The complex delights of vintage spirits

Not all spirits improve after decades in cask – but the right conditions can give spectacular results

Image: Chris Burke

There’s one thing The Goblet likes more than finding a really good whisky and that’s finding a really good whisky that’s older than she is. Because once you hit 40, that doesn’t happen very often. Thirty years is about the longest most Scotch whiskies can spend in cask before they start being overwhelmed by wood. The exact amount of time will depend on the type of oak the cask is made from, how old the cask is and what it contained before, but it’s rare to find a whisky north of 40 that doesn’t taste like an antique table leg.

Sometimes, a whisky miraculously goes the extra mile without lapsing into varnished decrepitude – and when that happens, you get a dram with a degree of complexity to it, a patina that’s exceptional. A fine example of this is Glenmorangie Pride 1974, which is released later this month in a run of just 503 decanters, priced at £7,200 a piece. Blended from a handful of former bourbon and sherry casks selected by Glenmorangie head honcho Dr Bill Lumsden, this 41-year‑old whisky is the oldest Glenmorangie ever bottled.

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So much time in cask could have easily ruined this delicate Highland malt, but Lumsden’s expertise has ensured its signature fruitiness still shines through in sweet notes of crystallised orange peel, passionfruit and charred pineapple. They give precision and life to the more downbeat flavours of old age: praline, tobacco, even a little dried blood. It’s a whisky with a long memory.

Cask is one big factor in the way a spirit ages. The other is climate. In the tropics, spirits age about three times faster than they do in cold and rainy Scotland. One house that’s made a virtue of this is Hine. Since the 19th century it has been famous for producing what’s known as “early landed” cognacs – vintage brandies that are aged briefly in Jarnac in southwestern France, before being shipped to Bristol to age in cellars where the conditions are cooler, more humid and more constant. This gentler treatment results in Grand Champagne cognacs that are wonderfully light, refined and fruity, even in their old age.

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The difference climate makes is neatly illustrated by the new Hine 1987, a double-header that allows one to taste the same vintage in both early-landed (£420 a bottle) and Jarnac-matured (£262 a bottle) incarnations. Both varieties are around 30 years old, yet while one is fresh and ethereal, with youthful citrus and orange blossom, the other is all marmalade and gingerbread spice. They’re both delicious, but strikingly different. A lesson in ageing gracefully.

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