I have in my hands tonight two awesome drams of goddam whiskey. A classic Bunnahabhain 12, which if you’ve read my shit before you know that’s one of my favorites. Next to it I have a dram of Bunnahabhain 18, gifted to me by none other than the preacher hisself. I’m at his house this evening, we’ve put some whiskey down, and we are feeling mighty fine about right now.
Now if you listen to the whiskey snobs, the whiskey experts, and the stooges at the liquor store who want to take your money, that 18 should be six years better than the 12, right? I mean, it stands to reason. It’s been in the barrel longer. It’s got more – I don’t know – barrel magic going on. So it’s better, right?
Well maybe. And maybe not.
There’s a lot of things you can do to change the profile of a whiskey. How long you leave it in the barrel is just one thing. Time in the barrel makes the whiskey more gentle, typically. It removes some of the harsher notes. And you certainly get more wood influence. Is that better? No. It’s different. It’s a different whiskey. Don’t think of whiskeys as being objectively “better” the older they are. They’re just different expressions of the distiller’s product.
An older whiskey is better if you like it better. And it isn’t if you don’t.
So what about that Bunnahabhain I was talking about? Here’s how I experience the 12 and the 18:
When I smell Bunnahabhain I always get dark fruit right away. Not high, sniffy, snooty fruit like Irish whiskeys and speyside scotches. This is a dark, dried cherry kind of smell. I get it with both of them, but the 18 is gentler. The 12 has a little sour tang to it. And of course you get all the deep, heavy, earthy smells of the Islay region with both of them.
The 18 is so soft and sweet it just kind of slides into your mouth and gives your tongue a little hug. Then goes down easy, like a kid that’s had benadryl at bedtime. Yeah, that be one smooth-ass whiskey for sure. The 12 has some muscle to it up front, through the transitions, and all the way down your gullet. Same good stuff but not so goddam nice.
So which is better?
I like the 12 myself. Don’t get me wrong. You serve me the 18 and I’ll enjoy experiencing a different version of my beloved Bunny. But if I had to choose, I’ll take the 12.
I like whiskeys with a little kick to them. That’s just me.
The moral of this story is to value older whiskeys because they are rare and expensive, as they should be. The simple economics of supply and demand dictate the price. If you love a certain whiskey you’ll want to try all the expressions you can, young and old, just the way you want to read all the books by an author you love. And if you’re honest, you will frequently like the younger version better because you’re used to it and it usually has more punch.
See what I did there? I just saved you a bunch of money.
When you finally get to San Antonio and we have that whiskey we’ve been talking about, the first round is on you.