Four-year-old whisky comes of age
Distilleries are bringing out a new range of youthful malts in a bid to attract a younger generation of drinkers.
Advances in the technology used to make whisky mean that the world-famous water of life can be matured faster and sold earlier.
Although the consensus among experts until recently has been that malts matured for less than 10 years were not of high enough quality, some distilleries are now bringing out products as young as four years.
Ardbeg distillery on Islay has already sold thousands of bottles from its range of Very Young (six years) at 28, Still Young (eight) at 29.99 and Almost There (nine) at 29.99, with names deliberately targeted at a younger audience. But some distilleries and independent bottlers, such as Glen Garioch, are bringing out versions for less than 20.
The Scotch Malt Whisky Society, the country's leading authority on malts, has been so impressed by some of the new products that it is considering a special tasting for members.
Marketing manager Kai Ivalo said: "Various distilleries have been doing this with great success. There's clearly an interest in young whiskies because they have this real vibrancy. You say to someone at the bar 'Try that, it's five years old' and they look at you in a slightly strange way. When they have tasted it they go 'Wow, that's quite interesting. I'll have some of that'."
One of the reasons for the new breed of young whiskies is the distilleries brought out of mothballs by new management in the late 1990s as global demand for malt whisky grew again.
The Isle of Arran distillery in Lochranza put its first 'bottling' on the market after only five years. Managing director Euan Mitchell said: "People were very surprised at the quality. Most have been led to believe that malt whisky must be 12 years or older, whereas the truth is that well-made whisky matured in good casks can be very good at an early age.
"While I am not denouncing older whiskies, younger ones have a nice freshness to them, not too much oak hiding the distillery character, just very clean fresh whiskies. People are surprised about the quality."
For Isle of Arran, a new business, putting out its product as soon as possible was a commercial necessity to bring in revenue. "But it's not just us," Mitchell said. "Other distilleries are doing it as well. A lot of distilleries were mothballed in the '80s and '90s and now new owners have come along and put out young releases of their malt. People are overcoming this snobbery about age.
"Our distillery managers took a decision that the whisky was of sufficient quality that we could sell it. If it hadn't been good enough it could have done serious damage to our reputation.
"We have done a small batch of peated Arran and released four-year-old casks and it has got a great reception."
Jackie Thomson, spokeswoman for the Ardbeg distillery on Islay, said: "Ten years ago, young whiskies were drunk behind closed doors. The idea behind our young bottlings was that there were all these preconceptions around whiskies having to be a certain age and we stepped outside of that."
Thomson believes young malts will sell well to younger drinkers tempted to try them for the first time.
"Younger northern Europeans like the idea of drinking something so young yet so powerful," she said. The industry had to try new methods of attracting new whisky drinkers, she added. "Within the past 10 years, there has been an acceptance in the industry that you can ruffle feathers a bit and the consumers like it."
Experimentation with smaller wooden casks, which allow the spirit to mature faster, has led to improved quality in young malts. Many have traditionally been left at least 10 years to mature, which raises costs because of lengthy warehousing and loss of liquid through evaporation – the so-called 'Angel's Share'.
Ten to 12-year-old malts normally retail at between 25 and 35 a bottle, and older versions attract much bigger premium prices. Younger malts are usually slightly cheaper, reflecting the reduced production costs, although some limited editions have been more expensive than some mass-produced malts.
Whisky expert Keir Sword, owner of the Royal Mile Whiskies, said: "They are a little bit cheaper but you have to remember that the actual liquid is only a small part of the cost.
"The main thing is that young malts, especially the peaty ones, are getting better."
The rise in global demand for malts, especially in the Far East and India, means distilleries will struggle to keep up with demand and be forced to put ever-younger spirits on the market. Whisky sales in China have rocketed by about 75% over the past three years, while India has seen a 36% surge in the same period.
Richard Joynson, who runs Loch Fyne Whiskies, said: "As demand grows you will see the 12-year-old whiskies go up in price as they get rarer, and their place in the 20-30 market taken by the eight to 10-year-olds. Younger whiskies are here to stay."
WILL'S VERDICT: boy racers they may be, but they're full of vitality
Will Lyons, Wine Correspondent
Much is made of the merits of ageing. In its simplest form the longer a whisky remains in a cask the more flavour it will acquire, so a 21-year-old whisky will generally have more complexities and layers of flavour than a 12-year-old. It will certainly be more expensive. For years the Scotch whisky industry has encouraged the association between quality and age, and, as a result, an awful lot of hullabaloo has grown up around extremely old whiskies. Meanwhile – some would argue conveniently –
It's worth pointing out that the quality and size of the cask and the nature of the spirit all play a significant role. As a rule of thumb, Lowland whiskies mature quicker while Speyside whiskies lend themselves to more time in the cask. In France, vignerons talk about the attractiveness of a young wine that exudes vitality, gregariousness and energy, whereas an older vintage will demonstrate mellow, soft, complex characteristics. The point is the two experiences are very different but can be equally enjoyable.
With this in mind I tasted through a range of young whiskies. These whiskies certainly exude vitality. My top three were Kilchoman New Spirit (63.5%, 4.99, only available in 5cl miniatures); Ledaig's peated original (42%, 15.95) and Glen Garioch 8 Year Old (40%, 19.95)*, which has an attractive, sweet hay flavour. If they were cars they would be high performance, in some cases drag racers: loud, noisy and fast. Sure they lack the complexities of something a little older and I certainly wouldn't recommend enjoying them curled up in front of the fire. But as an early evening drink they work very well. They're also far easier on the wallet.
*Stockist: Royal Mile Whiskies.