Beer, Wine & Spirits: Age is just a number

Selling whiskey with a narrative

Late last year, Whisky Advocate publisher and editor John Hansell predicted the continued development of single-malt whiskeys released without statements of age, noting that distilleries in Scotland are under increased pressure to produce new bottlings and that this was one way for them to satisfy that demand without having to sell young whiskeys.

That’s good for the distilleries, but what about the people tasked with selling these spirits? They now must explain to customers how a single malt with no age declaration can be equal to or even better than the 12- or 15-year-old malt.

Kevin Burke, head barman at Colt & Gray in Denver, said the key is in telling the spirit’s story.

“I think it’s all too common that whiskey buyers get caught up in age statements, forgetting that even age-dated bottles are blends, often containing much older whiskeys than what is listed on the label,” he said. “For whiskeys [without age statements], the story is more important than the age of the juice.”

To illustrate his point about stories, Burke points to one whiskey born of an unusually snowy Highland winter that caused the collapse of several distillery warehouse ceilings — an event pictured dramatically on the bottle. 

He pointed to another bottling that speaks to rituals developed on the island where the spirit is distilled. Such tales engage the consumer in the life of the whiskey, he said.

For Melissa Neill, bar manager of St. Andrews Restaurant & Bar in New York, involving the staff in the whiskey is just as important.

“We have training sessions with our staff in which they get information about the whiskey and also a chance to taste it,” Neill said. “If the staff likes it, they will turn around and sell it, regardless of whether or not it has an age statement.”

Neill said she emphasizes to her staff the fact that these whiskeys represent how the Scotch industry is changing and modernizing.

“It’s a way for the distilleries to address younger drinkers without all this ‘18-year-old’ stuff that is so associated with single malts,” she said. “In a lot of instances, it has to do with the philosophy of the distillery, opting for a different approach to the way they bottle and sell their whiskeys.” 

Joseph Cassidy, sommelier and whiskey expert at Toronto’s Via Allegro, which boasts more than 1,000 whiskey selections, suggests that these whiskeys without age statements are best served by highlighting what makes each of them unique.

“Distilleries will always note on a no-age-statement whiskey what they feel distinguishes it,” he said. “This could be higher-than-usual alcohol content, the use of two types of wood — ‘double matured’ or ‘finished’ in a specialty cask — or simply a particularly good cask that the distiller finds in the warehouse and bottles as a special selection or ‘distiller’s edition.’”

As a result, Cassidy said, any detail the distilleries draw attention to on the bottle can be a main selling point for operators.