Does the bottling or distillation year matter for Scotch or other whiskies?

Macallan 18yo 1980Not really and definitely not in the same way as it does for wine.

When it comes to wine, the year to year seasonal variability in the grape crop can have a big impact on the final product. Different wine producing regions experience different weather, from year to year, so sometimes you get more rain, sometimes you get colder or warmer temperatures, and that all impacts how the grapes grow.

Just check out this list of Bordeaux vintages, going back to 1959, and how the different each year can be. Bordeaux is any wine produced in the Bordeaux region of France, though nearly 90% of it is red wine.

2005 Bordeaux is considered a “stunning vintage from top to bottom in all appellations and in all price ranges. If you have the money, this is one of the best Bordeaux vintages to lay down in your cellar. These stunning wines will only get better and more expensive. Hold 100 Pts.” (of their rankings, only two years were ranked 100 – 2005 and 2000)

Just two years later, 2007 was categorized as “Overpriced, early drinking vintage. Drink or hold 87 Pts.”

With wine, it is intuitive that the weather plays a huge role in how good the grapes are. The grapes are mashed and fermented. The end product can be immediately bottled or aged in barrels for a few years and then bottled. Generally speaking, from grape to your mouth, it’s usually only a couple years at the most.

With scotch and barley, I’d argue that year to year crop yields doesn’t matter.

I believe it doesn’t matter to the end product because:

  • Barley is pretty much barley, weather can impact the overall yield but I think variations don’t impact the flavor of the end product because…
  • .. the malting process. Malting involves tricks the grains into germinating through a water soak, then halted by drying with hot air. This process helps convert the grain’s starches into sugars, which are fermented. In grapes, the sugars come from the growing process; in barley, it’s created during the malting process.
  • Whisky is distilled, so now we’re talking ABVs in the low 60%s (usually 62.5%) before aging for many years (3+).
  • Lastly, unless it’s single barrel, they will blend different barrels to achieve the characteristics they want.

So… the distillation date and the bottling date are fun to know, but they really have little impact on the end product.

That said, there are two caveats:

  1. If the characteristics of the distillery have changed, the bottling year will give you an idea of what they were going for in that time period. Tastes change, production techniques change, so there value in knowing the date if it’s many years in the past. But it’s not for the same reasons as wine.
  2. Single barrels and batches can vary from one another in a single year. It won’t be a huge difference (I’d argue you couldn’t tell if you had them independently on different days), but there are subtle differences if you try them side by side.

That said, I’d love to get my hands on a bottle with my birth year. 🙂

Do you think bottling or distillation year matters?

About Jim

Jim is the founder of Scotch Addict and one of the many fans of whisky in all its forms. Connect with me on Google+.
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6 Responses to Does the bottling or distillation year matter for Scotch or other whiskies?

  1. Steve says:

    Vintage whisky is a gimmick. Any variation in taste from year to year is going to be the result of wood management over malt quality. You see people grading vintage whiskies (especially older Macallan 18s) because it’s human nature to want to quantify everything and have a “best” of the bunch. Unlike wine though, the older the whisky the more expensive it will be as they have no real “shelf life” the way wine does. Fine wine, on the other hand, sees huge fluctuations in price as top vintages determine not only taste but how long they can be stored/cellared for. Unopened, a whisky can last virtually forever. That 1972 Bordeaux? Probably nice to look at, but not worth drinking anymore. I would put less emphasis on the year-to-year minutiae of recent bottlings and concentrate more on a distillery over time (e.g., Springbank bottles from the 1970s vs 2000s, etc… to see any dramatic shifts in taste). These are known to be much more profound.


  2. Edgar says:

    Dear Jim, If unopened whisky has no shelf life, what about opened bottles. I have a collection of more than a hundred bottles, many of which have been opened quite some time ago. Di I need to be worried?
    Thank you

  3. Robert says:

    While I agree that fundamentally the age statement has minimal bearing on the quality of the whisky, I find it very annoying that the whisky industry has done such a 180 on the subject. For decades we have been fed this line that says age is important and that it justifies the high prices, now when demand is high and reserves are low, we are expected to believe the opposite argument. It will be interesting to see which direction the whisky industry goes when the inevitable drop in whisky demand arrives and distillers are faced with an over-stock situation. My money says the industry will revert back to using the age statement as their prime marketing tool again.

  4. Gary says:

    Interesting comparison Jim. Wine is so dependent on weather, disease etc, whereas Scotch is mostly affected by time in the barrel. The more I try NAS versus age statement scotch I am beginning to believe the age can be overrated and that many scotch over 18YO seem to start loosing what was so good in the flavor to begin with. I think many of the distillers are way short on stock right now and putting out a 10 or 12yo is tough right now. I wish the NAS prices would be a bit lower versus the age statement. And as stated above once the scotch demand drops as it will I would image age statement will be pushed once again.

  5. Bob E. says:

    A little off the subject……I joined Jim’s site a few years back looking for scotch that is of decent quality for an affordable price. I am an “Everyman Scotch Drinker”……….so, this being said, this is how I think: If I buy a decent 12 year old scotch for $50, and then I bite the bullet and spring for an 18 year old scotch for $100……I want that 18 year old scotch to taste twice as good. It has not happened to me yet.
    Some are in a position to do this; I am not. The age statement gives me something to go on that I can relate to. The year of production or bottling does not…but I will admit, I do not have that level of expertise in selecting. I just want a decent daily dram…or two…or three…and be able to justify the price. 😉

  6. Dino says:

    I could be wrong with this (and I’m sure I’ll be corrected if I am), but from what I’ve seen in the advertising about when a scotch or whiskey was bottled or how long it’s been aged, it always plays on the “smoothness” of what comes out of the cask/bottle and into the glass, before ending up flowing across one’s taste buds. This leads me to believe, after talking with some people that REALLY are into drinking scotch and whiskey, and listening to their theories on the subject, that the longer a scotch ages (the date it goes into the cask), the more the alcohol has a chance to seep through the wood and evaporate. (And this may answer Edgar’s question above, but an opened bottle has the same effect; once the seal is broken the alcohol will slowly seep out and evaporate since the “fumes” are so light and thin.) This, one would think, would leave behind more of the liquid with all of the flavors to savor, while having less of a “kick” because the alcoholic content wouldn’t be as strong (hence that “smoothness” I mentioned). So going by that, the only importance I can see on the bottling date is when it came out of the cask; it could have been yesterday, it could have been last century, but once in the bottle all aging stops (provided the cork is a good one) and unlike wines the scotch will retain all of the properties it had once bottled, whether the bottle is a day old or 100 years old. Now, if the cork shrinks, (or in cases of large bottles that have screw-on caps and the seal is broken), then over time some of the alcohol is going to evaporate. So if you have over 100 bottles that have been opened, the only risk you run is that of ending up with a scotch that will be less intoxicating due to the lower alcohol content, but have a smoother, more savory flavor as a result. I don’t have over 100 bottles like Edgar (oh, how I wish I did, though!), but the of the few I do have, the scotch in the decanter is smoother (less alcohol kick) than the same scotch from the bottle it came out of, probably because in the decanter the alcohol can evaporate faster than it can in the capped bottle; but the flavors are more in the forefront without the extra alcohol kicking them into the background. Likewise I’ve found the opened bottle is a bit smoother than the scotch from a bottle I’d freshly opened. So, Edgar, I don’t think you have anything to worry about with your bottles (unless you don’t mind having to drink more if you’re trying to get a drunk going), and as far as the date on the bottle goes, IMHO, it’s just a marketing ploy for some makers to charge more money.

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