Monday, July 29, 2013

The Age Old Question: How Important is Age?

It's a question that has generated debate among whiskey enthusiasts for years.  How important is the age of your whiskey?  The default enthusiast answer, one that I've given many times myself, is that older isn't necessarily better, just more expensive.  We can all ring off examples of whiskeys that we like better at a younger age as well as examples of older whiskeys that were caustic and over-oaked. But is this really a rationale or are these examples just our own confirmation bias, anecdotes that stick with us because they support our preexisting beliefs?

The whiskey industry is predictably unhelpful in this matter.  They want us to believe that their super-aged bottlings are worth the high prices, but they also claim age really isn't that important whenever they drop an age statement.

But how important is age really?  I thought I would dive deeper into the question by looking at how important it is to me, statistically speaking.  When I look at my own ratings on the LA Whiskey Society site, I've given 92 A or A- grades out of 740 whiskies I've rated.  I'm pretty stingy with my A range, reserving it for the whiskeys that truly blow me away.  I broke down those top grades by age to determine the percentage of A/A- grades for different age statements (I didn't count NAS whiskeys). Here are my results:

  • Age 0-5 years:  3% A/A-
  • Age 6-10 years: 5% A/A- 
  • Age 11-19 years: 13% A/A- 
  • Age 20-29 years: 22% A/A- 
  • Age 30-39 years: 25% A/A- 
  • Age 40 and over: 60% A/A-
I was quite surprised at how consistent this result was.  I expected some correlation to age and the very best whiskeys I'd tasted, but I didn't expect the correlation to be so direct.  The older the whiskey gets, the more likely it would be to be something I really loved (and remember, only 12% of the 740 whiskeys I've rated on the site received an A range grade).

Now, this doesn't mean that there aren't very good young whiskeys.  Even among the zero to five year olds, I gave 3% A range grades, and of course it doesn't mean their aren't some well aged stinkers.  There is a 39 year old that I awarded a C+.

And this little chart is far from a scientifically controlled study.  Some of these tastings were blind and some weren't.  The sample probably has some bias as well; I'm more likely to make the much more considerable investment in a very old whiskey if I hear something positive about it, whereas I don't mind taking a chance on a cheaper, younger whiskey, even if I have no idea what it's like, which may mean that I'm sampling a better crop of whiskeys at the higher price points (which tend to be older).  And of course, I tend to like old whiskey and probably have a higher tolerance for the woodiness that comes with age than some other whiskey fans.

Even with these caveats, when I look at these numbers, it's hard for me to deny the importance of age at least for my own palate.  While older may not always be better, the older a whiskey is, the more likely it is to be truly outstanding.


My Annoying Opinions said...

Interesting. In my own case, I think the sample bias you note in your penultimate paragraph would be significant. If I'm paying above $100 for a bottle I want to be more confident about it; and the higher the price goes from there the greater the triangulation.

The other possible bias is that we have been conditioned to associate certain characteristics (subtlety, depth of flavour) that correlate more with longer aging with high quality.

An inexact musical analogy might clarify what I mean: if we prize technically proficient musicianship and high production values we might like certain artists within a particular genre (Steely Dan, say); but if we prize raw energy and a more ragged approach we might prize others (the Stooges, say). Neither choice is correlated with quality, per se, however, and I like both Steely Dan and the Stooges; I just like them for different reasons.

Alex said...

Although not directly comparable in your progression of age statements, I would also be interested in your percentage of A or A- grades in NAS whiskies.

It's in the NAS segment that producers have dropped previous age statements but claim that they're maintaining or improving the quality of the product by allowing themselves the flexibility to create an optimum blend of young and old whiskies. I've come across a few where the blend had the best of both young and old whiskies, but I suspect that's the minority.

WhiskeyPhoenix said...

This just makes me really curious about which 0-5 year-old whiskies you rated A/A-. Do you remember what they were?

sku said...

Alex, the percentage of A range in the NAS category was 7%.

WhiskeyPhoenix, I had two A range grades among 0-5 year olds: Charbay Hopped Whiskey Release 1 at 2 years old and the Buffalo Trace Experimental Rye 'n Barrel for The Party Source which was five years old (technically 5 and one half years I think).

Wade said...

I doubt you had many 40+ year old bourbons that score an A :.)

Anonymous said...

Got to wonder how much Scotch plays into the stats. Also, I've always thought tasting blind better validates what I like. Age messes with the head as much as the palette if your willing to admit that.

sku said...

Wade, nope, oldest bourbon on the list is 27 years old, and I gave it a B.

Anon, all good points. I haven't counted it up so I don't know the proportion of different whiskeys, but certainly Scotch skews the list older, and maybe it's apples and oranges to use a list that includes both Scotch and Bourbon (as well as Canadian, Japanese, Irish, etc.).

As I said, I do a lot of blind tasting but it's not all blind so there's always the possibility of the positive psychological impact of a very old whiskey.

Florin said...

Sku, you have enough ratings here to warrant a careful statistical analysis. Let me know if you are interested!
We could look at several of the aspects that are indicated here:
- Is there an association between age and score? (Your data clearly suggests that it is)
- Does this association hold for both Scotch and American?
- Is the "slope" of this association different for American than for Scotch whisky? (probably so, since American whisky tends to get bottled younger for various reasons)
- Does the blind vs. not blind tasting play a role?
- Are there other factors that influence grading? (I can think of a few: earlier vs later reviews in your career; OB vs. independent bottlings for Scotch, or large vs. small distilleries for American; alcohol strength; sample vs. whole bottle; etc.)
This could be published in a peer-reviewed Statistical journal; I am not aware of a peer-reviewed scientific drinks industry journal, but we could look into that as well. I am sure that this would be received with a lot of interest by the whisky community! The basic statistical technique suitable here, FYI, is called ordinal logistic regression, or proportional odds model, and would take into account the actual grade you award, not only A/A- vs. other.

Unknown said...

Fantastic work Sku! I'd be curious to see the opposite of this list as well. Looking at your lowest score, where did the largest percentage fall? In other words, what percentage of 40+, 30-39, 20-29, etc. got your lowest score?

Always fun to see the flip side of the data.

Keep up the most excellent work.

sku said...

Florin, maybe I could get Nate Silver to do it.

Patrick, good question. I'll get back to you on that.

Florin said...

Nate Silver? I'm not sure he's into whisky. I was offering to do it together, but fine, get Nate!

EllenJ said...

It's important to keep in mind that the "age" of an age-stated whiskey is that of the YOUNGEST whiskey in the bottle. I once knew a distiller who was of the "four years old is the ONLY correct age for bourbon whiskey, ya young whippersnapper, you" school, and he had the best-tasting 4-year-old bourbon I've ever tasted. His secret? About 75% of the whiskey in the bottle was 12 years old.