One of the areas that fascinates me most about whisky is the subtle differences between expressions. Regarding different distilleries, I understand why a Lagavulin tastes utterly different from The Balvenie because of the complete differences in technique and geography, even why Highland Park tastes different to Scapa, where the geography is taken out of the equation by way of them being half a mile apart. But what really gets me excited and passionate is how one distillery can make the same basic new spirit into utterly different drinks, simply by aging in a variety of casks and combining them in a variety of manners.
The basic concept of aging is relatively simple – the longer any spirit is in a cask, the more that cask influences the spirit; rough edges to any raw spirit can be smoothed by its time in the barrel. Different casks will affect the whisky in different ways – the more porous Spanish oak (which usually holds sherry) gives more of itself, whereas the harder American oak does not; this is the main reason why whisky tends to spend longer in bourbon casks than in sherry casks. Then there is the idea of “finishing” the whisky in alternative casks – I’ve seen everything from Chateau Petrus casks to port and ale casks.
But different age statements on the bottle do not simply mean that the spirit has just been left in the same barrel longer. Most distillers will then choose a selection of different casks from different ages to mix together to form the final drink; it is a beautiful artisan process that requires a huge amount of knowledge and experience. What is even more impressive is the idea that, despite every individual barrel tasting slightly different, the distiller has chosen what they intend the expression to taste like; they have to ensure that every batch tastes the same. Even if batches are made months or years apart from thousands of different barrels they have to know what selection to use to make the final product as close to their concept as possible.
The basic expressions will always aim to have some similar qualities, to ensure they are recognisably from the same distillery. For example, The Glenlivet produces 4 simple age statement releases in their core range: the 12, 18, 21 and 25 year olds. Glenfiddich produces 7: the 12, 15, 18, 21, 30, 40 and 50 year olds. However, both ranges also produce variations. Glenlivet has a 15 year old specifically aged in French Oak and their 16 year old Nàdurra, their “natural” non-chill filtered, cask strength, “old fashioned” release. Glenfiddich also produce the 14 year old Rich Oak and their very new 19 year old Madeira cask. On Master of Malt, they list 33 products for Glenfiddich (admittedly not all currently available), on The Whisky Exchange there are 36. All will be identifiably Glenfiddich, but it would be pointless producing that number of expressions if they weren’t all unique in some way; there has to be a point to every expression.
Sadly, I do not have access to 9 different Glenfiddichs to compare and contrast. Instead, I have Aberlour easily to hand – the a’bunadh, the 10 year old (standard) expression and the 16 year old double cask matured. There is also a 12 and 18 year old double cask matured but, since the 10 year old is also described as being blended from two different casks on their label, I’m not entirely sure why they insist on branding these last 3 as “double cask matured” if all of their core range are produced in the same way. (A similar labeling irritation irks me with the Benromach range – they proclaim as a major selling point that their whisky is “aged in hand selected barrels”. Am I wrong in thinking that all barrels are hand selected?)
The a’bunadh, however, is aged solely in Oloroso sherry butts, trying to recreate the Victorian origins of whisky – even the bottle was based on the medicine bottles that people would take to the distillery to have filled for them. This bottle has now become their standard bottle shape for the 12, 16 and 18 year old expressions, with an effort to make the bottle as immediately recognisable as The Balvenie or The Glenrothes. The 10 and the 16 are aged in the same way, and are blended from the same mix of casks, so theoretically should be very similar, yet there must be a reason for each to exist (and for the 16 year old to be nearly twice the price of the 10 year old.)
Aberlour 10 Year Old
colour: very orangey amber
nose: buttered toast, Mcdonalds apple pie (in the best way possible) pear drops?
body: smooth and creamy, very soft mouthfeel
palate: spiced apple and honey crumble – cereally edge, with a lot of pepper and nutmeg
finish: long, a little peppery, not as sweet as the palate
Aberlour 16 Year Old
colour: deep amber
nose: floral – heather, raisins and currants
body: smooth and creamy
palate: creaminess, fruit crumble with added custard this time. spice still there, but less overwhelming, slight waxy notes.
finish: longer and smoother – less pepper, more fruity sweetness than 10.
They are both very lovely whiskies. However, the principle difference between the two is the smoothness of the 16 year old. The 10 year old is almost overpowered by pepper and spice – as is the a’bunadh, but then that is deliberately appealing to the “firewater” old whisky concept. The 16 year old dials back on the pepper and increases the creaminess and the fruit – a rebalanced version of the 10 perhaps. The 10 would be a perfect hipflask whisky for a round of golf – it would warm you up very quickly without needing to take the time to appreciate the intricacy. The 16 makes a very nice several drammer for a warm evening to enjoy the colours and the flavours in the setting sun.