How the concept of vintage is evolving in spirits

Although the idea of a vintage is relatively clearcut in the world of wine, its use in the context of spirits throws up far greater complexities – and avenues to explore. Millie Milliken takes a look at the term and its current use

Words by Millie Milliken

barley for whisky
Traditionally, vintage has been used as a marker of style in spirits, rather than to reflect the harvest conditions

‘Wine and spirits have far more in common than either care to admit,’ says William Lowe MW, co-founder of Cambridge Distillery. Having spent his career exploring both of the categories (which are often treated as yin and yang, cat and dog, one or the other in trade circles), Master of Wine and master distiller Lowe’s opinion raises interesting questions when it comes to looking at one particular term used across wines and spirits in very different ways: that word is ‘vintage’.

In very simple terms, when used in wine, the term vintage refers to the year in which a single crop of grapes is harvested and vinified. Look to spirits, however, and vintage refers not to the grain harvest but to the year in which the liquid was distilled. (It’s worth remembering here too that while a bottle of 1990 vintage spirit may have been made 33 years ago, that doesn’t mean it is 33 years old.)

Neither method is better than the other, but when age statements, provenance and use of the word ‘terroir’ come into play across both categories, suddenly that number starts to mean so much more.

We’ve all been at a table when the words, ‘Ah, that was a good year’ have been uttered by the person who grabbed the wine list for inspection; they’re referencing the impact the weather conditions had on the grapes and therefore the characteristics of the wine produced. When it comes to spirits, that magic number doesn’t quite have the same context. It is often more of a marker of the style of the distillery at the time or a look at the end of a whisky’s production and how it behaved in barrel due to climate or positioning. However, more recently the word ‘vintage’ in spirits making is becoming more nuanced – and akin to its wine cousins.

Lowe creates ‘vintages’ particular to the seasons and years in which the botanicals to make Cambridge Gin were harvested

Semantics matter

On a trip last year to England’s very own Oxford Artisan Distillery, I met farming partner and king of heritage grains John Letts, who is helping master distiller Francisco ‘Chico’ Rosa reframe the word ‘vintage’ with his rye releases. Look closely at its labels and you’ll see references including ‘2017 harvest’.

It’s a bold move when you consider how many whiskies (and spirits in general) are made with a consistent flavour in mind. In the world of wine, the concept of ‘vintage’ eschews the expectation of such close consistency; and so does this new approach to whisky making. Categories that haven’t traditionally embraced the vintage concept are also starting to do so too. From gin to rum, they’re using both the wine and whisky approaches to the term.

Of course, when it comes to fruit-based spirits the lines are slightly blurred. Something like Capreolus Distillery’s eau-de-vie is labelled with the year of the harvest to reflect the provenance of the raspberries, quinces, pears and other Cotswold-grown fruit it uses. But looking at grain- and grass-based spirits, this could be an exciting evolution as drinkers continue to vie for brands which offer transparency and an inkling as to the ‘what, where and whens’ of the raw materials made to make their favourite spirits.

Look closely at Oxford Artisan Distillery labels and you’ll see references including ‘2017 harvest'

Embracing nature

Back to the Cambridge Distillery, and Lowe is taking a markedly different approach to gin. He is creating ‘vintages’ particular to the seasons and years in which the botanicals were harvested. ‘I remember specifically putting together Spring/Summer ‘21,’ he tells me. ‘It was early morning and there was a really different aromatic profile versus later in the day. It smelt intoxicating and I thought, “This: This is what it needs to be.” I went back at the same time over the days, trying to pull out where it came from. It was my job to capture that, so in 10 years you can taste that wonderful moment in time and space.’

Lowe’s approach to making gin like this came from his realisation that most gins are global and stateless products, usually victims of the fact that their myriad botanicals aren’t always fresh at the time of distillation.

Lowe turns this problem on its head. ‘We flip it: why don’t we pick things when they’re fresh and distil when they’re fresh and then we can blend them with a really clear message of a time and a place,’ he explains – and he notes the time and place of when and where the ingredients are picked in Cambridge. With Spring/Summer ‘22 soon to be released, drinkers will be able to go back in time 12 months via Lowe’s gin.

Waterford Distillery releases batches from single harvests so crops can be traced back to respective farms

Against the grain

When it comes to whisky, while taking the harvest approach is not widespread, leaning away from consistency and embracing variation – plus acknowledging natural changes – is starting to creep in. Historically this has not been the case. As Lowe notes: ‘If you look at how most whiskies are being produced, it seems that what they are doing at every step is to mitigate vintage variation.’

This is not the case at Dublin’s Waterford Distillery. Irish legislation prohibits it from noting the year of harvest of the raw materials, so instead the distillery releases batches from single harvests so that crops can be traced back to their respective farms as closely as possible. Consistency of flavour is instead replaced with the aim to remain true to the barley with which it makes its whiskies.

In Crieff, The Glenturret is also playing with its approach to consistency. ‘We don’t go back to the same taste year after year,’ explains global brand ambassador Jamie Morrison. ‘For fear of repetition, we don’t have hundreds of the same casks. It’s old school to try and work back to the same recipe or vatting. There are quite a few changes each year – by doing a vintage-type release system, you’re actively promoting that there are differences.’ This freedom is exciting for Morrison who touches on other variables they can use to set themselves apart: ‘It’s interesting when you go down the rabbit hole – the provenance of barley, looking at different varieties, [and] even fermentation times.’

In Crieff, The Glenturret plays with its approach to consistency

Grass is greener

While some categories are having fun with their interpretation of vintage, the rum category is seeing new brands increasingly embracing the more traditional meaning of vintage in spirits. One such brand is Equiano, which is set to release its first-ever vintage, its 11-year-old 2010.

Using a blend of aged molasses rums from Barbados and Mauritius, its vintage refers to its year of distillation because, as molasses is often an untraceable ingredient being bought on the open market, stating the exact harvest year isn’t possible.

While rums from the likes of Martinique have used vintages that pertain to when the crop was harvested, fermented and distilled (these rums use sugarcane juice and are more easily traceable), molasses rums like Equiano use the more traditional spirit method of marking vintages.

‘When the conversation around Equiano began, I wanted to have something that was slightly different from other brands,’ explains founder and rum ambassador Ian Burrell. ‘I wanted it to be the beacon of telling the vintage story and bringing that conversation [of vintages] back to life.’

For Burrell, the issue of vintage touches on a wider topical conversation across spirits categories

For Burrell, it speaks of what consumers are looking for in their spirits choices. ‘I think everyone has their own intrinsic value, their own individual calling, when it comes to spirits – and a year is something people resonate with.’

He also likes the traceability of a vintage compared to something with just an age statement. ‘With an age claim, that can be made any time – you can release an 11yo in 2005 with no reference to when you made it. With a vintage, you know what year that product went into cask or barrel and you’re making reference to the conditions that particular rum is showing.’

For Burrell, the issue of vintage touches on a wider topical conversation across spirits categories. ‘Transparency is key with rums as there have been a lot of grey areas in the category – where it is made, how it is made, how much sugar has been added. We’re seeing growth in that premium sector so they [customers] will be asking more questions.’

So the next time you pick up a bottle of, say, whisky, gin or rum – take a closer look at its label and the information which gives you an idea of the when, where and what of this particular spirit. You might unearth more than you expected.