For all the facets of whisky making, chronology is perhaps the most profound. How does whisky change over time? Guest writer Kristiane Sherry muses on the elasticity of time and how it shows up in Scotch.
Officially there are only three ingredients in every whisky: grain, water and yeast. But I would argue there’s a fourth vital component: time. Without it there’s no hue, little complexity, and next-to-no character. Just spirit over substance. Whisky would simply be unrecognisable.
How Does Whisky Change Over Time?
Let’s start at the very beginning. Here in Scotland, whisky must be aged in oak for a minimum of three years. Of course, many casks lay slumbering for far, far longer. That dance of oak maturation, of additive and subtractive reactions, hones and shapes the spirit within. It’s only with time that the water-white distillate takes on a natural lemon, amber, and eventually mahogany lustre. Years alone will see that cask impart its aroma and flavour compounds. The oak is the core protagonist, but time is the only enabler.
Yet the alchemy is far from linear. There’s a danger that the myth of ‘older = better’ takes hold. This simply isn’t how casks perform. No two are the same. From size and stature to how loudly their flavour and aroma compounds shout into the spirit, how ‘active’ a vessel is impacts so much. One of their most dynamic interplays is that with time.
Because, for all the study, all the monitoring, all the evidence, no-one can map a linear course between time and flavour. Casks are as unique as people. Each will work to its own pace. Some are ‘ready’ to give up their whisky after a mere five years. Some will happily work for 15, perhaps even 20 years. Beyond that is a very rare thing indeed. Some really unusual ones will hold on for 40 years or more. These are outliers, precious for their scarcity. As is the liquid within.
Time isn’t the only variable when it comes to casks. How many times they’ve been used before. The environment they find themselves in. Previous contents. All these factors and more of course will profoundly influence the flavour of the spirit inside. But I suggest none of these are as compelling as time.
If casks are akin to people, then the distilleries they are part of are communities.
If casks are akin to people, then the distilleries they are part of are communities. They are established over time, based on human philosophies and born of the natural landscape that surrounds them. They represent so much more than the whisky that flows from their stills. Ask any archivist: the people working there, even what materials have built them, how they are powered, all speak powerfully and with historical significance.
Which is why there is so much allure to a closed distillery.
From a scarcity perspective, there simply won’t be any more. With every opened bottle, every sip that passes lips, the remaining whisky dwindles. Extinction is inevitable. Is there anything more special, more exquisite, than knowing what you’re delighting in will never be seen again? That there will never be another moment like this one? That exacting aroma, palate, finish will never be experienced again. Every bottle from a closed distillery is a time capsule of liquid treasure.
These are fleeting snippets of time, soon to be gone forever. Savouring time in this way is surely the biggest luxury in whisky.
And there’s another powerful aspect to time. The adage says there’s nothing like the present. For opening whisky, nothing can be truer. These jewels from the past are to be relished. Appreciating the intricacies of time adds another dimension to the enjoyment – especially when the moment is shared among those closest to us. Take A Breath of Fresh Air, a remarkable blended grain bottled at precisely 37 years. Why? Because in that moment, the casks had finished their task. Time had precisely shaped the fresh grassiness, the crisp greenness, its tropical fruit zest. Hold on for a few more years to reach that arbitrary four decades and that vibrancy would be lost.
Or perhaps reach for The Lost Estate. A Scotch to contemplate past times with, the blended grain brings together whiskies from two of Scotland’s ghost distilleries. There’s a warmth in its memories: butterscotch, barley sugar and marmalade on toast evoke images of the bustling distilleries of old. A treasure never to be seen again, one to be savoured in the present.
How does whisky change over time? Time is elastic when it comes to whisky. Moments of conviviality today recall glimpses of the past, stretching back years, sometimes decades. It takes time to make whisky. It takes a precise amount of it to mature something extraordinary. And sometimes whiskies hark back to lost places, people, never to be experienced again. And that’s part of the rich tapestry of our spirit: the mystery, magic and allure of time.