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Fib of the Week #11: “Age statements mean exactly what they say.”

It’s #FibFriday, and for Fib of the Week #11, it’s time to talk a bit more about transparency with – “Age statements mean exactly what they say; all e.g. 12-year-old whisky is 12 years old.”. Now, we like a good age statement, and it’s undeniable that the laws on alcohol labelling, including ages, came in to protect consumers. But what if I were to tell you that the age statement laws actually also limit how much you can be told about a bottling? No brand ambassador will tell you otherwise - an age statement on the bottle tells you the age only of the youngest whisky in there, even if it’s only one drop. Which is incidentally exactly what Compass Box did with their delightful 3 Year Old Deluxe. If I want to tell you the exact recipe used in what you’re getting, I legally can’t in official media (although you can ask directly). So, only in single cask expressions does the age statement tell you exactly what you’re getting!

The law on age statements was brought in for a very good reason. It prevents unscrupulous producers from putting a single drop of old spirit in a very young whisky and passing that off as something super-aged. Similarly, the oversight required to ensure that e.g. averages might be used as a standard would be horribly complex, and probably not tell you that much about what you are drinking anyway. We can all agree. Age statements are good.

But because the law means that you can *only* declare the youngest spirit in the bottle, there is also very little incentive for big bottlers to play with flavour and add much older spirit in there with the younger. Yet, there are a few brands that have been known to have an older age statement - e.g. the retired Glengoyne 17 and still the Glendronach 21, for at least a little while longer - where the majority of the dram is going to be older, sometimes even considerably, than the age statement displays. Glengoyne 17 was anecdotally known for containing at least as much 18 as 17 year old, and in the case of Glendronach, well, the distillery was mothballed for a number of years before reopening, and anyone good at simple maths can work out that if Glendronach reopened in 2002 after having been mothballed in 1996, and it’s only 2022 now, then the 21-year-old must still contain at least 21-year-old whisky, and therefore this particular expression can’t contain anything younger than 25. But you know, customers are fickle, and they expect certain ages, so 21 year old the label reads.

In some of these cases, the law as is may be good for consumers, but they are decidedly the exception. Very few producers are so kind to the fans. The bigger problem, however, is for people who really care about transparency, particularly whisky blenders who want to show off the glories of their recipes, make sure you know all there is to know. Because why not, you’re drinking it after all! More and more, people care about transparency, really what to know and understand what they are drinking, and we feel that’s a great thing that should really be their right.

But all blenders - of single malt, blended malt, blended whiskies, blended grains or single grains - all of them are legally prohibited from publicly telling you the age of anything but the youngest spirit in the bottle. It’s true, legal warnings have even been issued when Compass Box tried to do so for a little, tell you the whole recipe and its ages for full transparency. To be clear, they weren’t suggesting anyone should simply list the spirits and their ages with no reference to proportions - they wanted simply to give out their recipes in full, for anyone who might be curious. But they are legally prohibited. After an awareness and lobbying campaign, fully backed also by the great folks at Bruichladdich, it was put to the SWA (Scotch Whisky Association) to recommend a change in the law. But not to be. In consultation with their members, enough, we suspect particularly the larger ones, opposed any change and the SWA decided not to act.

Neither Compass Box nor Bruichladdich, alongside a few other very honest companies, was willing to accept that there was no way they could give people information, even though the legal battle was done. Compass Box has a system that makes it very easy to ask directly about the recipe ages on their website - but you must ask your query directly, or they wouldn’t be able to give you an adequately informative reply. Bruichladdich by contrast make the recipe for each release of the Laddie available on their website - simply input the code on your bottle in the place indicated and they will tell you a lot more. They have yet to introduce this support for the majority of the rest of their expressions, however, but it’s a start. One or two other companies also use this batch barcode technique, but they are very much the exceptions to the rule.

So yes, the age statement represents only the youngest whisky in the bottle. Although many producers would like to, they legally cannot share with you their full recipes on the label or in official advertising. Here at Fib Whisky, we care about transparency and think that everyone should be able to know everything that is in their dram. Of course, we avoid the youngest spirit problem ourselves by releasing only single cask bottlings - at least for the foreseeable future. But we believe you have a right to know everything there is about the dram in your glass. That’s why, on all our labels, we commit to giving you every single bit of information about anything we release. That we legally can. Slàinte! 😉🥃


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