Tuesday, February 16, 2016

How Old is Your Whiskey? Are You Sure?

Here's a quiz.  Let's say you have a bottle of whiskey that says "Distilled June 12, 1996 and Bottled December 5, 2015."  How old is the whiskey in that bottle?

The answer is: you don't know. The label has not given you enough information to determine the age of the whiskey.  How so?  Well, the age of a whiskey is the time spent in a barrel. According to the Federal regulations, Age means:

The period during which, after distillation and before bottling, distilled spirits have been stored in oak containers. “Age” for bourbon whisky, rye whisky, wheat whisky, malt whisky, or rye malt whisky, and straight whiskies other than straight corn whisky, means the period the whisky has been stored in charred new oak containers. [27 CFR §5.11]
Even if you know when a whiskey was distilled and when it was bottled, you don't know how much time it actually spent in the barrel. It is not uncommon for whiskeys to be transferred to stainless steel containers before being bottled, sometimes for years. Some brandies spend decades in glass containers. Steel and glass are considered neutral containers that don't impact the flavor of the spirit. While some would certainly argue with that statement, I doubt anyone would argue that their impact in anywhere near as strong as that of an oak barrel.

In contrast to a vintage date or distilled and bottled dates, an age statement (e.g. "10 years old") means that the whiskey was actually in the barrel (and the proper type of barrel) for the amount of time listed. On brandies, however, even those age statements are often incorrect, but that's a story for another post.

The moral of the story is: unless there is an actual age statement on that whiskey, you don't know how old it is.


My Annoying Opinions said...

And then you have Glenrothes' "Checked on" date on their vintage labels.

Josh Feldman said...

Great point, SKU. I've been guilty of making this mistake in the past - and it's potentially quite misleading. Thanks.

Florin said...

Interesting observation, Sku! We all know that Sazerac 18yo rye has been tanked since forever.
Is there any evidence that steel tanks are used in Scotch single malts? I've never heard of any such anecdotes.

sku said...

Florin, I can't say I have anything concrete, but I've definitely heard tell of tanked malts.

Richnimrod said...

Interesting and thought-provoking, SKU! I guess I technically knew of this seemingly anomalous 'aging' on labels, but never gave too much thought to it, since age statements always had done the speaking to me. Now that so many are going NAS, I'll have to be careful not to be mislead by such a labeling 'trick'. Thanx for pointing out this possible pitfall for all of us poor consumers.

kallaskander said...

Hi there,

on a OB bottling of a Glenrothes you will find the year of bottling in smaller print under the prominent vintage year on the right of the label. The „checked by“ date is not relevant for the bottling itself.

In Scotland there are many distilleries where the new make is tankered away after distillation and bottled somwhere in the Central whisky belt between Glasgow and Edingurgh. The casks are filled and stored there so that the distillery does not know in what kind of cask their whisky matures.

That is the case with Talisker, Lagavulin and others.

But that is before maturation.

We could speculate that whisky of some distilleries long closed are resting in stainless steel. Littlemill comes to mind Caperdonich and so on.

Now and then you can find bottlings of Scotch single malts where there is a discrepancy between the given age and the dates of distilling an bottling. If they are mentioned...

It is not very common afaik.


Anonymous said...

Russell Reserve 1998 is a perfect example of this. From what I've read it was tanked for 2 years making it a 15 year old whiskey instead of the 17 people were assuming. Its still great whiskey though

Florin said...

Let me question your premise, Sku.
From what I know, the US regulations allow the Scotch labels, as long as they comply with their own, i.e. UK, regulations. In other words, I am not sure that the definition of "age" as time spent in the barrel applies to Scotch whisky as well.
From my reading of the Scotch whisky regulations 2009 they make a distinction between "age" and "maturation period". There seems to be no restriction to declaring "age", other than the whisky must be matured for at least 3 years in oak casks. In other words, I could mature my Scotch for three years in a cask and then keep it in a tank for 7 years, after which I can label it as 10 year old whisky.

So what I'm saying is this: you are raising an important issue, but I'm not sure that the age statement fully resolves the problem - as far as Scotch goes.

sku said...

Florin, good point. The definition of age and maturation period appear to be the same but make no reference to oak (they are defined in the EC Regulations which the SWA incorporates). I'll have to give it some more study time, but with regard to Scotch, it does not appear that an age statement has to mean age in wood.

Florin said...

Let us know what you find.
Here are a few additional bits:
- EC Regulations (No 110/2008, Annex II (2) (iii)) refers to whisky in general, and requires 3+ years of maturation in "wooden casks", not specifically oak. However, where Scotch whisky is concerned SWR2009 3.(1)(c) stipulates oak casks
- EC Regulations (No 110/2008, Annex I (8)) discusses "maturation or ageing" as if they were synonymous. I'm not sure this implies that "duration or maturation or age" are synonymous in the SWR as well.
- But more to the point, the Guidance for Producers and Bottlers, 1.3 specifies that all maturation must take place in an excise warehouse under control of Her Majesty's Revenue & Customs, and that "only if all maturation of Scotch Whisky takes place under some form of HMRC control that they will be able to certify that the spirit is Scotch Whisky and, if an age is claimed, that the Scotch Whisky has been matured in the permitted size of oak casks for the period claimed."
This seems to make it clear to me that age statement on whisky = duration of maturation.

I suppose that your loophole still stands for Scotch, i.e. distilled/bottled does not guarantee maturation period, unless an age is declared. It would be interesting to find such examples on labels of Scotch!

sku said...

EC Regulations 110/2008 Annex 1(8) defines maturation or ageing as: allowing certain reactions to develop naturally in appropriate containers, thereby giving the spirit drink in question organoleptic qualities previously absent.

Assuming that definition applies (and it would appear from the SWA that it does), the question is the age old one of whether whisky changes in neutral containers. The conventional answer is no but I have no idea if there have been any rulings on this issue.

Florin said...

Operationally it all has to happen in bonded warehouses, under state control, so I guess we'd have heard about it if they allowed non-oak containers. Think how much stink they made about the original Compass Box Spice Tree.

Unknown said...

While channel-surfing last night, I came across an episode of Moonshiners where one legitimate distiller was selling stainless steel vessels for whiskey storage. The narrator said using large stainless steel vessels for storage is common in the industry (American assumably). is this true? Would this be for new make to make its way to barrels? I was not aware of this storage story if it is one. And how is that time accounted for in the vessel accounted for on the label?

sku said...

Aaron, steel tankers are used in many ways. Some do use it after distillation and before barreling, claiming it mellows the spirit or allows it to meld. Many companies use them for storage after the barrels are done. Sazerac 18, as someone mentioned above, has been pulled from the same tank for a decade, same with Van Winkle Rye.

However, time in steel cannot be counted in an age statement so if it's in oak for 10 years and steel for five, it's still 10 years old (though the distilled and bottled dates will reflect the 15 year period, which is the problem I allude to in the post).

And, of course, corn whiskey and moonshine type spirits need not be aged so they can simply be stored in steel until ready to bottle.

kallaskander said...

Hi there,

the EC labeling rules for Scotch whisky state that you can only give the age of the youngest whisky used for a vatting of any single malt or blend before bottling.

That means the youngest whisky used for a bottling gives the age printed on the label.

The rule is used to forbid the mentioning of another age such as "a vatting of 10 and 30 yo whisky" to protect consumers from teaspooning a blend or malt with old whisky and advertise it as a whisky "with 30 yo" content.

The rule means you can give the age of the youngest whisky - or no age at all. There is no other way.

That is where the NAS whisky comes from. If you use a 5yo you would have to declare a bottling 5yo even if the Nas-ty was made with 10yo or older whisky as a vatting.

To avoid the declaration of an age under the magic 10yo denomination you print a phantasy name on the label and keep your mouth shut about the exact contents of the bottle.

Compass Box ran into trouble when they declared the percentage and age of the vatting for two whiskies on the package and in their advertising.

"Compass Box Whisky Co published and subsequently removed the full recipes for This Is Not A Luxury Whisky and Flaming Heart on its website – including details of the distilleries involved, the cask types, the ages and their proportions in the final blend."

"Cormack explained that under Regulation 12.3 of the Spirit Drinks Regulation No 110/2008, maturation period or age “may only be specified in the description, presentation or labelling of a spirit drink where it refers to the youngest alcoholic component”.

Furthermore, “presentation” is defined in Annex 1 point (15) of the Regulation as “the terms used on the labelling and on the packaging, including in advertising and sales promotion, in images or such like, as well as on the container, including the bottle and the closure”.


The controversy spawned a call for greater transparency - I doubt the call will be heard.


Florin said...

I'm sorry, I referred to the much earlier (2006) issues that Compass Box had to deal with regarding using inner French oak staves in the production of Spice Tree. Here is that story.

My point is that SWA watches over their laws like a hawk, unlike the American TTB (too long a story to get into here). They would not easily tolerate somebody "maturing" their whisky in a steel tank in a bonded warehouse, just because the owner thinks that steel tanks impart flavor, tradition be damned.

Florin said...

To summarize the discussion on age and Scotch whisky, it is clear to me that
1. Age on a bottle of Scotch whisky is synonymous with maturation period in oak casks, done the traditional way, and in bonded warehouses, under the watchful eye of Her Majesty and SWA.
2. In principle it's possible that a Scotch label includes distillation and bottling date, but not the age of the whisky. In this case there would be no guarantee that the intervening time was spent in oak casks. However, I have never seen such a label and I'd be curious to see one if anyone has an example.
(Moreover, SWA is likely to take such an offendant to court for misleading about the whisky age. This should be a sufficient deterrent for anyone. SWA is a heavy, blunt instrument.)

kallaskander said...

Hi there,

after Tomatin distillery jumped into the fray earlier this year demanding more right for tranparency in Scotch labeling


Compass Box started a petition to that end.


Pretty quick they found support.


We will see what comes from this because total transparency is a threat to blended Scotch makers....


MadMex said...

More, much more, Govt regulation. Left alone, without regulation, most industries, including the beverage industry, will screw us all to no end,

Anonymous said...

Canadian Whisky according to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency's Labelling Requirements for Alcoholic Beverages:

"Where Canadian Whisky has been aged in small wood for at least three years, any period not exceeding six months during which that whisky was held in other containers may be claimed with respect to the age [B.02.020(3), FDR]. For example, Canadian Whisky aged three and a half years in small wood and eight months in glass containers may claim an age of four years."