Age of whisky...the longer a spirit is aged, the mellower it becomes. For distilleries in warmer climates like Paul John & Kavalan, age matters less.
Age is Just a Number
Walking around Boston between September and June you'd think the city is overrun by 18-22 year olds, and you'd be right...there are about 65 colleges and universities in the Greater Boston area and those students are everywhere. The funny thing is that when I'm out walking around and see all these kids around me, in my head I'm that age, too. I'm lucky that I've been told that I look younger than I am, but when I suddenly get reminded of my real age (50-mumble-mumble...** ahem **), it takes me by surprise a little. In my head I'm still that college geek, taking engineering and economics classes and participating in the Marching Band. But then I try to read the ingredients on something, and realize that, drat it all, I don't have my reading glasses with me. And don't get me started with that quick glance at my reflection in a shop window! The title from the late Nora Ephron's book I Feel Bad About My Neck pops into my head as I'm shocked, shocked, that I'm not that 20-something in my minds-eye. So should we consider the age of whisky?
We are a society obsessed with youth, but there is also something to be said for age, maturity, and the accumulation of experience and wisdom. I went to culinary school for two years and can call myself a chef, but it was the over 30 years being a home cook and baker that really taught me my cooking and baking skills. Some things can't be rushed, and like a long braise of a luxurious Beef Bourguignon, time expended will produce better results.
(Ok, this soapbox is starting to get wobbly, so I'll get off now...)
The Age of Whisky
You might have noticed what are called age statements on various scotch and whiskey offerings, like Glenmorangie 10yrs, Balvenie 12yrs Doublewood, Tullamore D.E.W. 15yrs, or Linkwood 24yrs just to name a few. Generally speaking, the longer the spirit is aged, the mellower it becomes. In the cooler regions of scotch distilling, cask aging is an important part of the production process. The mellowing the spirit gets during aging really can't be rushed...it's integral to the experience a drinker has with the product.
But now we're seeing scotch being produced in the Scottish style but in warmer climates. I recently had the opportunity to taste two different distiller's lines from Asia: Paul John from India and Kavalan from Taiwan. Because the climate is so much hotter there than in Scotland, the scotch ages much faster, around 4-8 years. These expressions still offer the basic flavor components of scotch produced in Scotland (cask aging flavors such as vanilla, toffee, caramels, the peppery notes from the alcohol, even peat smoke if that is included in the malting process), as well as the terroir of the region from the water and climate. Also, there is a much higher "Angel's Share" (the amount of spirit lost to evaporation) in these hotter regions that may also affect the final product. These distilleries are young themselves, but the whisky world is taking note of their nicely crafted expressions.
The Paul John Distillery came to Gordon's DTX at the behest of the North Shore Whisky Club. This was my first exposure to scotch produced outside of Scotland, and it was really different. Here's Gordon's introduction: "Come learn about Indian whisky and the Paul John Collection. We will have Ajay Bhoja, the USA Country Head for Paul John whisky and John Distilleries leading us through a tasting. The collection consists of a unique range of single malts both peated and unpeated along with a cask strength edition. Taste the full range and see why Jim Murray deemed Paul John as “Liquid Gold” in his 2016 Whisky Bible."
A young whisky from India...
At Gordon's DTX, February 24, 2017
Paul John “Brilliance” Single Malt 6-7 yrs
- Nose: mango, honey, cinnamon
- Taste: cinnamon, creamy, oily, butter
- Finish: spicy lingers
- Comments: Lots of flavor for a 6 yr old whisky
Paul John “Classic” Cask Strength Single Malt
- Nose: strong vanilla, burnt sugar, oily
- Taste: fullness in the mouth, cream, alcohol up the nose
- Finish: doesn't linger even with water
Paul John “Edited” Single Malt
- Nose: smell the ocean lightly, smoke
- Taste: major smoke hit, light ocean, not spicy, smooth & builds, water adds hint of peat
- Finish: smoke lingers, medium length
- Comments: No water needed really, has character
Paul John “Peated” Cask Strength Single Malt
- Nose: sweetness, honey, no peat, water adds a musty note
- Taste: smooth to start, nice peat introduction
- Finish: peat builds, peat is more subtle with added water; I like this one best
Paul John “Bold” Peated Single Malt
- Nose: high alcohol, water adds caramel toffee flavor
- Taste: sweet, peat, water smoothes the peat
- Finish: water gives more of a smoke finish
...and another from Taiwan
Gordon's DTX hosted a tasting from Kavalan. Here is how they described the distillery: "This Taiwanese Whisky Company opened in 2002 and was the first producer of whisky in the country. The distillery is still family owned and operated. Most of their expressions are aged in American oak barrels and with the extreme humidity and heat the whisky takes on a soft creaminess. As an island, they are able to achieve unique house style and flavors due to the sea and mountain breezes along with the local spring water. Since 2006 the Kavalan brand has won over 210 industry awards for multiple bottles in its product line."
At Gordon's DTX, March 29, 2017
Kavalan Single Malt Whisky
- Nose: fruit, light ginger
- Taste: oily full mouthfeel, high nutmeg, tropical fruit, alcohol hits in the middle (even with water)
- Finish: spice in the middle, smooth finish
Kavalan King Car Conductor
- Nose: sweet nose from sherry cask, pineapple, toffee
- Taste: very full mouthfeel, starts smooth, spice grows, banana
- Finish: long finish of spice cloves
Kavalan Ex-Bourbon Oak
- Nose: fruit
- Taste: immediate spice, vanilla, aggressive , thinner in the mouth
- Finish: smooths out, thins out
- Comments: Hard to taste after having sherry aged...nothing to hide the alcohol
Kavalan Sherry Oak
- Nose: feeling of lightness, vanilla, apricots
- Taste: smoky sulfur, like striking a match striking, forceful
- Finish: tapers quickly
Kavalan Symphony Cask Strength - Gordon's Single Cask
- Nose: banana
- Taste: strong sweet dried fruit, thick & bold
- Finish: long finish
- Nose: mild nose, slightly sweet, not really distinctive
- Taste: starts smooth, full mouth, hint of mint
- Finish: fruity end, pepper tapers
- not that that impressive to me
My overall impression is that these faster-aged brands seemed to be more aggressive, yet lacking in body and asserting more tropical overtones. These expressions are good to drink, yet something is missing...it's almost as if the shorter aging pulled out the cask wood flavors without mellowing out the other scotch characteristics. These expressions kind of fall between a classic Scotch whisky and an Irish whiskey for me...in other words, the age of whisky matters, at least to me. If you have another opinion, I'd love to hear it! Comment below with your experiences with Asian-produced whiskies...let's talk!
Slainté! L’chaim! Cheers!
p.s. I re-tasted the Kavalan again in March 2018, and had a different opinion then. Interesting how time and experience change things. You can check out those tasting notes here. I also went to a Kavalan seminar a month later and became a fangirl...it's good to have an open mind (and palate!).