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Appreciating time in a bottle

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Recently, while writing tasting notes for my upcoming Christmas whisky tasting in San Diego, my oldies station played Time in a Bottle, by singer-songwriter Jim Croce, a resident of San Diego at the time of his death in 1973. Croce wrote the song after learning his wife was pregnant, with lyrics about immortality and the wish to have more time in one’s life. The song’s title got me thinking about the brands I was describing and for how much time they had spent maturing in casks before they were bottled.

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Most single malts display a number on their label, indicating the number of years it has aged in cask. This number is referred to as the age statement. Some whiskies do not carry age statements; their age is referred to as NAS, or no age statement. By law, the spirit that will become Scotch whisky must age for a minimum of three full years, in Scotland, before it can be called Scotch. Once the whisky is bottled, the aging process stops.

Four of the five whiskies to be served at the Christmas event are single malts, ranging in age from 25 to 30 years old. While these exquisite whiskies were slowly developing their extraordinary colors, aromas, and tastes in warehouses in Scotland, here is a snapshot of what was happening in the United States at the same times:

1972: Ben Nevis 26 was distilled. With our tales starting 41 years ago, this Ben Nevis’ history is older than many of the guests at the event! Nixon & Agnew were in office, HBO saw its first broadcast, and hit movies included The Godfather, Deliverance, and Cabaret. This bottle of Ben Nevis was bottled in 1998.

1975: The Macallan 25 was distilled. Ford & Rockefeller were in office, Saturday Night Live debuted with George Carlin as emcee, the VCR was developed in Japan, and Jaws was the big draw at the movies. This bottle of The Macallan was bottled in 2000.

1978: Glenfiddich 30 was distilled. Carter & Mondale were in office, Sony introduced the Walkman, and Christopher Reeve was Superman. This bottle of Glenfiddich was bottled in 2008.

1989: Highland Park 25 was distilled. HW Bush & Quayle were in office, the Exxon Valdez spilled oil in Alaska, Englishman Tim Berners-Lee developed the first World Wide Web server and browser. This bottle of Highland Park was bottled in 2004.

What significant events were happening in your life, as these whiskies started theirs – births, graduations, marriages, re-marriages? Relating events such as these to the alchemy happening in the barrels gives a bit of perspective to the uniqueness of older single malts.

Ironically, while I was researching decades of pop culture history to add relevance and importance of these aged whiskies, several major brands of single malts were announcing plans to go in the opposite direction, in trials in the Travel Retail (“Duty Free”) segment of the industry, and others in regular retail in selected countries. The Glenlivet, for example, has launched their Alpha “mystery” expression, with no age statement, cask info or tasting notes. Their intent is to “create a conversation” about the release by “letting consumers have their views.” Other NAS Glenlivets include Classic, Revival and Exotic in the Guardians’ Chapter. A bit further north in Speyside, Glenfiddich will introduce their Cask Collection, consisting of three expressions, Select Cask, Reserve Cask and Vintage Cask, all NAS, and all created using the brand’s Solera Vat technique. The Macallan has launched their NAS 1824 Series, with four single malts offered by color: Gold, Amber, Sienna, and Ruby. Spokesfolks at The Macallan (and in my opinion, for the category in general) have explained, “The quality of a whisky should not be judged by its age, but rather by its character and flavour”, and “Whisky consumers believe an 18-year old is better than a 15-year old, and a 15 is better than a 12, but it’s really all down to personal taste.” Amen.

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