Food & Drink

You Might Be Paying Too Much for That Old, Old Whiskey

old whiskey bottle
Roman Sigaev/Shutterstock (edited)

People don't often quote the late, great Aaliyah when talking about whiskey, but her song "Age Ain't Nothing but a Number" offers a lesson for lovers of the brown stuff: older whiskeys aren't necessarily better-tasting than younger ones. It doesn't mean the age of a whiskey isn't important, it just means older isn't synonymous with better. We spoke to experts in the whiskey industry to get their takes on the age issue regarding Kentucky and Scotland's favorite spirit. After reading this, you might think twice about forking over more money for an older whiskey.

Lagavulin whisky
Lee Breslouer/Thrillist

Super-old whiskeys aren't a thing for a reason

"Excessive aging" is something usually ascribed to that poor Benjamin Button kid, but it's also a bad thing for Scotch and bourbon. "You can find many wonderful [Scotch] whiskies aged six, eight, or 10 years that have very specific tastes and flavors that are lost with excessive aging when the wood character begins to dominate," says Dr. Nick Morgan, the head of whisky outreach at British booze-maker Diageo.

And while Scotch can gain added character from being aged up to 40 years, bourbon isn't so lucky. Jamie Boudreau of Seattle whiskey palace Canon says that "given [the USA's] warmer climate and unused, newly charred barrels, an American whiskey would be completely undrinkable when approaching [that age]." That explains why you don't see too much whiskey out there slapped with a "100 years old" label on the bottle -- besides, who the hell could wait that long for a drink?

Whiskey is better judged by the quality of what's in the bottle

If you thought that age was the definitive way to judge a whiskey, it's not your fault. It's not your fault. We're going to tell you that until you cry for us, Matt Damon.

"For decades the whiskey industry had marketed age statements as a sign of quality, so it’s no wonder that new whiskey drinkers continue to judge a bottle's contents on the number printed on the label," says Becky Paskin, editor of ScotchWhisky.com. But they shouldn't!

"Age will give you some point of reference in terms of structure of the whiskey, but is older always better? Absolutely not," notes Bill Thomas from standout DC whiskey bar Jack Rose. "Some whiskeys will show good at eight, and some will show good at 10. And some will show good at 30. It depends."

Thomas even mentioned that he's seen five-year single-malt whiskeys (by law, Scotch must be matured for three years) auctioned off at two to three times more than the original retail price, simply because reviewers and whiskey lovers have recognized it as being something special.

The best whiskey is a matter of taste, not age

Let's use a bottle of Pappy Van Winkle as an example for this lesson in buying bourbon. Pappy goes for up to $3,000 a bottle. Say you have the option to buy a 23-year or a 15-year bottle. While you might think the older one would be the more coveted one, that's not what Thomas would select. He says the 23-year is too oaky for his tastes, and prefers the 15-year, which has a higher proof. It doesn't mean that all 15-year whiskeys are better than all 23-years, but it is for him within that particular brand.

Blended whiskeys like Johnnie Walker and Chivas Regal rank as some of the most popular Scotch in the world. Both brands use whiskeys of different ages to create a specific flavor profile. And in these blends, younger whisky is not a bad thing. "By including youthful whiskeys in a vatting [Editor's Note: As in, a blend of whiskeys of different ages and casks], the blender is ensuring the distillery’s character is represented -- those fruity, lively notes you get in a 12-year-old Glenfiddich, for example," says Paskin. "Older whiskey is used to add an even greater depth of flavor. It's all about balance."

So next time you head to the liquor store, there's no need to drop extra dough on a bottle just because it has an impressive-sounding age statement on the label. Age ain't nothing but a number, after all.

Sign up here for our daily Thrillist email, and get your fix of the best in food/drink/fun.

Lee Breslouer is a senior writer for Thrillist, and enjoys all types of whiskey. Follow him to 12-year bottles: @LeeBreslouer.