The aging process can’t be rushed. There are lots of factors that determine the character and flavour of a whisky – the water, type of grain, the place it’s distilled – but the barrel is paramount.
We’re in the midst of a whiskey crisis. Not the crisis you might immediately suspect, though. As far as I can tell, rates of drunkenness haven’t increased precipitously, nor have its attendant social ills. Instead, this crisis is one of scarcity. We’re running out of the good stuff.
Over the past decade or so, whiskey has had tremendous reversal of fortune. Fifteen years back, imbibers and revellers of all stripes preferred vodka. Scotch was something you kept around for when granddad dropped by, and Bourbon was reserved for some seersucker-clad Southerner wiping his brow at the Kentucky Derby. Now, though, whiskey is right on trend, and supplies are being sought to exhaustion by the young and urbane in possession of some disposable income.
When you consider how whiskey is made, you can see that the process actually lends itself to this sort of shortage. Grain is harvested, malted, dried, mixed with water, fermented and distilled. Then, it’s poured into oak barrels to . . . wait. For a long time. (It’s a crazy business model when you think about it; all that labour, with no hope of profit for years). Scotch whisky, which is the finest example of the genre, must be aged at least three years by law. The most coveted Scotches, called “single-malt” (whisky made at one distillery, as opposed to a blend from many), easily exceed that. Ten years is the general minimum for single malts, and single malts that have hung out in casks for 12 or 15 years are pretty standard. I was once given a dram that was 33 years old, right around my 34th birthday. It was deliciously focussed and profound, like a line from Hemingway, like the Gospel of Mark.
The aging process can’t be rushed. There are lots of factors that determine the character and flavour of a whisky – the water, type of grain, the place it’s distilled – but the barrel is paramount. For the spirit to acquire depth and complexity of flavour, it needs to sit and be transfigured by whatever strange, inscrutable process takes place in the dark surround of those staves. Read up on the science of this sometime; it’s endlessly fascinating. Note how those who describe it – science-y types, not typically prone to fits of mystical prose – can end up sounding like Hildegard of Bingen. In fact, religious language has always been drawn into service in order to describe the interplay of oak and ethanol; the portion of whiskey that evaporates through the barrel over the years is called “the angels’ share,” as if it were an offering made heavenward in gratitude for the small miracle happening in the cask.
You can imagine, then, how increased popularity could really put the squeeze on distillers. Ten years ago, they put away enough of the spirit to meet the then-current demand. Now that it’s time to bottle, it’s nowhere near enough. Distillers have tried to accommodate for the shortfall in a few ways. NAS (“no age statement”) Scotches are becoming more common. More significantly, the scarcity has led to severe price hikes. Esquire magazine reports that a bottle of Pappy Van Winkle 15 year old Bourbon that sold for $47 in 2007 retails for $982 today.
The long view
So now you’re probably thinking “of all the rich white-person problems in the world, this is surely the silliest.” I’m with you. There’s something grotesquely decadent about throwing nearly $1,000 at a bottle of booze.
Still, in an age of Velveeta, Monster Energy drinks and other industrial foodstuffs in infinite supply, I have some sympathy for the yearning inspired by a dram of scarce old Scotch. Our cultural habits tend toward amnesia and obsession over the new and easy. So I’d say it’s of great benefit to cultivate a taste for the things that take a long time to come to us. Christians should know this better than others; we are the inheritors of treasure laid down long ago. Five hundred years since the Reformation. Centuries more since Nicaea and Chalcedon. Millennia since that Passover in dusty old Palestine. What joys await those who seek and find things that have taken years, decades, centuries to reach them?