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Is 35 the "correct" age to drink whisky?

Old Pulteney has commissioned food anthropologist, Caroline Hobkinson, to ask the question; is there an optimum age for drinking whisky?

Published: May 14, 2021
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If someone had told eight year old me that one day she’d actively enjoy foods like olives, capers, and anchovies, I’m sure she’d have rolled her eyes and asked for another digestive from the biscuit tin before tackling important issues like how to become the next Prime Minister.

I’m now 22 and while the politics thing hasn’t happened yet, I now love all of those foods, plus the usual ‘adult’ tastes such as black coffee, red wine and very dark chocolate.

I tried my first oyster this month, which, as a mouthful of salty, soft sushi, was surprisingly delicious.

However, there’s one classic ‘acquired’ taste I’m just not sold on - and that’s whisky. But it turns out, there might be a scientific reason why this is so.   

Food anthropologist, Caroline Hobkinson has been commissioned by Old Pulteney, the maritime distillery based in Caithness, to answer the question of whether there is an optimum age for whisky drinking.

According to Caroline, the sweet spot to start drinking whisky is around the age of 35 - which means I’ve got 13 years to go before I can swirl things in glasses knowingly, and actually enjoy the whole experience. 

As a food anthropologist investigating sensory modalities including smell and taste, Caroline is well versed in the relationship between food and human culture.

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To uncover the perfect drinking age for whisky, Caroline says it’s about finding the time when our senses are at their peak, plus giving enough time and experience to develop the palate. 

Food anthropologist Caroline Hobkinson says the best age to start drinking whisky is 35

Our sense of smell plays a key role in how we enjoy whisky, as our 9000 tastebuds work alongside their olfactory colleagues to create the sensory experience of taste.

From an evolutionary point of view, our sense of smell is there to protect us from food that could be poisonous to ourselves - there’s a reason we don’t have to try rotten fish or sour milk to know that it’s potentially dangerous. 

Smell is also an important memory-building tool: there are probably smells you associate with family members’ perfumes, or places, of which the slightest whiff can trigger flashbacks, and emotional memories.

As we mature and learn new smells and tastes, we overcome some of our more cautious evolutionary instincts.

This is why many children won’t touch foods like olives, but lots of adults would polish off a plate of tapenade and happily wash it down with a pint of bitter ale.

It is overcoming this sensory inhibition which allows us to to appreciate the smoky, peaty flavours of a good whisky. 

Eventually, says Caroline, our sense of smell and taste is at its peak - it is least inhibited - just before we hit 30 years old.

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This is when our taste buds are in overdrive. We discover new flavours, really appreciating the nuances of good food and drink.

With continued experience and palate development, we come to appreciate less obvious flavours with age; whether that’s peatiness of an Islay malt, or the saline, coastal notes of whiskies from Old Pulteney. 

Caroline said: “The perfect drinking age for whisky is about finding the perfect axis of peak sensory ability to develop and train your palate.

"Although people can be trained to appreciate the subtle aromas and flavours in whisky, perception of them is also linked to memories and experience.

“If 30 is the start of our peak sensory appreciation we should allow time to mature and train our palate.

"So while of course some palates will develop earlier, let’s give it five years of experience. That would place the sweet spot at 35.”

However, this doesn’t mean it is impossible to enjoy whisky before the age of 35.

Indeed, plenty of younger people have a real appreciation for the nuances of whisky, and many of my friends already have their firm favourites. 

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But if you’re more like me, and don’t know where to start with whisky, training your palate to experiment with stronger flavoured foods is a great idea.

Being adventurous with food and drink while learning what the different tastes are and where on the tongue you can identify them is great start to being a whisky connoisseur. 

When we do try out whiskies properly for the first time, Malcolm Waring, the distillery manager at Old Pulteney, has some great tasting tips. 

He said “To those who feel intimidated by whisky, my advice would be to take your time.

"There is a whisky out there for everyone, waiting to be discovered! Make sure you sample malts from distilleries across the country and explore the variety on offer.”

Malcolm also recommends tasting whisky from a tulip shaped nosing glass, to make sure the aromas are concentrated around the rim.

Although it seems counterintuitive to a newbie like me, he also recommends adding water to the whisky, which will ‘open up’ a dram and bring out some of the sweeter, fruity and citrus aromas.

If the whisky is particularly fiery, he advises adding an ice cube, which will mellow things out.

Well, that’s me booking my first distillery tour right now, 13 years in advance. Cheers!

Food & Drink Intern

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