"Well, how old is it?" A whisky's age statement is one of about four standard specifications listed on a bottle, and does the least to describe what's in the bottle. When ScotchBlog.ca visited Scotland in April, not once did a distillery manager, master distiller, or master blender say, "I want to make a 30-year-old whisky." What they did say was that they wanted to make good whisky. No whisky can be judged by its age; the age statement is simply a way to categorize an expression, to build a brand.
The unique character common to a distillery's line is created before the spirit ever hits the barrel. Careful grain selection, maintaining a consistent fermentation procedure and specific yeast, the still design, the distillation process, and many other variables make one distillery's products unique among hundreds of other distilleries. Careful adherence to these procedures and materials keep a distillery's products consistent across expressions, and across decades of production.
Advances in consistency within process variables have reduced batch-to-batch and cask-to-cask discrepancies. Better spirit is being created on a reliable basis by the use of industrial automation, more dependable ingredients, and top-notch wood selection by distilleries. Reducing variability allows distillers to make whisky as they intend without the need to extend aging to enhance a whisky's flavour or eliminate undesirable flavours.
1976's Judgement of Paris signaled a revolution in lower-cost high-quality wines. More recently the craft beer revolution has provided connoisseurs a colourful and diverse palate of fantastic beers. Similarly, an ever increasing portion of malt whisky is being sold as premium single malt, and through higher-quality production methods, finer whiskies are being produced.
The most dramatic changes to a spirit, which transform it into whisky, happen in the first weeks and months of the cask maturation. After the spirit is introduced to the cask and the initial transformation has occurred, the spirit gently mellows and becomes more complex over the remainder of its rest. Over time the rate of change diminishes to the extent that it is simply the slow air exchange through the barrel making any difference, the exhausted oak adding virtually nothing.
Younger whiskies, with a few exceptions, are cheaper than older expressions from the same distillery. Given that most folks' whisky budget is fairly rigid, enjoying a greater variety of inexpensive high-quality whiskies will quickly build a wider knowledge of an exceedingly diverse industry.
This isn't to say old whisky is without great merit. With age comes a roundness, depth, and complexity not present in young whiskies. Harsher characteristics are typically mitigated making the whisky generally more palatable. It becomes suppler on the tongue with less piercing heat. Favourable flavours as well as the whisky's complexity are enhanced. It's not unusual for very old whiskies to taste quite differently with every sip, an astonishing experience uncommon with younger expressions.
The distillery's style and reputation, the region from which it comes, and the barrels in which it was aged have a far greater affect on a whisky's character, and more importantly, on the drinker's level of enjoyment.
Some great examples of young widely available Scotches of exceptional quality are Gledfiddich's 12YO, Ardbeg's 10YO, and Ardmore's Traditional Cask. All three bottles are standards of their respective Speyside, Islay, and Highland styles and have enough complexity for an enthusiast to enjoy yet are accessible enough for novices. Bruichladdich's Octomore line is four to five years old, is the most heavily peated Scotch produced, and exhibits tons of flavour and complexity. A great example outside of Scotch is Booker's Bourbon, aged between just six and eight years and is a favourite of mine. One of the finest bourbons I've ever enjoyed.
Don't discard a bottle of whisky based exclusively on age. Very fine young bottles from a variety of producers are increasingly available, many for a very reasonable price. Provenance and style have a far greater affect on the drinker's level of enjoyment than age.