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-
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.