Whisky Round Table April 2012 : Multiple Aging locations
This month I am happy to be hosting the Round table, and I’ve chosen a question that really interests, me also one I’ve been asked on many occasions by fellow whisky enthusiasts:
Multiple aging locations – do they add complexity, and enhance the spirit, or are they only PR stunts?
"Lately we’ve seen a few examples of distilleries aging their whisky in two (or more) locations until full maturation. Amrut has done quite a few of those with their "Herlad" aged on Helgoland (a wee German island) and the "Two continents". In Israel the IWC has bought a few casks from the Arran distillery and aged them on holy land for periods of 2-3 years in various locations (Tiberias, Jerusalem etc).
What are your views on those methods? Do multiple maturation locations (of the same cask) something that makes whisky better or is it a PR stunt?"
Here are the knights answers (in order of their arrival):
Jason Johnstone-Yellin(Guid Scotch Drink)
This is a lovely wee question, Gal, and something that hadn’t really crossed my mind until now. I suppose the aging of whisky in multiple places has been a commonplace for a long, long time. I’m thinking of spirit distilled on Islay, stored in warehouses on the island for a brief period and then shipped to the mainland in order to age closer to a bottling plant. The purposeful marketing of maturing spirit in location A followed by further maturation in location B seems to be a more recent development. To be honest, I have no idea if maturing in two places adds anything to the final whisky. I imagine in these days of maturing spirit in high humidity locations like Taiwan, India, and Japan there would be some significance in aging for a period on Islay, for example, and a period in the Indian or Japanese highlands. But how would we know? What’s the control? So much of 21st century whisky production seems like a PR stunt that it’s hard to know if this isn’t another one. I have to say, though, that now I’m intrigued to know more!
Steffen Brauner (Danish Whisky Blog):
Whisky ages different depending on location. And the location of maturation can have a great effect on the whisky. Anyone who has tried Japanese, Indian (Amrut) or Taiwanese (Kavalan) will realize that this is whiskies with another flavor than traditional Scottish whisky. And the main reason for this is, in my opinion, the climate of the maturation location.
The location of maturation doesn’t need to change dramatically for having an effect on a whisky. Or let’s say whiskey, because what comes to my mind is the giant bourbon maturation rackhouses. I am not really a bourbon expert, but I understand that within these 8-9 story warehouses, there’s a significant difference in maturation climate. In the bottom levels the climate is colder and more humid, in the upper level the climate os warmer and dry. The ABV goes up in the top levels. It stays more or less constant in the middle levels. In the bottom levels the ABV goes down - just like in Scotland where it’s cold and damp everywhere, all the time . These microclimates and the resulting different interactions with the wood have a considerable effect on the whiskey produced
Even within Scottish warehouses I have often heard of specific locations being better than others. Or different.
Aging whisky in different location can be compared to moving a whisky from one cask to another, as is done with finishing or double maturing. It creates variety. It gives us different whiskies. It CAN add complexity to the whisky and it CAN enhance the spirit. If it does is all up to drinker of the whisky and is a matter of taste. Just as can be said about finishes and the numerous faces finishes do appear in these days. Personally I prefer casks being moved around to whisky that has been on a red wine cask finish!
So I won’t say this necessarily makes a whisky better. If the creator of the whisky knows what they are doing he is doing he or she surely won’t make a bad whisky. Just a different whisky. And for some a better whisky. This doesn’t mean I think this is a PR stunt. Far from it. This is innovation. Maybe you like it, maybe you don’t but this is still innovation. Just as the things Compass Box do and the various finishing experiments happening all over the world (now with bourbon even)
PR stunts are something done by the marketing departments of whisky companies, that doesn’t really influence the taste of the whisky, only the price. A good example of this is Highland Parks Thor release which is all about a spectacular designed wooden container and people dressed up as Vikings, all to CREATE a story associated and attached with the whisky. People like stories attached to their bottles and this is a classic PR-stunt.
PR-stunts happen after the whisky is made, not when it’s made.
I had the pleasure of tasting the Israel matured Arran and I thought it was nice dram, exceptional delicate for its young age.
Matt (Whisky for Everyone)
This is an interesting question, as it is one that we have not really thought about before. The initial thought is – there must be a reason to move a cask to a different location, otherwise the companies wouldn’t do it. The costs of transportation must be considerable, especially when you think of the extreme example of Amrut moving casks from India to Germany. On the other side, if it has true importance to the development of a whisky then why isn’t everyone doing it?
We can only speculate about why a company would move casks from one place to another – are they trying to get different characteristics in the whisky from the different surroundings and environment? Are they trying to prolong the ageing process by bringing a whisky from a warm climate to a cooler one? If so, is this so they can put an age statement on the whisky, even though many believe that ‘age doesn’t matter’? Are they transporting the casks to a country or area where there may be a different duty/tax charge than the country of origin? Is it a PR stunt?
It is easy to be cynical about this practice of moving casks to different climates and countries and simply labeling it as a PR stunt. However, is it really any different from what happens in Scotland everyday? There, most whiskies are not stored or matured at the location where it is produced but transported to large generic warehouses in convenient parts of Scotland. The prime example being that most Islay whiskies are not matured on the island, but on the mainland instead. It is in these instances that true PR comes in to play – you read about one smoky whisky or another being influenced by the harsh, rugged location, weather or sea spray of Islay, when it has actually been matured in the Central Belt somewhere.
In conclusion, we are no nearer to deciding whether the movement of casks from/to extremes of environment is truly beneficial to the whisky, a simple money making scheme or extravagant pieces of PR to get more consumers to buy the final product. It will be interesting to read the views of the other Round Tablers.
Peter lemon (The Casks)
I definitely think there’s a large PR stunt component to this kind of multiple location aging, though I do think that there are times and places when aging in different environments would also affect the whisky…for good and ill. Of course, I have no scientific proof to help back me up here, but I’ve never let that stop me before so what the hell? I’m basing most of this assumption on my experience with the Amrut line of whiskies. I’ve tried six of their expressions and one of the common themes I’ve found in all of them is a dry, young, woody spiciness. In some expressions I find it works better than others, but to me, it is a consistent part of that brands flavor profile. I can only assume that it comes from the warmer climate that the whisky ages in – the spirit picks up aspects of the wood more quickly than it would if it were shivering in some warehouse in Scotland. However, and again I’ve got nothing to back this up, my guess is that even though the roughly same exposure to wood is happening in a shorter time, there’s other things that are not happening because of the shorter period and that is affecting the flavor.
So with that idea in mind, I’d be surprised if sending a few barrels to spend some time in Israel (not known for its arctic tundra) didn’t affect the flavor in some way. If whisky starts maturing in a cooler, damper climate and then is transported to a warmer, drier clime, that has to affect the flavor somehow, right? Whether or not it affects the flavor in a good way is another story. Without the years of experience of how a whisky ages in one place, it’s a bit of risk sending some off to an untried locale and that’s where the marketing kind of takes over. As for aging a whisky in different locales of roughly the same climate, I wouldn’t think that would make much difference unless, for example, you were taking a normally land-locked malt out to the sea for some maritime influence.
Hell, in thinking about it, all that jostling of the travel may have just as much of an influence as the change of location, I don’t know. There’s an idea for marketers…mobile-aged whisky, aged on the road for when you hit the road (with a designated driver, of course). That one is not free by the way…if I see mobile aging pop up anywhere, you’ll hear from my crack team of lawyers. So yeah, for me this kind of thing seems mostly like a PR stunt, and even though it might change a whisky, It wouldn’t arouse my curiosity much unless they decided to age some in my dining room, which, by the way, I’m open to.
Mike Connery (Whisky Party)
I think there are two issues here. On the one hand, it’s all about location, isn’t it? All things being equal – same mash bill, same yeast, same cut off the still, same barrels and charring, etc. — a location with better climate conditions for a particular flavor profile will produce a better product. (Assuming, of course, the location is a better location for a particular flavor profile).
At the same time, there’s something to be said for Terroir, particularly in today’s market with the increasingly popular locavore movement. Removing barrels from the area in which they were created is a corruption of the terroir of the whisk(e)y.
The product may be better from an objective, qualitative standpoint, but it’s also less pure from a locavore standpoint.
Which of these is a better thing depends on your perspective, and also your marketing strategy. If you are selling "a taste of glen whatever," removing the whisk(e)y from that glen for a decade makes your product a bit phony. It will drive away the locavores and makes your marketing campaign disingenuous at best. If, on the other hand, you are selling your product purely on quality, it doesn’t seem to matter much, does it? People will judge you, and your brand, based on what comes out of the bottle, not whether you aged it in a warehouse within 10 miles of where it was distilled.
Chris Bunting (NonJatta)
To be honest, I don’t know whether I have the expertise to answer this question. I suppose it could be both. All I would add is a third description related to Japanese whisky history: commercial necessity. There have been a number of bottling in Japan of scotch and bourbons that have been aged over here. That was simply because some marginal companies bought large quantities of foreign whisky in the past to chuck in their cheap blends during whisky’s postwar boom years and found they didn’t sell it.
Chris (Whisky wall)
In theory I can think of some arguments of why the different aging locations will have an impact on the resulting flavors but i don’t think that it really does. It’s impossible to really tell though as two almost identical casks aging side by will yield different tasting whiskies. I don’t have any scientific support for this response and only can answer based on my experiences. All of the Murray McDavid Mission series that I’ve tried were aged at Bruichladdich – although it does not say how long they were aged at Bruichladdich versus at the original distillery. The expressions I’ve tried were from Speyside, the Highlands, Campbletown and the Lowlands and I cannot say that I tasted anything in them that would indicate an Islay influence on them.
Marc (Whisky Brother)
At the moment I think it’s nothing more than a PR stunt. In theory and practise, could it be used to control maturation better? Yes of course. Should it? I don’t think so. The location of the cask during maturation is as terroir as whisky can be, to move the cask around to several locations/continents/cities during that period defeats this. Also, due to the sheer logistics and cost and risk of transport, I don’t ever see this as a practise that will gain wide adoption – again indicating it’s just for PR. If distilleries are that serious about altering the maturation conditions, the better approach is to rather control the warehousing environment. The James Sedgewick Distillery in Cape Town, South Africa, does this with their industrial air conditioners and I’m sure they aren’t the only ones. Also for Scotch distilleries moving the whisky out of Scotland is not really an option if they want the entire maturation period counted, so I think the only producers considering this would be new world whisky makers trying to escape more extreme weather in their respective countries. PR stunt, and a short-lived one at that.
Joshua Hatton (JSMWS)
Gal, this is a fantastic question. I’ll try to keep my answer short as I can’t claim to have a lot of knowledge in the arena. However, I do have partially informed opinions (which is perhaps more dangerous).
I think the answer to your questions is: Yes.
There is no doubt the various locations will affect how the whisky matures. Take Taiwan for instance where, due to the weather, their whisky matures at a much more rapid rate. What’s more is they lose their whisky content more than 5X faster than the Scots do – hence younger whiskies that mature much quicker than Scotch whisky.
On top of this, look at Kentucky where again, due to the weather, the water inside the barrels evaporates quicker than the alcohol hence whiskeys like George T Stagg that are bottled at 70+ % ABV but were put into the cask at a lower ABV (as I understand it).
While terroir can play part in how a whisky matures, smart distilleries and distillery parent companies can use this information more for good PR and less for affect on whisky. We should keep open minds but know that people are trying to make money off of consumers like you and I…
James Saxon(Scotch Odyssey Blog)
I’ll set out my stall from the get-go: multiple ageing locations are a PR stunt, and a pretty non-sensical one at that. Unless the plan is to release just one solitary cask, the cost of cask transportation and excise arrangements must be colossal, and will be passed on to we the consumers irrespective of an appreciable difference in character. And if a single hogshead or butt is the sum total of the experiment’s output, how exactly are we supposed to distinguish between the idiosyncracies of the wood and that of its different location(s)? The oak will inevitably exert a greater influence than atmosphere. Who can say, though, what role the truck transporting the cask(s) might have played in the final character? Where do you stop?
Of course, what we are really talking about are the fluctuations in temperature and humidity which will affect the spirit’s interaction with its wooden nursery and are particular to location. These are the greatest factors impacting upon flavour, but then again they could just as easily be approximated in a lab far more economically. A distiller could set the atmospheric conditions to ‘Islay’, leave the cask for six years, then recreate ‘Kentucky summer’ for four further years. This would produce a different spirit, although the means by which it was achieved would be far less marketable.
Treating maturation locations like wine finishes is fanciful and misleading: a period of time on Islay followed by a few years beside the second runway at Heathrow is not going to lead to a whisky tasting seaweedy with an undertone of British Airways. Rather, leave the whisky where it was made: if that was at Talisker then leave it on Skye, if at Aberfeldy then leave it at Aberfeldy. If a better whisky results, it is only because all of these PR claims to ‘provenance’ finally have a degree of authenticity.
This is an interesting question. Firstly, I don’t think I can speak for the companies involved. What I mean by this is that they may feel that maturing their whisky in several locations has some benefit to the spirit. So while their actions may look like a PR stunt, maybe they have some valid reasoning and they are just informing us of what they have been up to.
For me, it really depends on the temperature and humidity of the warehouse. If the temperature of the 2nd warehouse is dramatically different from the 1st, then there will be some difference in how the whisky ages. It seems to be a very costly and not very green way to treat your whisky, but could create some interesting experiments, although measuring the effect may be difficult. A good experiment would be to mature a cask of Laphroaig in Kentucky and at the same time, age a cask of Laphroaig on Islay. That would show the temperature effect on maturation.
Getting back to the specific of the question and ignoring my fanciful Laphroaig experiment. Changing location during maturation could speed up or slow down maturation but I am pretty cynical as to whether the influence would be huge. I am definitely cynical when it comes to moving a barrel from one part of Scotland to another. The temperature and humidity change are never going to be dramatic enough to change the whisky in a way that we would notice.
Overall, I’m unsure about this one. On the one hand, change in location will change the whisky, but on the other hand, I think in most cases, the change would be so minute that the human palate would not be able to taste the difference.
On a related point, I have heard a rumor Scottish company is trying some experiments on this as we speak. Scotch aged somewhere it has never been aged before (to my knowledge). As far as I understand it, they matured it here for 3 years (so it is Scotch) and then they have matured it overseas. I am sure the SWA is currently having a fit.
Gal (Whisky Israel)
Well it’s my turn now, right? So… I am not really sure how much is a PR stunt and how much is real. I know that it is not only that or the other. Whisky companies do need to make their whisky shine above the others and with today’s competitive PR market, I do think they are partly looking into causing a stir. It’s very sexy to think your whisky has been aged in a few places, each contributing to its ‘complexity’. It’s also nice to tell your friends : “you see this bottle, it has been aged in x, y and z”. However I do think that some whiskies can benefit from a few locations when It’s not possible to age them for too long due to heat/humidity etc, and you are looking for longer maturation times. Take Amrut for example, or Kavalan: after a few short years in the hear, Angel’s share is too big to allow for long maturation.
What I would like is to indeed try those whiskies head to head. A cask that has been aged only in A, vs. a cask that has been aged in A then in B. I know each cask is different, but it would be nice to try and see how they differ after the additional maturation time.
I would like to thank all the knights who contributed to this month’s Whisky Round Table.