Old and dignified

Where flavour comes alive

Ages have gone by since mountains were hammered into existence in Scotia’s volcanic forge. Ever battered by adverse weather, much, much rain has soaked bonnie Scotland, and it’s just our luck: as ‘today’s rain is tomorrow’s whisky’ or so the saying goes. It’s time for Julien Willems to deep dive into the timeless world of Old & Dignified.

Let us gather around the fire one last time to celebrate whisky season and the time we spend together. And time is indeed what we are celebrating today. Step into my ancestral home, shed your waterlogged coat, let your tired feet slip into cosy slippers, change into a luxuriant and comfortable attire, then join us in the library.

Take in the leather-bound books on dusty shelves, the waxed oak flooring, the resinous scent suggesting pinecones were used to light the fire. Sit on the antique couch next to the cigar box. A few mothballs and camphor tablets gently diffuse their scents into the atmosphere, captivating our noses like the flames capture our eyes.

Hold out your tasting glass, here is a tipple of Old & Dignified whisky. The anticipation of pure pleasure builds, nosing a dram decades in the making. Patiently it has waited, shaping, repeating, and polishing its sensory symphony… all for the instant when the amber nectar hits your taste buds. Like the bow stroking a violin, finally breaking the long silence. You feel, taste and see strings of flavour resonate to the tunes of perfection. Savour liquid harmony with every past experience and sense wrapping around that epiphany, gently unpacking its precious, individual aromas.

Age & intensity

After 11 deep dives into the Society’s flavour profiles, some things should start to be familiar. Esters are back again, but it never gets old, or does it? While normally linked to fresh fruity aromas like pineapple cubes, perfumed pears, mango and lychee, here, every fruit is well- to over-ripe. This might be explained by cask maturation and time in general, but as Society spirits educator Dr Andy Forrester puts it: “We know that over time, very slow chemical reactions take place in the spirit itself, converting ethanol into additional esters, and this may explain some of the intense floral notes seen in very old whisky. Interestingly, it is thought that the cask may also play a role, with the compounds extracted from the wood making these reactions more likely to occur.”

We have mentioned the angels’ share, or the natural loss of volume in the cask due to evaporation, in previous articles. After 20 years or more in a cask, it’s anyone’s guess how much booze the angels will have taken on their cruise. The result is that, as time passes, every compound evaporating slower than ethanol, such as wood extractives, sees its relative concentration rise in the remaining whisky. Again, one can only imagine how that impacts whisky flavours, but on a purely theoretical level, it is likely that flavour compounds in higher concentrations will be perceived more intensely, particularly at cask strength. Still, remember that some compounds will easily mask other less potent ones, so there is no accurate way to predict what the final profile will be.

Future proof

So, what casks would be best suited to make Old & Dignified whiskies? As there probably hasn’t been much relatable research on the subject, I asked our esteemed head of whisky creation, Euan Campbell, for his opinion. “If I were to set a maturation policy today that aimed to achieve consistent Old & Dignified characteristics, I wouldn’t be able to start assessing the results for around 25 years, by which time I would be 62 years old,” he says. “If that didn’t give the desired results, come back to me at 87 for an update!”

That is both very true and a reminder of the challenges of analysing a process that takes decades to develop and is subject to a great many unforeseeable variations. To the best of my knowledge the SMWS is possibly the only entity to systematically record the flavour profile of every cask bottled. The absence of data providing the end profile of each cask in the wider industry makes our Spirits Team’s work harder too. Relying on our own records, however, we get a better idea of what it takes to create such whiskies. To unravel this mystery, Euan and I took a trip down memory lane through the Society’s bottling archives. Since 2014, 84 per cent of the 268 Old & Dignified whiskies aged 20 years and over as full-term maturation were from refill and second fill casks.

As Euan explains: “While we can’t predict the future, we do have an extensive back catalogue of delicious casks to learn from. I would say that your best bet is to use a second-fill or refill cask, where you know the full history of the wood. Using refill wood without knowledge of its full history is too risky. An ideal candidate might be a cask that we have just emptied for bottling after a first fill of about 12 – 15 years. We know how long it was used for, at least for Scotch, and which spirit was matured in it. On the next filling with new make it could be reserved for at least 20 years of maturation and it’s highly likely you would reach your desired flavour profile.”

As always though, theory and practice rarely align perfectly, especially when the subjectivity of sensory perception is concerned. So, remember that a flavour profile only intends to best describe flavours in a whisky in a couple or few words, which is quite reductive. In truth, these profiles should really be seen as fluid and not mutually exclusive. As Euan concludes: “It’s worth noting that while a cask may fall into another flavour profile at the point of Tasting Panel assessment, time will often give you those ethereal characteristics that we associate with Old & Dignified. It’s perfectly feasible that you end up with a Sweet, Fruity & Mellow flavour profile for a dram that also displays Old & Dignified characteristics.”

So don’t just take my word for it, let yourself be seduced by a malt aged to perfection. Old & Dignified will certainly do the trick, but remember that the same hues of gravitas and decadent sensory nostalgia also echo through the older drams from other profiles. Whatever your aromatic inclination, time always does tell.

A flacoursome journey

And as tales go, this one marks the final leg in our flavour odyssey. From Young & Spritely to Old & Dignified, Light & Delicate to Heavily Peated, far we have wandered, through snowy hills, sunlit meadows, along rivers and stormy coastlines. It has been a flavoursome journey, ultimately leading us here to the well-deserved comforts of a luxurious tipple in an ageless mansion, as warm and elegant as it is steeped in history and tradition, yet open and looking onwards to a sustainable future.

As the flames in the hearth slowly ebb back to the comfort of their embers and tuck themselves in under a blanket of ash, time, alas, has come to take a kind farewell. I wish you all happy end of year celebrations, hopefully with a worthy dram in hand, and best wishes for when the time comes. Goodnight an’ joy be wi’ ye all, for sure we’ll meet again the morn… or in the new year…