By sheer force of marketing or will, the whiskey-drinking populace is more educated than they were 10 years ago. You likely understand more, for instance, about what's in your bottle of bourbon or rye than you would have before the housing collapse. But despite a deeper knowledge, single malt scotch age statements are anachronistic, an overly simplified holdover that argues that a bottle's rank and value are determined by two digits.
It may never have changed, but for the recent welcomed-yet-unforeseen whisky boom. With supply not able to meet the seemingly ever-growing demand, the scotch industry had just enough slack to hang themselves with as we entered a massive shortage in recent years. You can't go back in time 18 years and distill more scotch, and you can't age whisky any faster, so what they've started to do is make a new product with the recipe right on the bottle.
It's a big new marketing strategy meant to "reveal everything about the DNA of the whiskey," says Craig Bridger, national brand ambassador for The Macallan. "We live in a world now where consumers are hungrier for information about things they consume, the things they buy, than I think maybe they've ever been before."
What people mostly cared about in the past (and to a degree, the present) was age, which really, honestly is just a number. You may think an 18-year is better than 12-year, and it may cost more, but that was mostly a conversation among the whiskey distilleries to justify prices. "We taught everybody as an industry that the way to judge quality was that age statement," Bridger says. "And I think we focused on it rather too narrowly."
His point is that the formula for "good" isn't just about how long you're forced to wait. "It's not always delicious whisky because it's old," Bridger explains, because casks mature at different rates. "You might have something absolutely fantastic at 15, 16 years. You might have something overly wooded at 25. It really can depend." And the fact that distillers are more honest about this means that you, as a consumer, will actually get your hands on some even better bottles.
The New Age of Whisky
Part of that comes from the master blenders being more willing — without the shackles of age — to marry a wider range of older and younger barrels. Whisky has always been the product of this process, and if you're shocked, you shouldn't be.
It's a huge misconception according to Bridger. "They think single malt means single cask. The moment I start to talk about a selection of casks, they think it's a blend. They seem to believe there was this one fantastic cask that was sitting for a number of years, and we dumped it, and we had Macallan 12."
Any distiller you ask, if they answer honestly, will tell you that there tends to be a range of many years in every bottle. Take The Macallan Edition No. 1 as an example. Legally, single malts are dated based on the youngest liquid in the batch. But while there are younger* casks in the mix, there's some 25-year-old stuff in there, too. The bottle will hit the market without those numbers listed on the box. Instead you'll get all the other information. "We can tell you every single cask type that we used to create this — which cooperage it came from, what type of cask it was, whether it was first or second fill. All the information is right there."
There are other approaches to this problem as well. Earlier this year Glenmorangie released Tùsail, a new expression without an age statement. Instead they marketed the bottle by focusing on the unique strain of malt used for the limited-edition bottling: a type of barley with more demanding growing needs and a flavor more hearty than the company's typical core expressions. Glenlivet's Founder's Reserve didn't have years in its description, either, but rather a philosophical explanation of how they arrived at the final product, which included a look back at how it was done at the distillery's founding in the 1800s.
The Future of Why You Buy
Is this added supply making people happy? Not yet. Macallan has had a lot of attention in recent years for releasing non-age statement whiskies into the market. The company, whose range of aged expressions spans decades, has come under fire for going outside those boundaries they had a hand in defining.
Rumors, though false, have likewise spread that because of industry-wide shortages, the company is phasing out their aged range in some attempt to cheat customers out of better stock. It's just not true, Bridger says, and while supplies are small compared to demand, nothing's going away.
"Our challenge right now as an industry is how do we continue to give people new products, interesting products, delicious products, and still manage our dwindling aging stocks in this unprecedented sort of boom we've been in?" he says. "What we've turned to is innovation, and cask innovation. Some people have done a lot of things with finishes. What we have started to do is to try to offer people new experiences of our house character."
Here to Stay
Don't worry, you will see Macallan 25 bottled again. Like all single malt distillers, the brand is ramping up production, and those stock problems are temporary. There are new stills coming online shortly, and when we visited the distiller last spring the grounds were covered in construction sites for a half dozen new warehouses. "We will catch up," Bridger says.
"Have we been a little crunched for our 18, 25, 30? Yes," he adds, bluntly. "And I think anybody who has tried to find a bottle of Macallan 30 or seen the price go up in the last few years doesn't need me to admit to that. It takes us 30 years at a minimum to have a range of casks that are showing the right way and that will create a Macallan 30. They're not going away. We're not ending production on them. I hear that rumor sometimes. It's the nature of how popular whisky got. We're just tight on those for the next year or two."
This and newer bottlings are part of the innovation that comes from those shortage-based challenges. And the long-term benefit is smarter products for us, the drinkers. "I think we're paying more attention, and being more selective about casks and wood than we were at any other point. Maybe there were older whiskies going into the batch 20 years ago, but I think the casks are better now. The idea here is really to showcase our mastery of wood, and our ongoing commitment to sourcing the finest casks that we can get ahold of for our whisky."
To be fair, they're tight on Edition No. 1, too — just 5,000 cases are going out. But that's on purpose: They created a good blend, and used everything they had to get 5,000 cases of the best product they could. That's going to be the new norm for whiskey products. Trust us: you'll enjoy it.
* - Bridger originally stated that Edition No. 1 included 10-year-old whisky, but Macallan denies this and was unclear about what the bottom range is.