Whiskey Age: Everything You Need to Know

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If there is one subject we are constantly being questioned on here at Neat and Shaken, it’s about our whiskey’s age. How old is good? Is a darker colour better? How old does an Irish whiskey have to be before it is considered old? Despite the youth-obsessed society that we live in, the general thinking about the age statement of a whiskey is older is generally better. Right? Wrong.

The age is good rule is as outdated as other whiskey myths such as only men drink whiskey and whiskey gets its colour from the barrel. The thinking around whiskey’s age is painfully generalised and it takes a true whiskey connoisseur to know that there are some superb whiskeys produced that err on the slide of youth. Ladies and gentlemen of the jury let us put it to you: your whiskey’s advanced age does not necessarily equal quality. 

Wait … What?

When whiskey (or whisky) spends too much time in the oak barrels used for ageing, it can become woody and even mouth-puckeringly astringent. Ambient climate plays a vast part in the ageing process of your favourite spirit too; in hot climates such as for American whiskey  (Kentucky), your aqua vitae can become “old” in as little as 10 years. In cooler climates - Ireland and Scotland - 12 years is considered the minimum before it’s drinkable. Chances are you are far more likely to find a 20-year-old bottle of scotch than a 10-year-old one.

What Is Aging?

What makes whiskey whiskey? Well, legally speaking that depends on where you are. In the United States the age comes from the liquid’s contact with wood. Even if the liquid has been “flash aged” in the barrel for only a few seconds or has been in a single cask for a decade, the liquid inside still qualifies as whiskey. Our advice? Stick to reputable brands or read the label very carefully if you’re going to splash out on an unknown bottle of Bourbon. 

Irish whiskey needs to be barrel-aged in a wooden cask with a maximum capacity of 700 litres for at least three years in order to carry the whiskey moniker. For scotch whiskeys, this timeline is a little longer: three years and a day. Other whiskeys/whiskieshave their own rules: for Canadian whiskey, the rule is again three years but the distilled spirits must be mashed and distilled in Canada.

In Japan, the rule is three years minimum ageing, but the whisky can come from anywhere in the world (you are far more likely to get a blended scotch in Tokyo than in Dublin). Bottling however must take place in-country.

In Bottle Ageing

So, you’ve spied a bottle of unopened 12-year-old whiskey in your parent’s drinks cabinet that you know was bought for the Queen’s Golden Jubilee in 2002. “Hoorah” thinks you, “I’ve found me a 32 year old bottle of whiskey. That’ll put hairs on me chest”. Erm, not quite…Unlike wine, whiskey does not continue to age in its bottle. Yes, while your prize bottle of Chateau Petrus will continue to gain in quality (and price) as the years go by, your bottle of single malt scotch won’t. A whisky/whiskey’s age is determined from the time it is first put in the barrel until the time it is bottled. Sorry.

So, How Old Is My Whiskey?

And another thing. The label is lying. Sort of. The age that you see on the label is a reflection of the youngest ingredient in the final bottle - so please take note all you drinkers of blended whiskies. While there are probably (most certainly, in fact) older whiskeys blended into the mix, a whiskey’s age statement is, legally, the age of the youngest whiskey in the bottle at the time of bottling. This is obviously not the case for single malt whiskies that come from a single cask.As the ageing is in direct correlation with the time the whiskey has spent touching wood (see above), that 12-year-old bottle of Johnny Walker that you’ve got your eye on will only ever be 12 years old. There’s probably even a portrait of it in the attic somewhere. 

Younger Whiskies to Try

While the majority of whiskies are aged 10 years or more, there are of course some exceptions to the rule: Dublin Liberties Irish Oak Devil is aged for just five years but is packed full of flavour (something largely to do with it being aged in American oak casks). Dead Rabbit Irish Whiskey is also one for the ageists among you. Dead Rabbit is great at short ageing but don’t let its youth put you off - this blend of malt and grain whiskey is finished in half size American oak barrels to give it depth and character, as well as an extra intense kick. Finally, we are also great fans of The Dubliner’s Irish Whiskey. Aged for just three years, this award-winning whiskey is smooth and versatile - not unlike the city it is named after! 

Whether you drink it neat, on the rocks, with a slosh of soda or even in a cocktail, we have some great Irish Whiskies for you to try!