Whiskey is one of those magical things. It comes off the still clear and sharp, a flavor that is a mere echo of what it will become. And, through the process of aging, it matures and develops the incredible and complex flavors whiskey enthusiasts have come to crave.
However, there seems to be a misconception. One that had its roots in marketing efforts during the early days of commercial-aged whiskey production. Marketing that, for all intents and purposes, has done its job in instilling a singular idea in each of our noggins. That the higher the age statement on a product, the better it becomes.
Where Did The Idea Come From?
Whiskey was originally sold as clear “moonshine.”
Once whiskey began being aged, the standard practice quickly shifted away from selling unaged whiskey. It was just simply too difficult for producers of new make to compete once people had the option to enjoy the more complex and matured flavors of barrel-aged whiskey. Even if it cost a bit more, the message came through loud and clear. Whiskey was becoming more of an experience than just arbitrary cheap alcohol, and people began to really care about the quality of what they were drinking.
What do you think the earlier distilleries did to differentiate themselves from those who were jumping on the new “aged whiskey bandwagon?” They began advertising that they aged their stuff longer than their competition.
Soon, ads everywhere were talking about how their whiskey was aged longer than the others and how that age denoted quality.
So, for decades there was an emphasis on age. And, much like the “low fat” craze of the 80s, we bought into the marketing.
So, Is There Merit To It?
Yes, to a point.
The whiskey industry at that point wasn’t typically aging their product for a long period of time. A few months to maybe a couple of years since it was new. Few would argue that the first handful of years whiskey sits in a barrel are all “uphill.” So, for the first bunch of years, this likely held true.
However, as this became the standard and whiskey began being segmented into regular age and more expensive 7+ year options became available, distillers discovered that whiskey goes through stages in the aging process. At some points, the whiskey hits a beautiful symphony of flavors and textures. However, at other points these notes become disjointed or unaligned and, while the whiskey may not be objectively “bad,” it isn’t at its peak.
Distillers around the world will tell you aged spirits go through “peaks and valleys” during the aging process. Much of their art is knowing when the whiskey is at its crescendo and is ready to be pulled and bottled.
So, Tell Me More About These “Peaks and Valleys”
Well, when we were in Texas. John, the Master Distiller for Still Austin Distillery put it the best.
We opened up a barrel of whiskey. Thieved it into some glasses. Gave it a taste and he looked at me and said “that’s very good today.” Orion and I were inquisitive as to why he would differentiate it as being good “today” rather than just “good.”
He told us that, as the whiskey ages, chemical processes are constantly taking place. Even a decade after it’s been entered into the barrel, there are still things happening in there that impact the whiskey.
As these changes take place, the whiskey can “peak” when the flavors come into their own. But, if you miss that peak, and the flavors become disjointed, you may have to wait until the whiskey is at another peak. Part of the art of being a master distiller or maturation manager is knowing your spirit, barrels, and climate enough to predict when these peaks will be and when (or if) another peak will be reached. Many distilleries can have tens of thousands to over a million barrels aging at once. There’s no way a distiller could try them all daily, weekly, or even quarterly in many cases. So, it becomes a game of experience and chance as to when each of the barrels should be tasted.
A lot of these predictions also center around the changes in profile between these “golden hours” for whiskey. A whiskey that was vanilla forward with light oak char at 6 years could become predominantly oak-spice and tobacco two years later. And, while each of these profiles will have its fans, there are target profiles and consistency many of these distillers have to look for so that those familiar with the product can have a consistent drinking experience.
So, Where Does That Leave Us?
Quite simply, that age isn’t always indicative of quality. A 20-year bourbon could have a disjointed flavor profile and be in a “valley” of its flavor and texture. This could lead to a poor drinking experience and flavors that don’t necessarily meld nicely.
It could also be off-profile for that particular brand, which would lead to frustration by drinkers who have come to expect consistency in their selections.
However, a 20-year could also be at a peak and have a beautiful oak spice and deep caramel that is on profile and at a peak. We’ve also had some incredibly five and six-year bourbons that were unbelievable and drank as though they were much more mature.
Each whiskey is different and unique. That’s what makes the world of whiskey so amazing. And, we’re just scratching the surface of what can be done. Each whiskey will age in its own way and have its own sweet spots. It’s this blending of science, art, and experience that allows master distillers to know when the right time is, whether it’s four years, fourteen, or twenty-four.