Whisky: Age Expressions versus No Age Statements

Age is just a number, or so the saying goes.

No Age Statement whiskies are gaining in popularity and there’s little wonder why. A thirst for premium whiskies amongst connoisseurs and novices alike, and dwindling supplies have focused attention towards the production of No Age Statement whiskies.

What are No Age Statement whiskies? As the name indicates, these are whiskies without an age reflected on the bottle and are blends made from a combination of malts & grain whiskies of different ages and barrels. Combinations is really up to the Master blender’s philosophy & craft.

While the distiller is free to omit any indication of the age on the bottle, the only governance on the age of the whisky – they must be at least three years old (applicable to Scotland & Ireland)

It was not too long ago when the epitome of a good whisky was a single malt, aged for over 10 years, in a single cask.

Blends, thus far, had the unfortunate perception of being inferior to these grand drams.

However, relentless demand for the amber liquid has led to a shift in interest to these blended expressions.

An Increasing Interest

As of September 2016, statistics from the Scotch Whisky Association show that Asia accounts for six of the top 20 Scotch whisky export markets by volume, with India, Singapore, Japan, Thailand, Taiwan and South Korea taking spots in the list.

Interestingly, the oenophile nation of France takes the top spot.

As for Singapore, it has one of the highest per capita Scotch whisky consumption rates in the world, with 2014 statistics from the Scotch Whisky Association showing that Singaporeans consumed around 12 bottles of whisky per person a year.

Slaking the thirst for whisky is no easy task, especially for boutique producers and distilleries. The cost involved in the ageing process is not to be scoffed at and many producers have to practice striking a fine balance between setting whiskies aside for Age Expressions and crafting blends for No Age Statement whiskies.

The Blender’s Vision

Strengthening the case for blends is the notion that whisky making is an art. Much of the blender’s philosophy and vision goes into making the final product that the market consumes. In fact, 90% of the market for whiskies is dominated by blends –a consistent quality product can only be achieved by blending between barrels.

Macallan, for example, is famous for making premium whiskies and in fact, its top range whiskies are not Age Expression. ‘M’, one of the most expensive No Age Statement whiskies in the world, is achieved by superior wood management. Using only first-fill Oloroso Sherry Cask ensures the very first infusion into the whisky, resulting in a more pronounced, concentrated flavour in the whisky.

Other examples of premium No Age Statement blends are Aberlour a’bundah, Glenmorangie Milsean and Johnnie Walker Blue Label.

The Rise of the Tropics

Finally, whisky production in Asia is on the rise, with places like Taiwan and India leading the way. And the maturation process in the tropics is unlike that of temperate countries like Scotland.

The evaporation rate or what is known as the ‘Angel’s share’ is approximately three times faster in Asia (sometimes more), so keeping it in a barrel only means one is losing precious whisky too quickly. Also, the integration of the wood into the liquid speeds up due to the heat, which means the final product will be achieved a lot faster. Kavalan from Taiwan, for example, is a No Age Statement whisky, and is released 4-6 years after production – that is the equivalent of about 12-18 years in Scotland’s climate.

Ultimately, whether Age Expression or No Age Statement, it is always down to personal preference. Leave it to taste and let the whisky do the talking.

Craft Whiskey from Western Australia – Whipper Snapper Distillery

 

Perth, the new frontier … for Whiskey?

Australia has always been at the forefront of new world wine production, with Shiraz dominating the market and becoming an icon in the world of wines domestically and abroad. Spirits on the other hand hasn’t really took off until now.

With a trendy pop culture of craft and artisanal beverages labelled as cool and hip, boutique distilleries are gaining traction and with the likes of Adelaide Hills distillery making headlines (Green Ant Gin), the Beverage Clique decided to do a little “down-under” exploration ourselves, somewhere closer to home.

In the heart of Perth city, lies the much raved about urban distillery, Whipper Snapper. With a production volume of 30,000 litres per annum, Whipper Snapper is classed as a micro distillery (along side 60% of the rest of Australian Distilleries). Don’t be fooled by the squeaky clean white façade on the outside. The deco within the distillery encompasses a rustic, grunge and hipster atmosphere, nothing short of character and personality. Much like its whiskies in fact!

Its flagship whiskey, Upshot, recently won the “Best Australian Corn” category at the World Whiskies Awards 2017 and we were really keen to find out what makes their whiskey so special.

 

Amidst his busy schedule, James (Jimmy) McKeown, The Master Distiller took some time off to answer a few burning questions for our fans out there. The interview took place in their private tasting room which added a touch of exclusivity to the session. With its dim lights and shady ambience, the place kinda felt like a WWII bunker, especially with rows of bottles lined up like ammunition, living up to its backstory of “the bomber”.

 

 

The Beverage Clique : What was life like before becoming a distiller, your inspiration and the philosophy behind your whiskey?

Jimmy : I had a pretty diverse background from farming, to engineering and even stint in the wine industry. All those contributed to where I am now. Always had a passion for creating things and I feel as a distiller, the 2 biggest components would be the technical know-how, and the ability to be creative.

Chanced upon Tom Cooper, a pioneer in the whiskey industry in Colorado. He was my mentor and taught me the art of making whisky and how to do commercially. A gifted builder, he built his own distillery after retirement. That was really important for my development as a distiller because Tom built everything from scratch and that’s what we have to do here. We need a broad range of skills , you need to be able to do everything! That’s the main difference between a craft distiller and a big distiller (e.g. Jack Daniels). Best bit of advice from Tom, “Good whiskey takes time”. Patience is key.

Culturally, Australia’s a farming country, what we really wanna emphasize on is the special grains that we grow. There’s access to a large variety of grains and we have been making whiskey from wheat, quinoa, different varieties of barley and corn. We also concentrate on our wood policies from our Upshot cask, Hungarian to various French oak. Our aim is produce styles of whiskey that’s more approachable and is meant for everyone (not just the affluent).

 

 

The Beverage Clique : What would you say your whiskey is like, stylistically?

Jimmy : Think of our whiskies like a hybrid between Irish and Bourbon. Our aim’s to do a lighter and more approachable style by taking time to clean it up a lot in the stills. We do malt our barleys (outsource malting) but a big portion of it is unmalted. Other production factors that differentiate us is our water source and climate (Mediterranean). We As you know, Quinoa is a big part of our production here and the variety we use is the Mandela variety. It is unique because you could give a Quinoa whiskey to the most highly trained connoisseur or a respectable Scottish distiller and they have never tasted anything like it before! It’s really nutty and earthy, yet possess a clean and pure core.

Here at Whipper Snapper, we are revolutionising the notion of what whiskey has to be and that’s the exciting thing. Our first batch of Quinoa whiskies was sold out in a couple of weeks!

 

 

The Beverage Clique : What’s the most memorable dram you ever had?

Jimmy : On a whisky tour with my brother-in-law at Cragganmore Distillery (Speyside). Our guide was this really attractive Scottish lady and the tour pretty much went off script coz’ we were quite hungover to begin with. The tasting took place in this magnificent paraphernalia room with medival deco and lots of old whiskies surrounding us. The tour was basically just us and we (with the guide) drank whisky together for ages. Tried to get her number, didn’t happen unfortunately but still very memorable! The company and context truly made the whisky taste a lot better. *sheepish grin*

 

The Beverage Clique : Neat or On the Rocks?

Jimmy : That would depend. But usually .. one block of ice. Only because it gets a little warm around here and I like whiskies a tad colder. I know that’s not the professional way of appreciating whiskey, but I do that at work enough and when I’m unwinding in a bar, I’m just drinking and enjoying it.

 

The Beverage Clique : Any plans to craft other forms of spirits?

Jimmy : It’s always gonna be just whiskey. Probably explore other grains and with the Quinoa, I think we’ve got enough on our plate (Other variations and styles that are in the making, Big Love bolder which is a bolder style of Upshot, wheat whiskey, irish-style whiskey and a single malt whiskey). If there’s anything else other than whiskey that we might produce, would probably be a craft beer!

 

The Beverage Clique : What’s the future of Australian Whiskey?

Jimmy : Demand’s rising, but we’re pretty much still in the infancy stage. Everyone’s still building their own identity and I think importantly for us, is not to try and replicate another country’s style of whiskey too much. Building a unique style with provenance that is iconic to Australia is key. But we got a long way to go.

As far as collaborations go, we had a discussion with Cameron Syme (Founder of Limeburners Distillery) and he’s pretty keen. Whether its to make a whiskey together or share barrels is yet to be seen, but it will be good for the industry as a whole.

 

 

The Beverage Clique : Where do you see yourself or your whiskies in 10 years time?

Jimmy : Hopefully relaxing on a beach, relaxing drinking whiskey somewhere!! *chuckle*  On a serious note, I see us growing in size and perhaps expanding with exports.

 

The Beverage Clique : To round things off, a bonus question! Any tattoos that’s whiskey related?

Jimmy : At the centre of my chest, I got a monogram of WSD and a biomechanical owl. The owl symbolises wisdom and the heart of the owl runs on whisky.

(How poetic! Sadly, he did not take off his shirt for a photo … maybe next time)

James (Jimmy) McKeown

Italian Independent bottler : Samaroli

Osteria Mozza @ Marina Bay Sands

Scored an invite to this exclusive “Whisky & Rum” tasting last Friday and I must say it was truly an eye opener considering its limited exposure as compared to the wine scene in Singapore (Special thanks to Jeremy Ho, Restaurant Manager of NOX).

Most whisky lovers would know, the Scots & Brits are the powerhouses in this arena. So how did an Italian dude come into the picture ? One might even ask , what’s the hype about the house of Samaroli ? A one word answer perhaps ? ARTISAN. For starters, when Mr. Silvano Samaroli established the company in 1968, he was the only bloke that was non-British or non-Scottish whom bared ambitions to making the best whiskies in the world. That in itself would have turned heads. The man may be in his 70s now, but the company has never been stronger ever since the torch was passed to his protégé, Antonio Bleve.

They call themselves “a very small artisanal company” but there is nothing small about their operations, extending their reach across continents (Asia, Europe & America). A solid reputation has been established on selection of the best cask. The amount of effort that was put into selection & production, R&D and marketing strategies are both intricate and bold, in line with their sole mission for their products to be Excellent and Unique. And if I may add, scarce. The amount of bottles produced per product, ranges from a maximum of 750 (2005 Caribbean Rum) to a mere 187 (2014 Evolution Limited Edition). Hence, its no wonder Samaroli commands such a high price (retail comparable to a Royal Salute 21 or Johnnie Walker Blue Label).

 

We started with the 1995 Samaroli Blended Malt Scotch Whisky ‘S Peaty.

According to Antonio, it is a blend of 3 different barrels of whisky from Islay, Highland Park & Speyside. Although the composition was not disclosed (trade secret maybe), one would assume the majority comprises of whisky from Islay considering they are generally heavily peated. Antonio also mentioned that it was elegant, easy to drink and not sticky owing to the use of new cask.

Sean’s tasting notes : Rich, intense & smoky. Bouquet of tea leaves & dates with a round caramel finish.

 

 

Next, 1992 Sherry Single Malt Scotch Whisky Glen Scotia Distillery

Glen Scotia is a distillery located in Campbeltown which was once labeled as the “Victorian whisky capital of the world” but sadly, an exodus of distilleries marked its declined. As it stands, only 3 distilleries are left standing (Springbank, Glengyle & Glen Scotia). Samaroli must have seen something of great potential in the once prolific Campbeltown but what truly caught my attention was the Sherry cask. I recently chanced upon a Glenmorangie “The Lasanta” and it was pleasantly tantalizing so you can imagine the anticipation I was experiencing. Thankfully, I was not disappointed. Antonio briefly mentioned though the means was to impart oloroso-like characteristics, but the highlight was still very much the whisky.

Sean tasting notes:  Piped tobacco and vanilla with a nutty aroma reminiscence of hazelnuts. Evidence of chocolate, dry fruit and toffee on the palatte. Evidence of salinity, and a touch of oxidation like an aged oloroso.

 

 

 

Lastly, came the highlight of the class. Samaroli Evolution Limited Edition 2014

And it comes to no surprise why the spotlight was on it. The Evolution series comprises of whiskies dating as early as 1957 Mortlach (its whisky is a key component of Johnnie Walker), 1980 Macallan, 1987 Talisker, just to name a few. Every year’s addition will include other aged whiskies according to our esteemed blender, ranging from 10 to over 50 years in special sherry or oaken cask. Antonio says the milestones of this blend are “Harmony, Asymmetry and rhythm” which almost sounds culturally Japanese. But make no mistake, this bottle is definitely in a league of its own.

Sean’s tasting notes: Aroma of sweet spices exuberating vanilla, cinnamon & coconut. Sweeter and mellower compared the 1995 ‘S Peaty. Smooth , round with a touch of dried fruit and a hint of mint.