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Age doesn't matter when it comes to whiskey

Dulezidar | iStock | 360 | Getty Images

Age is just a number, so far as spirits are concerned.

"Don't get hung up on numbers," Dave Broom, author of "The Complete Bartender's Guide," told Tales of the Cocktail attendees Saturday at "The Blind Truth About Aging Whisky" seminar, sponsored by Diageo. "Age just tells you how long it's been in a cask, not how good it is."

The Tales seminar focused on Scotch whisky, but experts say that tenet also extends to other whiskeys produced around the world. It's an increasingly important message for shoppers browsing liquor store shelves these days, with spirit distillers releasing both un-aged whiskeys and super-aged rarities—and many more that don't have an age noted.

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But it also requires a shift from the ingrained perception from marketing that older is better, Jerald O'Kennard, director of the Beverage testing Institute, told CNBC in an interview. "We have people that are so trained to look for age statements," he said. "They might be skipping over alot of very good stuff."

Several factors are contributing to the boom in new products without a noted age. On the craft side, the surge in new distillers since 2010 has added to the number of young and un-aged products on the market. "New producers haven't had time to age their product," said Frank Coleman, a senior vice president at the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, told CNBC."They're just trying to get started." As the businesses (and their products) mature, the pendulum may swing back somewhat a few years down the line.

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Producers are also contending with growing demand. By volume of sales, Scotch rose 3.6 percent from 2012-13, according to DISCUS, while bourbon is up 6.8 percent and Irish whiskey, 17.5 percent. Putting out, say, a 12- or 18-year-old product requires forethought 12 or 18 years ago to set aside enough.

"That has left some producers somewhat short on immediate supply," Coleman said. Thinking ahead isn't easy, either. "If you look at the history of whiskey in America, you have these roller coaster increases and drop-offs," he said. "It is a little bit of a crap shoot."

So if age doesn't matter, what does? Maturity, wood and distillery character, Broom said. When distillers aren't worried about watching for a specific age-tied product, there's more flexibility to introduce unique,flavorful products. During the Tales seminar tasting, panelists encouraged attendees to broaden their palettes with a blind tasting of unexpected—but tasty—options including single-grain Haig Club, will be released in the U.S.next year, the Talisker Storm (which has no age statement) and the blended Johnnie Walker Red.

The anti-aging trend is to shoppers' benefit. "No age statement doesn't mean you're giving up an inch as far as quality is concerned," Nima Ansari, spirit buyer and sales manager for New York City's Astor Wines and Spirits, told CNBC. Craft producers need quality to be high to differentiate; bigger brands won't risk a sub-par release tainting consumers'perceptions of the rest of their product line.

"If people try the product and they don't like it, they're not going to buy it again, and that's the bottom line," Coleman said.

To be sure, younger blends have a different taste profile."The trade-off is vibrancy for mellowness and woodiness," said O'Kennard,"which is not necessarily a bad thing."

But with no age statements, the onus is more on shoppers to experiment. "Taste as many different kinds of things as possible," Ansari said.O'Kennard recommends looking at descriptors as well as reviews, to find taste commonalities with brands and products you've tried and enjoyed.

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"It's still a reasonable assumption that a good producer of something that you like, if they're producing something that's without an age statement, it's something you're going to like as well," he said.

—By CNBC's Kelli Grant.