View Full Version : aged bourbon questions - newbie
I have several questions regarding aged Bourbon. I have been a fan of wines for a few years now, so most of my questions here are from the perspective of a wine drinker who's new to whisky.
When searching this site, I found several comments that bourbon will not change at all with age once it's in the bottle. Why is this? In regards to wine, my teacher always said that the aroma components and tannins (both of which are also present in whisky from the oak) undergo chemical reactions and form completely new aroma molecules, which add complexity. This happens even in port wines, which have enough alcohol (at least 18%) to prevent oxidation. Does the much higher level of alcohol in whisky prevent these reactions? Why?
I am a bit skeptical of this idea, since I've evaluated 2 or 3 Bourbons that had been bottle aged 30-40 years, and all of them were FAR more complex and had more intense aromas than new bottlings of the same whisky. All of these Bourbons were in fancy bottles or decanters. Perhaps the manufacturer just saved back the very best barrels to put in his fancy bottles? Or maybe this is just a case of "they don't make it like they used to". ? I have also had a few bottle aged bourbons that really did not seem any better than modern stuff.
So... when a bottle is labeled "10 years old" or "aged 30 years", etc., they are referring to aging in the barrel, right?
Ageing of whisky is pretty much defined as its time in the barrel. The general concensus is that whisky does not change in an unopened, well-sealed bottle kept out of direct sunlight (at modest temperatures).
A recent article in Whisky Magazine draws the conclusion that, after extensive periods of time, whisky does change and in fact generally tends to improve in the bottle. It is very difficult to evaluate this because whisky production changes over the years so comparing an "identical" bottling of today and 30 years ago is not really possible.
I am not a chemist, but my guess as to the reason for the very slow or lack of development in a bottle of whisky relative to wine is three-fold: 1) as you mentioned the much higher alcohol content probably plays a role that I don't have the expertise to explain; 2) ageing in the barrel which involves substantial interaction with both wood and oxygen has a relatively dramatic impact on the spirit compared to being in bottle with no wood and little oxygen; and 3) most reactions have a peak effect followed by ongoing substantially deminishing effects. Since whisky usually spends much more time in the wood than wine, the lions share of these (non-wood, non oxygen) reactions would have already have had close to their maximum effect prior to bottling.
Hey, I took a shot.
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most reactions have a peak effect followed by ongoing substantially deminishing effects. Since whisky usually spends much more time in the wood than wine, the lions share of these (non-wood, non oxygen) reactions would have already have had close to their maximum effect prior to bottling.
My thought exactly. And let's not forget that not all wines improve with age. While a hearty Pinot Noir from Burgundy might be at its best 8-12 years after bottling, a Beaujolais Nouveau is at its peak when it enters the bottle and should be consumed within about 6 months (makes a great spring picnic wine). Whiskey is just a different beast.
Thanks for the info, guys!
"A recent article in Whisky Magazine draws the conclusion that, after extensive periods of time, whisky does change and in fact generally tends to improve in the bottle."
"ageing in the barrel which involves substantial interaction with both wood and oxygen has a relatively dramatic impact on the spirit compared to being in bottle with no wood and little oxygen; and 3) most reactions have a peak effect followed by ongoing substantially deminishing effects. Since whisky usually spends much more time in the wood than wine, the lions share of these (non-wood, non oxygen) reactions would have already have had close to their maximum effect prior to bottling."
Well, the ports I was referring to often spend several years in oak, and don't react with oxygen nearly as quickly, either. It seems like a general concensus in the wine industry anyway that these higher alcohol wines mature much more slowly. Perhaps spirits just take proportionately longer. But until someone can scientifically explain to me othewise, I still can't see why bourbon wouldn't undergo the same chemical reactions. Granted, as Jeff mentioned, the bourbon would have to be high quality with the potential for aging...
At any rate, I do know that I've tasted some old Bourbons that were absolutely magnificient! Beautiful! Even my inexperienced palate could tell they were something truly special. I guess I'll just have to keep taking my chances...
No less an authority than Alexis Lichine says that the process by which wines age in the bottle is still mysterious and not fully explained by science.
However, as I understand the difference between wine and spirits, there is still biological activity going on in wine, bacteria and other microorganisms at work, whereas spirits are biologically "dead" because of the high alcohol content. Fortified wines are like spirits in this regard.
Just to puruse this a bit further, it also seems to me liquor from say a generation ago is "better" than today's on average.
I put this down first and foremost, to the fact bourbons were more traditionally made then. The evidence of distillers themselves is to that effect. In another thread, I referred to an article by a Mr. Thomason in the 60's who worked with Willett's. This article was in one of the official booklets given out at the bourbon festival in Bardstown this past fall. He said that bourbon traditionally was heavier and more full-flavored, and with more bouquet, than was becoming the case with big producers. He gave specific reasons why this was right down for example to mash bills. He said for example that many big companies were trying to get more alcohol from less grain and also were using less barley malt than formerly, which in his view was inimical to a traditional tasting product. Even a bourbon from 30-40 years ago would contain bourbon made 6-10 years or so before that date (before date of sale). So most of that stuff, especially if presented in costly decanter formats, contained the old-type high quality spirit. Now today, we are seeing a resurgence to a degree of that style of bourbon. In the top 5's recently discussed on the board, many fine bourbons were mentioned which I am sure meet Thomason's criteria or close. So this is a production thing unrelated to bottle aging.
A second factor is that probably whiskey ages, for the better, in the bottle as was suggested in that recent article in Whisky Magazine. I am not a chemist either but I am sure that oxidation proceeds in bottles of spirits as it does in other alcoholic drinks. The process just takes a lot longer for whiskey because relatively little air gets in and it is so much higher in alcohol than any wine. There are so many variables here though it is hard to formulate any general rule. A bottle kept in a musty cellar may take on that off-taste, for example. I do agree with Chuck that whiskey is remarkably resilient. I think even where off-flavors exist, they can "lift off" if the bottle is left in a clean environment for a while. (The counterpart in wine is "bottle stink" which also is said to disappear if the bottle is left open in clean air for a time). Chuck you referred once in another thread to having tasted 100 year old bourbon and you said the taste was like a bourbon of today. So that would tend to prove that bourbon doesn't really change in the bottle, or if it does, the changes are not that important relatively speaking.
Most bourbons I have tasted that have been a long time in the bottle have suffered from at least a little bit of oxidation, so even if they were still palatable, they were hard to evaluate compared to a modern product. Part of the question is "how long?" Most plants were rebuilt after prohibition and haven't changed much since then, so post-prohibition whiskey should be pretty consistent. For pre-prohibition whiskey (which includes prohibition-era medicinal whiskey) some of the production differences come into play, in particular proof of distillation, which was generally lower in those days.
Proof, yes, because entry to barrel was traditionally done at about 125 or so - as Wild Turkey still do. But there are so many other factors - the mills used to crush grain were different, grain strains were, mash bills were. Then too, yeasts must have had their own peculiarities because the atmosphere was different. This is one of those forever elusive things, because even those fortunate enough to sample from an old bottle (say from 1915) don't know for sure if what they are tasting has changed. Usually, reports I have read of such tastings point to something "different", the product is recognisably bourbon (or rye in that case) but still different. Is the difference oxidation? Some other variable such as better grains or a more traditional production method? Did they use the same kind of corn then as now, the same strain? We can guess but never really know for sure..
Beside the usual suspects (oxydation/evaporation), pay attention to the bottle's position in the cabinet. If stored on its side, the whiskey will be in contact with the cork and it will have a profound (negative) influence on the flavor as we discovered during our tasting of an old L & G bottle at Labrot/Graham distillery last Sept.
Omar I know! I was bumming about that L & G too, because from what I could get out of it besides "cork stank", that was some pretty good bourbon that got ruined.
Cork taint can definitely affect older whiskey. I have a bottle of Park Lane Canadian rye from the 50's closed with a stopper cork and the cork deteriorated and affected the taste of the whisky.
I don't think though this is an issue with all old/older bottlings, whether cork closed or not.
Once I had some Crown Royal sold in the 1940's and I and other experienced tasters, able of course to test it against the same brand today, were agreed the oldie was superior.
It was heavier-bodied with more straight rye character than today's version.
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