View Full Version : Do Spirits Age in the Bottle? - Yes!
Okay tonight I bought a fresh bottle from Liquor Control Board of Ontario of Wray & Nephew White Overproof Rum. I am comparing it to a 30 year old bottle of the same brand which I bought in Jamaica in 1975. The oldie was stored in a cabinet in my home, half-full, well-sealed with its tin cap, and hadn't been tasted in many, many years.
The label graphics and information are almost exactly the same on both bottles. The only differences are the current bottle states the alcohol by volume (63%), omits the term "W.I." after Jamaica (West Indies) and is closed with a modern plastic twist cap. Otherwise the labels, down to the colours, are identical.
When I opened the new bottle a strong feinty smell rose from the lip of the bottle, EXACTLY as I recalled it from 30 years ago. It is a strong congeneric taste but not unpleasant. It reminds me of that hill country moonshine someone slipped me at the last Gazebo, that "wildflowers" smell that some grappas have, too. And it tastes like that, rich and spicy.
The bottle which sat 30 years in my house does not taste like that at all: it did 30 years ago but not now. The congeners are gone. The liquor is strong from the alcohol but smooth, like a good rectified white rum. It tastes, say, like a stronger version of Bacardi White Rum.
Clearly, the congeners disappeared over 30 years. Either they lifted off or more likely were converted by slow oxidation into innocuous-flavored compounds.
Unquestionably this proves to me that spirits age in the bottle in a manner similar to barrel aging. My memory is not fooling me.
I now believe we need to factor in the effect of oxygen on bourbon and rye kept in bottle a long time.
I now reject the theory that spirits don't change in bottle as a canard.
One thing to consider is that a half-full bottle may have more of an "aging" effect than an unopened one, simply because there is more oxygen that can go to work on the bottle's contents.
I once had a bottle of Isle of Jura 10yo SMS, and it was a bit disappointing. I left it on the shelf, half full, for a couple of months. When I revisited it, I liked it much better.
I've had just the opposite effect. I let a bottle of Wild Turkey 12yr sit 1/4 full for a year, and it lost a good deal of its charm, still good mind you, just not as good as it was when opened. I was crushed, both of the end of the whiskey and the lost flavor. http://www.straightbourbon.com/forums/images/graemlins/cry.gif
I agree that the more air in the bottle, the more (or faster) the changes will take place.
But it is evident to me that most liquors will change in the bottle.
All bottles admit air, this can be seen in many of the photos Doug has been posting where there is a slight dip often in the fill level (e.g. look at the duo of Old Forester he recently put up). This means liquor has gotten out and air gotten in. A bottle is a small container. I believe the air in the neck penetrates through the spirit and if moved (as most will be at some time or other in their history) the effect of the air will be greater. Recall many barrels also have differing head spaces depending on their age. One difference is in a barrel air gets in through the wood pores; in a bottle it gets in through the seal at the top. So the volume and entry points are different. Also of course, the wood will stop exerting any effect (e.g. no more tannin enters the spirit) from time of dumping. But oxygen still will do its work, and of course there is tannin already in the bottle and other compounds from the wood from before, interracting with present and new oxygen entering the bottle.
But certainly the changes will be lesser with a full bottle. And they are slow to occur in any case. Still, some air will get in. I believe in most cases, small but beneficial changes will result. So e.g., take those lovely Yellowstones Doug found - I would think they will taste similar to what they did upon release many years ago but possibly better due to some ongoing maturation. Ditto those Old Foresters and most of those other bottles. I don't think any of them (unless mishandled or badly stored before purchase) will get worse and that is because they were full when purchased. The problem of bottles one-quarter full deteriorating is well known. It occurs because too much air is "going at" the volume in the bottle over too long a period (short as it may seem). But think about it: if a bottle 3/4 empty is liable to such changes over a short time, it stands to reason the contents when full will evolve in taste as well, just over a longer period.
Another reason I say this is that my bottle was tightly closed. I am "famous" in my household for tightly closing bottles and I think 30 years of twisting and turning and lugging heavy bottles too has given me arthritis in my hands but that is another story. http://www.straightbourbon.com/forums/images/graemlins/smile.gif The rum in that bottle did not "oxidise" in conventional terms, it did not that is get that spoiled metallic taste many people have noticed with bottles in which a small amount of spirit is left for a certain time. The rum tastes perfect, it just doesn't taste like Wray Overproof. It tastes like it has been rectified, like a good brand of white rum tastes upon release (soft, mildly fruity). I believe this is simply the effect of air maturation for many years: just as air in a barrel will soften the spirit and change the congeners into esters and other compounds the same thing happens in the bottle, evidently.
This conclusion was reached by the way by Professor J.S. McDowell, a Scots authority on whisky who wrote a book on the subject in the 1960's. He thought that spirits can be "laid away" just as vintage port and some wines are for maturation benefits. He had tasted bottles of the same brand (of whisky) sold some 35 years apart - an experiment not dissimilar to the one I conducted, and concluded bottle age improved the contents. I learned this information in a charming book called "Drinks and Drinking" by the Englishman Frederic Martin. Martin was an old school type, a former army officer with later experience in the drinks trade who knew his subject well. I would think he has passed on by now since the book is from the late 1960's. Martin's comment on McDowell's theory: "Sorry I can't wait".
The good news, for those of you who have bottles not to your taste, is patience will (may) be more than its own reward.
The good news for those who have whiskey which is good or too young is, it may get better. Those bunkers in the bungalows and frame houses of the American heartland can stand as the U.S. equivalent of the deep stone cellars of England (or toney Connecticut or the Hamptons) holding priceless vintages getting better and better.
Chuck Cowdery here has said, "whiskey doesn't keep". Chuck, it does and it doesn't. http://www.straightbourbon.com/forums/images/graemlins/smile.gif
I think you are onto something Gary, otherwise why would a mid or bottom shelf bourbon now find it can hold it's own against a premium bottling 20 years newer, say, and at 4 times the cost. Witness the Mellow Mash of the early 90s I have and anything available today, and given that, I think Dougs Yellowstone shows great promise to be a gem of a bourbon. On the Aside, it seems that your findings and the professor's, while both claim change, have discovered an opposing result,ie, he finds a change for the better, you find a change to the negative.
Bobby, thanks, and for my first post over no. 1600, no better honor than to respond to one of Bobby Cox'.
In fact I don't think I disagreed with Professor McDowell. I think we are saying the same thing. While the congeneric taste disappeared in my rum and (true) congeners give the flavour in drink, I think in my case the process of maturation (maybe hastened by a partly filled bottle) went too far (or too long): it denuded the liquor of most of its taste. But the Scotch liquors he drank hit the sweet spot after 35 years bottle age: this could be because they were much more congeneric to begin with than mine (makes sense with scotch), his bottles were more full than mine over the maturation period, and the cooler Scottish climate aged them more slowly than in my warm centrally heated unit (and mind he was writing in the 1960's when central heating was not common in Britain). So I think we both noticed the same thing but at different points on the bell curve.
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