Chivas, the luxury brand of blended Scotch, recently conducted a survey soliciting consumer views on whisky age. A strong majority, 93 per cent, said they believe older spirits are better. It's a self-serving result, of course, because older whiskies carry a high premium, but I think it captures the prevailing wisdom.
Is oldest always best, though? I don't think so. I've had 25- and 40-year-old whiskies that lacked the verve of their 12- and 18-year-old siblings. The reason: As spirits mature in cask (and they only mature in cask, not once bottled, by the way), they absorb more vanilla tones and spice from wood. That can mask the underlying grain from which they were distilled, such as barley in the case of single-malt Scotch. It's like too much makeup on a face - or Joan Rivers's plastic surgery.
John Maxwell, proprietor of Allen's pub in Toronto, which carries about 300 whiskies, agrees. "Extensive wood aging can obscure the grain quality, the root of the whisky," he told me. "I want to taste where the whisky came from, the peat and the grain. I don't want to taste wood."
Yet people are willing to pay a hefty premium for extreme numbers. Whiskies that carry an age designation of 25 years or more are hard to find for less than $250. Ultra-rare 40- 50-year-old bottlings cost in the thousands.
In my experience the law of diminishing returns kicks in forcefully after about 18 years. It's hard to generalize, to be sure, in part because the age designation on Scotch, typically blended from numerous casks of varying maturity, refers to the youngest component in the mix. It's the average that truly counts, a number never stated.
When it comes to whisky, I generally prefer teenagers to bottles that would qualify for a senior's bus pass. When I see 16 or 18 on a label, I get curious.
In advance of Robbie Burns day, liquor stores are ramping up their selection of those beautiful teenagers. I've tasted several already, and there are some standouts. One rolls out today through Vintages stores in Ontario, Laphroaig 18 Years Old, along with the wines also reviewed below.
Fans of the excellent 10-year-old Laphroaig, a classic, smoky bottling from the Scottish island of Islay, may recoil at the price, $181.95. That's more than double the younger 10-year-old, currently $84.99 in British Columbia (not available in Ontario and most other provinces at this time). But it's a sublime whisky. Eight extra years in oak has added richness and depth to the high-toned smoke, spice and trademark iodine essence of Laphroaig. If eggnog could be smoked over peat fire and poured over oatmeal, the experience might taste vaguely like this.
Laphroaig 18 Years Old Single Malt (Scotland)
Bottled at a strong, 48-per-cent alcohol, this Islay malt shows a sweet, creamy core. The cereal quality comes through, though, carrying nuances of forest floor and a smoky, medicinal kick. I love it.
The Balvenie Aged 17 Years Single Malt (Scotland)
A marriage of two Speyside whiskies, one aged in peated casks and one finished in new American oak. The smoke comes through but it's not aggressive by comparison with most whiskies from the island of Islay. Satisfyingly round and slightly fruity, with hints of vanilla and spice.
Tullibardine 1993 Vintage Single Malt (Scotland)
Light-coloured and delicate for its age, this single malt is brimming with bread, barley, light citrus and vanilla. The finish is sweet, then turns crisp and spicy. A great value.
Assunto Brunello di Montalcino 2004 (Italy)
Bone-dry, this full-bodied red delivers lots of complexity for a relatively well-priced Brunello. Flavours of dried fruit, cedar and pencil lead are framed by light tannins and crisp acidity. Good choice for cheese.
Remo Farina Ripasso Valpolicella Classico Superiore 2008 (Italy)
There are two Remo Farina valpolicellas released today in Ontario. This less expensive red is the better offering. Full-bodied, it delivers a funky note of sweaty saddle on plum, prune and chocolate, with a bitter, spicy edge. Versatile but particularly good with rich red meats.
Produttori di Govone Barbaresco 2006 (Italy)
This offers great value for a Barbaresco. It's medium full-bodied and shows some age, with a slightly oxidized, tangy quality and a flavour that suggests prunes stuck in tar - in a good way. The tannins are fine-grained and pleasantly sticky. Good red for braised meats and hard cheeses.
Yealands Estate Pinot Noir 2008 (New Zealand)
This red is medium-bodied and firm, with a tight acid grip and fine, dry tannins, but without New World pinot flabbiness. Think of berries dusted with a bit of dirt. Great for poultry and salmon.
Cantele Riserva Salice Salentino 2007 (Italy)
Earthy, bracing and juicy, this southern Italian red delivers succulent fruit and nuances of pencil lead and old wood. Terrific price. Versatile with food.
Jackson-Triggs Silver Series Sauvignon Blanc 2009 (Niagara)
Clean and tangy, with classic sauvignon blanc notes of grapefruit and grass, veering attractively into the racy, brassy New Zealand style. Nice on its own or with light, herb-accented vegetarian dishes.
3 Stones Sauvignon Blanc 2009 (New Zealand)
This is light, juicy and crisp, with sweet lemon and a big grassy finish. Good by itself, with herb-roasted fish or dishes heavy on goat cheese.