar disputes on opposite sides of the Atlantic might affect whiskey drinkers in general, since what is under contention is nothing less than what appears on bar and liquor store shelves.
Are Age Statements Misleading?
When Joy Elliot labeled aging statements “lazy,” she kicked up a fuss that left some whiskey fans questioning The Macallan’s basic motives in releasing a no-aging statement line. Complicating the issue is the persistent notion that rising international demand is putting the pinch on supplies of premium whiskey in general, even though many in the whiskey business dismiss that idea.
This dispute centers on drinks giants Diageo and Pernod Ricard. Diageo, owner of Johnnie Walker, says that flavor is the key facet of a whiskey, and that an age is just one factor that goes into producing that flavor. Pernod Ricard, owner of Ballantine’s and Chivas Regal, argues that age is extremely important to how a whiskey turns out.
As for claims by whiskey fans that the age statement positions of these companies and that of The Macallan’s owner, Edrington, are governed by their business concerns, well, of course they are! I am no more surprised that Elliot called aging statements “lazy” while talking about a no-aging statement premium single malt than I am that Chivas Regal, whose entire line consists of aging statement-bearing blended scotch, thinks aging statements are vital.
Aging statements provide one piece of information in judging the merits of an unknown whiskey, and it is one of the few hard bits of data at that. Since time is so critical in whiskey maturation, an aging statement is the second-most important piece of information that might appear on the label, right after the name of the brand. In my book, an age statement is a little more useful than terms like “single barrel” or “single malt,” and dramatically more meaningful than porous words like “small batch.” Observe that no one is going around saying the use of the term “small batch” is making the bourbon industry lazy, although such a claim might have more merits than saying the same about aging statements.
However, Elliot does have a strong point in that aging statements can be over-emphasized, and therefore misleading. While J&B 15 Year Old is better than ordinary J&B, it is still mediocre, and in no way comparable to many no-aging statement blended scotches. Johnnie Walker, Ballantine’s, Famous Grouse, Grant’s and Cutty Sark all produce 12 Year Olds, and it would be ridiculous to describe all of these scotches as having a parity in terms of quality. Although they have noticeably different characters, I think of Woodford Reserve and Knob Creek as being roughly equal in terms of quality, even though Woodford has no aging statement and Knob Creek is a 9 Year Old.
My list of examples goes on and on, but the point here is that it is too easy to think of aging statements as an objective, comparative measure of quality. While the number in an aging statement is objective, what it actually means is subjective. Within a given whiskey line, you can bet safely that the older whiskey is probably better. When comparing two different brands against each other, all bets are off.
The Tempest in a Small Barrel
Buffalo Trace’s press release caused a furor in what was already a standing dispute over the merits of small barrel aging, a technique that speeds the maturation of whiskey in some, but not all respects. On one side of this dispute are the many micro-distillers that have sprung up in all over North America in recent years, who are as eager to get a product on the market quickly as they are to experiment and craft innovative, distinctive whiskeys. On the other side are some of the traditional American distillers, who have an investment in lengthy, big barrel aging.
Most commentators, like Sour Mash Manifesto, Clay Risen at the New York Times and John Hansell at The Whiskey Advocate (or myself on this website), have steered the middle course on the matter, mostly because the facts themselves dictate neutrality. Small barrel aging is not new, its qualities were well-established before the micro-distilling boom, and the laws governing what bourbon is do not specify how big a barrel should be or how a minimum aging period. The bottom line from these sources is that small barrel whiskeys are neither better or worse than traditional big barrel products, but simply different and should be judged on their own merits.
Other pundits, like Chuck Cowdery, have had as an inflammatory an impact on the small barrel dispute as Joy Elliot’s comments had on that of scotch aging statements. Cowdery himself shows a split-personality when it comes to small barrel aging. On the one hand, he produces blog posts that strike a middle ground note, while repeatedly stating in blog comments and forum posts that his main dispute is with the syntax of small barrel aging claims. On the other hand, he consistently introduces his point of view with titles declaring all small barrel whiskey sucks, such as his 24-page e-book, Small Barrels Produce Lousy Whiskey.
Know Your Booze
The lesson found in both these brouhahas is the same: know your whiskey. Whiskey maturation is a multi-faceted process with more to it than the size of the barrel or the length of time that barrel spends racked in the warehouse. Extreme and/or simplistic claims about the matter should be treated with suspicion, whoever they come from. Finally, always remember that no maker of rotgut is going to tell you his product would serve better polishing your stainless steel stove top than it would in your tumbler, and it would be naive to believe that a whiskey-maker is not going to put the best possible marketing spin on their spirits, within the bounds of honesty in advertising.