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Whisky is a matter of great ingredients, know-how and patience. But is it only worth bottling after a certain age? That’s a question worth keeping in mind, particularly in a world where there seems to be a race to bottle the oldest whiskies possible, retailing for eye-watering prices. Should we prize maturity above all else? The Society’s Julien Willems begs to differ.

While the Society did introduce its older and rarer offerings in the guise of the Vaults Collection, it has always tried to distance itself from the idea that older necessarily means better. Of course, age can bring irresistible sophistication to whiskies. But is that all there is to it?

The first Society bottling that left an indelible impression on me was 26-year-old Cask No. 3.228: A deep, brooding masterpiece. For a while, I thought nothing would ever compare. But then came Cask No. G13.1: A complete revelation, a four-year-old grain whisky from Japan, which transformed my perception of what a young whisky could taste like. Later 8-year-old Cask No. 7.197: Mature way beyond its years was released as a celebratory treat for the 35th anniversary of the Society, and fully deserved its name. These two younger drams were extremely impressive in that they had achieved rich, mature and luscious flavours within a fraction of the time it had taken my favourite offering from distillery 3 to reach its exceptional balance.

In 2018, things went even further as SMWS head of whisky creation Euan Campbell explains: “The Spirits Team were invited to visit distillery 136 to select some casks for release ahead of their own first bottling. We sampled some first fill sherry casks and found them to be perfectly delightful after only three years.

“We always approach things from a flavour perspective, looking to avoid preconceived ideas.”

A few months later, Cask No. 136.1: Effervescence and enlightenment was released to Society members. It was the next step on our journey and the youngest Scotch whisky ever bottled by the Society.

In recent years, we have seen the coming of age of several new distilleries. Many of them released their excellent first whisky after little over three years, with Raasay, Torabhaig or GlenWyvis to name but a few. Some like our friends from distillery 149 even sold their cask matured spirit before it officially became whisky, showing the great confidence they had in their young distillate…and it was not misplaced. More recently, Society releases Cask No. 149.1: Smoky, salty and malty and 149.2: Peaty peninsula, bottled at 5-years old, both delivered deliciously peated and sherried flavours and confirmed that quality spirit in a quality cask makes short work of preconceptions about age.

ABOVE: casks of varying ages arrive at the SMWS warehouse

Beyond Scotch, there are a great many examples of whiskies that do not require double digit ages to find their stride and provide worthy sensory experiences. Think of distilleries 134, 138, 139, 140 or 155. These producers have one thing in common: so far this year the highest temperature in Scotland has probably not even got close to the lowest temperature in their warehouses. In such conditions, spirit tends to extract flavours from the wood a lot more steadily and intensely. Whether it is humid or dry makes a difference, but where it’s warm, the angels get a lot thirstier, parched even. They’ll shamelessly drain a third of each cask in the three years that it would take to become whisky by Scottish standards.

So don’t be surprised if whiskies from tropical latitudes are darker and richer than Scotch at a young age. “They’re pricey for the age,” I often hear. But you should probably compare things by output, not by age.

ABOVE: distillery 149

These distilleries’ casks can lose more to the angels in three years than their Scottish relatives would lose in 15 to 20 years. But as far as flavours go, you’re pretty much guaranteed a uniquely different spectrum of deliciousness.

So, is there a minimum length for Scotch whisky maturation one should not go under? Yes, three years and a day, as is the law. Given how much influence many factors can have (cask size, leaks, temperature, how active the oak is, whether the distillate is heavy, light, peated…), that’s not much of an issue when you have the luxury of picking the casks. Does this mean the Society will now release three-year-old offerings all the time? No, but if we ever find that such a young whisky is worth our members’ time, we will happily make it available to all.


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