Big age-statements turn heads. They always have done. There’s something innately appealing about exploring a whisky whose maturation has straddled several generations. There’s not all that many distilleries out there who can reliably release (and maintain) 30+ year old age statements from their inventory. But, there’s always been a part of the market who craves these older expressions. Big age-statement whisky has a cachet. A growing one given that the upper end of the market is where prices seem to be rising the fastest. But, whilst fond reverence for whisky’s history is a good thing, there’s also a part of human nature which tends to assume that bigger numbers always equate to better whisky. And that’s a misguided thing.
There’s no escaping the fact that bigger age-statements should, all things being equal, result in greater wood influence. But, there’s the rub – things are not equal. Maturation variables, temperature variables, cask variables, these all add up to present an interaction of spirit and wood which is not wholly predictable, and reliably identical decade in, decade out. Distillates are not the same. Cask types and qualities (1st fill, refill, 4th fill <shudder>) are not the same. Wood extraction is not linear.
But, let’s move away from the raw numbers – regardless of age, each of us will have particular profiles which sing to us. Be that young and spirit forward, or old and heavier on the cask influences. Our tastes are inherently not all the same. And similarly they change over time, and with experience.
When reviewing whisky, which I hasten to remind you is different to simply enjoying whisky, I’m looking for harmony and balance with my cask influences. An equilibrium which feels natural, where the spirit and the wood synchronise and complement each other – neither fighting for attention, nor being subsumed, but rather adding to be greater than the sum of their parts. But, as many times as I’ve been at an event and heard someone championing the wood levels of a venerable expression, I’ve heard someone coming at it from the opposite end of the spectrum. Just last week I was with a chap whose request was for the ‘woodiest, most bitingly tannic whisky possible’. As always, there’s no accounting for taste. It’s your palate, you like what you like!
Age isn’t just a number – it should provide us with some guidelines of what to expect from a whisky’s profile and character (given wider information around cask compositions and maturation regimes etc). At the same time, those ‘norms’ are going to vary between distilleries and bottlings. At three decades of maturation I have a pretty good idea of what to expect from the wood character of a whisky – indeed, I have my preferences for how I’d like it to manifest itself. But, at this stage in my tasting career (some 5000 whiskies sampled), I’m loathe to draw sweeping conclusions – for every Highland Park 30 year old, there’s a Fettercairn 30 year old. Bigger will usually mean ‘more’…..but it certainly doesn’t always mean better.
Glenfiddich’s age-statement range is wider than most distilleries - from the supermarket stalwart 12 year old, known the world over, to the £22K Rare Collection 50 year old – that few people have had the opportunity to sample. There’s various stepping points along the way – not all of them simply the same base distillate left in the cask for a few more years. The 30 year old (which was released in its current form back in 2010) is drawn from Spanish oloroso and American ex-bourbon – I’ve read, but can’t accurately verify that it’s roughly a 20% / 80% combination. Matured for 30 years and bottled at 43% ABV, it is described as a malt for connoisseurs and collectors. A bottle will set you back £494 from Master of Malt.
Nose: Rich and expressive, but fully warranting of patience. There’s an abundance of wood influence here – part wood-panelled Victorian library littered with ancient leather bound tombs, part furniture warehouse with planed exotic (sandal and cedar) offcuts, sawdust and sappy resin. It hasn't quite developed the pronounced polished and lacquered aromas I’d usually expect (and want) from three decades of maturation. Sitting abreast – heavily reduced plums and primordial orange liqueurs – opulent, but at the same time dusty, seemingly untouched for years. Caramel wafers, raisins and coffee grounds express the sherry cask influence, whilst wild honey, toffee and coconut shavings draw more from the ex-bourbon side. At 43% there’s little room for reduction – and at this price, you’d be wise to be exceedingly cautious. It does however result in some pleasant rose hip florals, juice lychee and overt cask influence which presents as decade old charred wood – blackened, brittle, but still with residue wood smoke.
Taste: A balanced arrival with wood and spirit singing more in harmony – there’s that mirror sheen polish I’m looking for – lacquered mahogany, with bright zesty oranges and cranberries bursting out and punctuated by sweet unrefined brown sugars. Plenty of leather here – old, cracked and well-worn alongside dusty spent tobacco, cocoa powder and foamy vanilla infused coffee. The mid-palate presents a combination of sponge cakes (chocolate and Victoria) with further austere oak influences – chesterfield sofas, teak flooring, ebony cabinets and plenty of sappier, seemingly younger tree bark. Then, spicewards with angelica root, anise and dusty ginger alongside a good whack of sherry rancio. Again, there’s little scope for dilution – but, if you must – nutmeg, cinnamon, chopped walnuts and vanilla cream.
Finish: Quite long with walnut, grassiness, pencil shavings and an profusion of drying oak.
If Glenfiddich 30 year old were a facial expression it would be a serious contemplative frown. There’s wonderful seriousness and complexity here, resulting in a profound, multifaceted whisky. However, for all the depth and austerity, I still found myself wanting to turn my frown upside down – to experience some lightness and joy away from the intensely cavernous oakiness. At 43% there’s little room from the spirit to manoeuvre here – it’s nearly entirely subsumed by the cask – and whilst those casks are undoubtedly excellent - age has not resulted in nimbleness. Thoughtful, sombre and undoubtedly absorbing, but I want my three decades of maturation to mean more than just three decades of wood extraction. Nevertheless, this is of course very good whisky indeed – but just how good it is for you is, I suspect, largely going to depend on what you expect from your wood.