Age takes time. Maturity takes work. An overused phase often thrown in the general direction of stroppy teenagers, but one which still has some truth in it. Likely you’ve been in this situation – presented with a 20+ year age statement, but confounded by the aromas and flavours which feel like they lack the maturity you’d expect from such an aged expression. Tired, overused casks perhaps? Or just personal choice? In my head I have a fairly well prescribed selection of aroma and flavour cues which I associate with maturity. But, they’re exactly that - personal –based on my tastes and perceptions. It turns out its far from easy to agree what maturity is.
From a legal standpoint, Scotch and many other types of whisky enter maturity after just 3 years of being laid down in cask. At that stage, most distillates demonstrate aspects of being coppery, feinty and/or raw – descriptors commonly associated with immaturity. In the period after this legal maturity, the interaction between spirit and cask will result in a huge spectrum of whisky styles and characters – some will demonstrate more maturity than others (distillates and casks vary greatly – as does temperatures and humidities in warehouses across the world) – but, how you judge the level of development depends not only on your personal taste, but also on the primary uses of the whisky.
What might present as young, spirit-forward and estery when sampled in isolation, could well form a perfect fruity top-note when used as a blending component. What might seem as an integrated and balanced teenager could go on to develop intense flavours and depths when left for a further ten years – the original state was arguably mature, is the final simply more-mature?! There’s no straight-line graph. No set pattern that is consistent across distilleries and cask types. Even a Scotchwhisky.com article back in 2018 showed the huge variance in opinions within the industry around what maturity is, and can be.
It’s easier for folks to align around immaturity. It’s simpler to identify and simpler to describe. However, don’t let the glut of younger whisky completely cloud your judgements. Whilst there is (to my mind) plenty of overutilisation of tiny casks to attempt to ‘kick-start maturation at a young age, at the other end of the spectrum there’s still plenty of exasperated casks still in circulation. There’s only so much you can do with a duff 4th fill barrel – but that doesn’t stop the marketeers taking the opportunity to proclaim maturity with big age-statements on labels. As consumers, you’d do well to be wary of both ends of the market. As with all things, there’s a balancing point.
Glenmorangie 19 year old Finest Reserve was introduced to the strange world of travel retail in the Autumn of 2017. The bottling is composed of whisky that has been matured in ‘slow-growth’ American white oak ex-bourbon casks. Hold on a minute…..slow-growth? Isn’t all white oak pretty slow growing? It certainly is, but apparently (and yes I needed to look this up via a selection of timber-focussed websites), there’s slow and there’s even slower. There are significant variances in oak growth rates across the United States. Location, location, location.
In this instance, Glenmorangie sourced wood from the Ozark Mountains located in Missouri to create what they describe as ‘designer’ casks. The Ozark oak style has a tighter wood grain resulting from its steady growth in the springtime, but slower growth the rest of the year. The distillery only used the casks twice (first fill and single refill) before judging that influence it has on the spirit has diminished too such a degree that it is deemed exhausted. The end result is bottled after 19 years of maturation at 43% ABV.
You’ll find quite some price variance for this bottling. Europe has it best at around 99 EUR. In the UK, you’ll see anything from £120 from the larger retailers down to £100 from either smaller retailers (e.g. The Whisky World) or from Travel Retail (e.g. Heathrow Boutique). Shopping around is advisable.
Nose: Malts and cereals are up first – barley water and Honey Nut Loop cereal. Fruits and honeyed sweetness are not far behind – apple peels, peach slices and lemon peels – alongside honey drizzled sponge cake and breakfast waffles. Running throughout – vanilla cream, white chocolate and grassy herbalness – mint, reeds and flax .The addition of water unlocks addition toffee aromas alongside peppery cask influence – a gentle, but perceptible difference.
Taste: A good translation from nose to mouth with an arrival that has a reasonable amount of body and delivers a combination of malt loaf, toasted cereals and honey-forward fresh (peach and apple) and tinned (pear and orange) fruits. The oak is more abundant now – drying wood tannins alongside pepper, ginger and marzipan. Water should be added very sparingly here – there’s little ABV to play with – it adds bitterness reducing the honey characteristic, whilst emphasising dry dusty cereals and overt wood planking.
Finish: Medium, with fading malts, white chocolate and pepperiness.
Glenmorangie 19 year old Finest Reserve is fresh, crisp and fully in keeping with the distillery’s honeyed, malty profile. There’s nothing complex here – just a good selection of aromas and flavours that mesh together well and result in a lighter style easy-drinking whisky. That said, with a 19 year old age-statement on the label, you might be left wondering what maturity is all about with this expression. In comparison to many other bottlings this certainly doesn’t feel nearly two decades in age – the oak presents as young and planky with fresh pepperiness rather than austere polish front and centre. Likely the result of the wood choice – it just goes to show you that whilst maturity comes from age, it’s not solely defined by it.