Too old to die young

Posted 19 February 2020 by Matt / In North British
The Dramble reviews Cadenhead's North British 32 year old

Bottle Name: North British 32 year old

ABV: 55.2%
Distillery: North British
Bottler: Cadenhead's
Region: Lowlands Age: 32

Older whiskies turn heads. We’ve been taught for generations that older is better – fine wine, venerated spirits or simply times now past – history, and certainly whisky is often presented as an enhanced, more desirable version of today. Forget a better future and dig into your pockets for a glimpse at a forgotten past – things were magical back then. Spirits crafted during this supposed golden age and left to slumber for extended periods of time have an undeniable allure about them. Your very own piece of history – an opportunity to taste the past – the prospect of tasting (or just possessing) something that’s older than you are….at least for the time being.

But is there such a thing as too old? When does whisky turn from being well-matured into being over-matured?

Producers have long been aware of the inherent attraction and developing clique for super-aged whiskies. And they’re increasingly capitalising on this – vintage releases (which may or may not be your birth year), bottlings from ‘rare’ periods of time when distilleries were only open on a part time basis, and long maturation periods – three, four, five or more decades in cask. The sort of lengths of maturation which would see a grandfather in charge of distilling a spirit which his grandson would come to bottle.

Most of these super-aged whiskies are destined to be snow globes (show globes?!) – time capsules of distilling history, often accompanied by over-produced elaborate packaging which on the one hand support the eye-watering prices of older whiskies, and on the other reinforce the collecting/display aspects of possessing such liquid. But not all. There’s still a reasonable amount of very well-aged spirit out there (usually from the less desired brands) which is available for enthusiasts to explore and in turn discover what half a century of maturation looks, smells and tastes like.

And, in no huge surprise, not all of you like these aged profiles.

Spirit profiles vary. Greatly. Whilst some are best served younger, others possess the necessary weight and inherent depth to be capable of withstanding longer maturation times. But, in a similar vein the length of time in a cask is both a piece of string and at the same time something of a moot point. It’s the quality and characteristics of that cask which will define how the distillate interacts with the oak over a wide variety of ages. As an example, it’s entirely possible for a 5 year old whisky to feel entirely over-oaked when matured in virgin oak – and at the over end of the spectrum, for a different whisky to feel somewhat undercooking when rested in a knackered 4th fill barrel.

There’s not hard and fast rule here. Ageing is simply not the same as maturation. Both for humans and for whisky.

Casks have something of a tea-bag effect. The first time they’re used the level of aroma and flavour extract that’s possible is at its highest, but with each subsequent used there’s simply less left to interact with the spirit. But, on the one hand, whilst this might leave a whisky feeling underdone and still raw despite a reasonable maturation – it’s this exact phenomena which can assist some whiskies being pushed in terms of their overall maturation length. A carefully judged refill cask will simply require longer for the spirit to reach an optimum level of extraction – and this can be a much longer time than a more active 1st fill.

But, alongside the more relaxed and seemingly austere profiles which it’s possible to create with maturation comes oak and tannins. And whilst I’d argue that there’s no single age where whisky has been matured too long – there are most certainly points where it has taken on too much of the wood itself to feel balanced. This might be just a few years, this might be several decades – but there’ll come a point where, arguably the spirit has been overdone.

At the same time, palates vary – and there’s simply a number of whisky perverts out there who actively enjoy highly oaked, spiced and tannin-forward expressions. Think of them as simply a different extremist club to the peat heads (who judge the desirability of their whisky based primarily on PPM numbers). These folks enthusiastically seek out profiles where the wood has over-exerted itself against the spirit. Few people want to feel like they’re licking the inside of a cask – but some people come close.

If you’ve yet to try whisky that’s 40, 50+ years of age, I’d recommend that you make a beeline to an upcoming festival, or engage a friend in a dram swap (such is the price of super-old whiskies that few of us can rarely afford whole bottles of them) – it is an experience which as an enthusiast you should endeavour to explore at some point. But, at the same time you should recognise that you may or may not enjoy it. If you’re particularly used to the profiles inherent in younger, cask strength whiskies a venerable 50 year old with an evaporated and ergo lower ABV is going to be quite ying to your yang.

However, I firmly believe we should get away from the concept of whisky having an intrinsic doomsday clock when it comes to maturation lengths. There’s a host of variables at play – least of all personal taste.

To explore the concept of longer maturation periods further I’ve picked a grain whisky for today’s review. As a lighter spirit, grain tends to require longer maturations to tease out their more distinctive aromas and flavours – but they also can be responsible for much of the texture within blends, developing a more refined and velvety character but only after time served.

Released in April of 2018, this North British has spent its 32 years in a sherry butt – more than likely a refill. 582 bottles were produced at an ABV of 55.2% - they’re still available from the UK Cadenhead’s online store for £109.50 or the Danish version for 1150 DKK.

Nose: Dried apricots and an assortment of undefined vine fruits are joined by conspicuous gluey aromas – polystyrene cement, deck sealant and nail polish. There’s some inherent creaminess here – vanilla essence heavy cake mix alongside toffee and brulee and some sherried nuttiness – cashews and cracked walnuts. Rather more thought-provoking after a period of resting – moist soils and damp walls with some vegetal cues of green bell peppers and sunflower oil. Dilution shows off this whisky in a much more plumper and warmer manner, bringing the precursor liquid more to the fore. Maple and golden syrups alongside walnut whips, chewy caramel candies, and butter toffee.

Taste: The arrival is a sweet melange of fruits, nuts and spices and possesses a sticky and tacky-like mouthfeel with good weight. Fruits are up first – apricots, peaches and berries. These steadily sour into aromatic wood – white pepper, anise and nutmeg – before a wave of saccharine solvents emerges. More glue, acetone and fabric adhesives. The mid-palate offers more savoury lead flavours with crackerbread and oatcakes joined by split vanilla pods and drying planed oak beams. Water takes the edge off of several of the ethyl esters (less glue, more paint thinners), revealing delicate hedgerows, ferns and burnt toffee.

Finish: Medium to long with chocolate shavings, pepperiness and lingering charred and dry oakiness.

Despite the three decade+ age statement, this North British doesn’t feel like conforming to the norms of longer maturation. And that’s down to its casking. This sherry butt has surely been knocking around for several generations, to a point where its precursor liquid has all but been leeched from the wood. This is no Whiskybroker Cambus 1991. The sherry influence is light-touch an only really presents with more vigour once subjected to some dilution. This said, it has brought along with it some additional nuances – a syrupy viscosity and some interesting vegetal notes. Pleasant enough, somewhat unremarkable, and a case in point that ageing is not the same as maturation.

Score: 82/100

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