View Full Version : Aging...Back to the Future

03-17-2000, 22:09
Hello - New to the board and new to the love of fine spirit's - A little help please.
My grandfather had the forethought to place a couple of bottles of bourbon, whisky, and scotch in storage for his son to enjoy - Well, my dad never took to alcohol - In fact he only had one drink in his life - My JACKPOT - I have several bottles each of inexpensive as well as fine spirits left to me from the early 50's - They are Exquisite!! Even the cheaper brands (Ancient Age ect.), are smooth and full-bodied
My Question is… what is the proper way for me to start aging some of the bottles I buy today? The bottles my grandfather bought all had cork to seal them like wine. But even the finer bottles today are sealed with plastic tops with cork inserts. I'm hooked on these older aged spirits, they're so smooth - I want to start putting some back for myself and my grandchildren in years to come - Even the 21,23, & 25 year vintages that I've sampled recently have a distinct "bite", which is absent in my stock - I've purchaced them anyway hoping they can mellow with a few more years under their belt - But I've read that once bottled, if it can not breath, such as wine, no aging will occur - Makes sense - Is this true? And any Suggestions?!?

03-18-2000, 09:57
Even a bottle with a cork can allow oxidation and evaporation over time, although the potential for this is greater with a screwcap. There are many fine bourbons on the shelf that now come with a cork, as opposed to a screwcap with a liner, you need to get out more...;^)

WRT to archiving, the prevailing notion seems to be that irrespective of whether you have a screwcap or a corked bottle, the best way to slow down the loss is to dip the entire neck of the bottle in parrafin or sealing wax like the Maker's Mark bottles you see in the store. I have also heard of people using that vinyl dip that's made for the handles of pliers too. I would also think you could use a shrink-tubing of appropriate diameter too. The idea is to completely seal off the openings either on the metal or plastic band of the screw cap, or the neck capsule of a corked bottle. Some corked bottles are sealed with wax from the distillery, but come with a zip strip that may allow air to enter over time. Another layer of wax which completely covers this coating should do the trick (probably overkill). Also, any of these alterations will probably decrease the collector's value at an auction, but will delight your progeny from a consumption perspective.

The reason the older 21, 23, 25yr spirits may have "bite" is because they have spent that many years in wood as opposed to glass. Once bottled, the whiskey will not "age". A 40 year old bottle of 3yr spirit is still a 3yr old whiskey. The whiskey *will* change over time if the bottle is opened, due to the effects of oxidation and evaporation. Sometimes this will improve the spirit, sometimes it is deleterious. It all depends on the whiskey and the storage conditions. I've found with many whisk(e)ys, they need to "breathe" to fully develop and reveal all their character, just like wines. I've also found that the storage conditions for whisk(e)y should be like those for wines. Cool and dark with no exposure to direct sunlight. IMHO, it's better to open the bottle fewer times and remove more volume each time that it is to peck away a shot or two at a time. Unless, of course, you peck it away pretty fast.

Hope you find this useful,

03-18-2000, 12:13
YHO means a lot to this virgin - The corks I referred too are not the liner type, but even today's best cork stop are not the tight sealing "wine" type of yesteryear - Another couple of questions, if I may impose - Will more "headspace" in a bottle effect the speed the spirit "ages"?

AND do any of the current distillers make a smaller cask for retail purchase? By smaller I mean 10-20 gallon/liter sizes.

03-18-2000, 14:19
This is in reply both to this and to your original post. First, no, you cannot buy whiskey in the cask for further aging at home. Whiskey--at least in the USA--can only be sold in bottles, by law. Why? It mostly has to do with control, and most of that has to do with collecting taxes, but as a practical matter the answer is, no, you can't have whiskey delivered to you in the barrel unless you happen to own a licensed whiskey warehouse.

As for your original question about "aging" bottles of whiskey for future use, you have to understand that fermented beverages (wine/beer) and distilled beverages (whiskey and other spirits) are completely different in this regard. The "aging" processes are so completely different, in fact, that we really should use different terms, but we don't and hence the common confusion.

Most wines and some beers continue to age after bottling because they are still biologically active. The biological activity that continues after bottling is why certain wines improve with bottle age, though only up to a point. Some beers bottle age, or "condition," in this same way, due to continuing biological activity. Spirits do not. The nature of the distillation process terminates all biological activity. The "aging" that occurs in the barrels is strictly the infusion of sugars and other substances from the wood into the spirit. That is a time-related activity--the longer the whiskey is in wood, the more of those substances it absorbs--but it is not active biologically. Most wines and some beer are barrel aged as well, for the qualities provided by the oak, though typically not for the years that whiskies are aged. The other difference with bourbon is that it is aged exclusively in new barrels that have been deeply charred on the inside.

The basic rule is that whiskey does not change in the bottle, period, assuming that the bottle is well sealed. Everything Bushido said is correct, though in general if whiskey does change in the bottle, through oxidation typically, it isn't for the better. To get to the point, there is no reason to "lay down" bottles of whiskey for future use unless there is a particular brand or type that is becoming unavailable and you want to stock up on it. In that case, precautions like Bushido suggested might be appropriate to prevent evaporation and oxidation. What you are doing, however, is making sure the whiskey stays exactly the as it is. You are not improving it.

So why does the whiskey your grandfather put down for you taste so good? Partially because you expected it would, but it is also very possible that the whiskey was made better at that time, that longer aged whiskey was being used even for standard brands, etc. That is a very real possibility. I have tasted 100 year old bourbon, i.e., whiskey that was in the bottle for 100 years, and it tasted a little different than modern brands, not because it changed in the bottle, but because there were some differences in the way it was made that made it taste different.

I hope this information is helpful and not too disappointing.

--Chuck Cowdery (http://cowdery.home.netcom.com)

03-18-2000, 21:35
Thank you Chuck - Excellent 101 on the craft

I have done a tasting of one of the older bottles vs. it's newer vintage - "Ancient Age" - Even as a novice, I tasted a much smoother, milder 'heat' and more caramel flavor in the older stock - This may be, as you say, due to the blending of that time - As a result of this recent "inheritance", I'm planning a road trip this summer to visit some of the distillers of West Virginia - I'd like to learn more about what I'm sure will be a lifetime love. (My wife is less than enthused)

I am disappointed that smaller casks are not available - I've read some of the other post's on this board; and also talking to some of my friends, it seems that this is a growing wish of many consumers - Too Bad - This, if marketed correctly, would be a great boon to the industry and to those who enjoy fine spirits - Is there any hope of this on the horizon, or would it take an armed uprising and act of congress to change the tax laws??

On a side note - KUDO'S to the wonderful people here willing to share their knowledge with the unenlightened - This is an Excellent board - The internet is supposed to be about learning and the exchange of ideas, this board exemplifies that forgotten dream

03-19-2000, 17:44
If you are going to look for distilleries in West Virginia you may get your wish about buying whiskey to age. There are no legal distilleries in West Virginia, but plenty of moonshiners. They will be glad to sell you anything you want, although I can't vouch for the quality.

If you want to visit distilleries, you pretty much have to go to Kentucky or Tennessee.

Actually, back on the subject of "home aging" whiskey in barrels, if one wanted to try one's hand at barrel aging, one could buy or build a small barrel, char it, fill it with cheap, young bourbon, and monitor the changes as it ages. There would be nothing illegal about such an experiment and the effect would be pretty much the same as what you were hoping to find for purchase.

--Chuck Cowdery (http://cowdery.home.netcom.com)

03-20-2000, 11:28
Anybody need any slightly used barrels. I've got plenty. $35.00 each.
Chuck, sounds like a good idea. You could put the barrel in your attic for a few years, then "rotate" it to your basement for a few, then bottle it up for the family.

03-21-2000, 08:36
Speaking of home aging, here's something I've been pondering:

It seems to me that you could get more "aging" if the bourbon/wood surface area is increased. Why don't people drop in a few extra boards into barrels? I've heard mention of throwing in wood chips, but only among moonshiners. The only thing wrong with this that I can think of is that perhaps the wood needs air on the other side to age the bourbon properly.

If wood chips would work, then home aging would be much easier, as it wouldn't require an entire barrel. It could be done in small containers with varying amounts of different types of chips.


03-21-2000, 09:49
In the whiskey industry, the ways to accelerate aging are barrel rotation and warehouse temperature control. When you think about it, the Tennessee practice of running the spirit through 10 feet of charcoal is a little like your wood chips idea. I know at least one person personally who swears by the practice for his home made hooch and I have heard that mooshiners use it as well. In fact, they use it instead of barrel aging, aging the spirit in glass or steel containers with wood chips thrown in to simulate barrel aging. You can also imagine a barrel with perforated wooden inserts that would provide more wood contact.

As a practical matter, for commercial distilleries at least, the old fashioned way works just fine. For one thing, it is not so much the contact with the surface of the wood as it is the expansion of the spirit into the wood when temperature is warm, followed by the contraction of the spirit when the temperature is cool, which brings the goodies out of the wood into the spirit, hence the idea of manipulating the warehouse temperature. The "goodies" (wood sugars and other substances) are in a layer just below the char. The spirit passing through the char is also supposed to remove some of the bad cogeners in the spirit.

Part of the reason there is not much incentive to change is that no one really knows exactly why the process gets the results it does, it just does.

--Chuck Cowdery (http://cowdery.home.netcom.com)

03-21-2000, 11:05
> Part of the reason there is not much incentive to change is that no one really knows exactly why the process gets the results it does, it just does.

Chuck, with due respect to all the fine chemical engineers and scientists, from Dr. Crow himself all the way up to the latest new-hire in the Buffalo Trace labs, what you've said in that sentence is the very essence of all bourbon-making. Always has been, always will be. And that's the reason why I love it so much. Pappy "No Chemists Allowed" Van Winkle would have agreed wholeheartedly.

-John Lipman-

03-21-2000, 13:49
What about using smaller barrels? Why is the traditional barrel the size it is? I think that smaller barrels would give you more filtering and more "goodies" (I like the way you put that) per gallon of bourbon, which would lead to a different character in the bourbon.

I also wonder about the feasability of chopping up large barrels and somehow making smaller barrels out of them for home use. I'd think that it would actually be somewhat difficult, but I think they'd sell fairly well. I'd certainly like to have a half dozen myself.


03-21-2000, 16:22
I thought about purchasing a barrel <font color=blue>($35.00 is a deal thanks jvanwinkle)</font color=blue> but just to fill it half way with a relatively inexpensive bourbon would break my bank account - I'm searching to find a smaller cask now but I've already talked to my father-in-law about making me some - He's carpenter and said it would be no problem (The man built his own 35' boat) -
Questions AGAIN

Since anything I buy will already have been aged 4 years and colored;
1. Should I char the inside again?
if not should any "treatment" be done?

2. If Uncle Sam should ever come to the door,
how can I prove I'm not a "sour masher"/wwwthreads/images/wink.gif
Showing the empty bottles just proves I'm a serious
alcoholic waiting to bottle my private brew

03-22-2000, 10:27
I have read somewhere (can't seem to find just where at the moment), that another contribution of the barrels is their ability to 'breathe' and allow small amounts of air, and thus oxygen, in over time. The oxygen can react with the congeners to help smooth out the taste. This is one possible explanation of why it is commonly thought that Scotch benefits from long aging (10 to 20 years) even though it is in used cooperage. I personally find bourbons aged for more than 10 years to have more smoothness (Elijah Craig for example) but have too strong of a char flavoring to be considered 'balanced' (but enjoyable, none the less).

I would tend to agree from my tasting experience that there is more than one process underway during barrel aging: Leaching of flavors from the wood, the filtration of the char layer, and a mellowing of congeners over time (perhaps by oxidation). Throwing wood chips in a bottle would only simulate one of these processes, and certainly the leaching would be slower without the temperature cycling of the container.

I have seen in several sources that barrels age differently in different parts of a warehouse due to differences in temperature and HUMIDITY. The difference that storage temperature (more correctly temperature swings) makes on an aging whiskey is easy to understand. Why would humidity make a difference?

Mark A. Mason, El Dorado, Arkansas

03-22-2000, 17:56
I found a place on the web that makes small barrels, although they're a little more expensive than I thought they'd be. www.whisky2000.co.uk sells 750 mL and 1 L "barrels" for about $129.00, and if I've read the website correctly, they use wood from barrels that formerly held scotch. They also sell full sized barrels (which they will re-char for you), but they're a little pricey, too.


03-22-2000, 22:37
> I have seen in several sources that barrels age differently in different
> parts of a warehouse due to differences in temperature and HUMIDITY. The
> difference that storage temperature (more correctly temperature swings) makes
> on an aging whiskey is easy to understand. Why would humidity make a
> difference?

According to The Book of Bourbon, this affects how much alcohol you have in the final product. Over the course of aging, some of the whiskey evaporates (the "angel's share"). If the humidity is low, water will be lost -- which is fine since the expensive part of the product is the alcohol (and water can always be added later of the proof remains too high). However, if the humidity is high, alcohol can be lost (e.g., in Scotland, Scotch ends up at a lower proof after aging).

Ultimately, I guess you would not want to lose too much water OR too much alcohol because altering the product after aging (e.g., through adding water) has it's limits (adding too much water lead to watered-down whiskey). Thus keeping the right humidity (to maintain a balance) would be important.



03-23-2000, 10:28
Jerry Dalton is one of the few Master Distillers who is also a Ph.d. Chemist (Jerry was at Barton, anyone know if he still is?) and he would be the first to agree that much of bourbon making is still a mystery. He says some of the substances that give bourbon its character, and which the taste buds can perceive, are present in so few parts-per-billion that they can't be measured by the available technology. The way he puts it is that it takes a seasoned distillery hand to say something like "the bubbles aren't breaking right," then he goes in with his instruments and, sure enough, something is wrong.

- chuck

--Chuck Cowdery (http://cowdery.home.netcom.com)

03-23-2000, 11:03
Re the revenoors, they're looking for stills. If you aren't operating a still, they won't come looking for you and there is nothing they can do if they stumble upon you. There is no law that says you can't store whiskey in a barrel or a plastic bag or a Samsonite suitcase or anything else. If you want to buy some bourbon and extra-age it at home, that is perfectly legal (assuming you are of legal drinking age).

Re barrels, a proper barrel for aging whiskey, regardless of its size, must be made without any nails, glue or anything else, just wood (preferably white oak) held together with metal hoops. And the wood needs to be properly dried, either air or kiln. Knocking down an existing bourbon barrel would be a good way to get the right kind of lumber, although it would take a lot of reworking to get it down to a smaller size, the shapes of the staves being rather specific to the standard barrel size.

Like bourbon-making, modern barrel making is an interesting combination of machine and handwork. The skilled artisan is still essential and even in a commercial cooperage, you will find a wide range in barrel making skills. Some guys will be able to make twice as many barrels per hour as others (and twice as much money, as a result).

Another source for small barrels might be the commercial cooperages, Bluegrass Cooperage in Louisville (owned by Brown-Forman) and Independent Stave in Lebanon, Kentucky. Those are the two companies that make barrels for all of the distilleries. They might not be able to do it, though, because all of their equipment is set up for the standard size barrels.

Why a standard size? Remember that in the 18th-19th century, a lot more than whiskey was stored and shipped in barrels. Everything from fish to nails. In fact, it is believed that charring started as a way to rid a used barrel (used for fish, for example) of the evidence of its former contents, both for aesthetic and health reasons. Then people discovered that whiskey stored for a time in charred barrels tasted better than whiskey stored in un-charred barrels.

So why a standard size? So warehouses can have standard size ricks, so cooperages can have standard size equipment, so railroad cars and steamship cargo holds can have standard dimensions. Why this particular 55 gallon size for whiskey? My guess is that it was the largest size (when full, it weighs about 500 pounds) that one or two men could realistically handle, moving them (by rolling) into and out of the warehouse, etc.

For a good book about cooperage, look for The Cooper and his Trade by Kenneth Kilby.

Finally, about re-charring, it might be desirable but not possible. A barrel with a #4 char is at the maximum the wood can sustain. Char it any deeper and the barrel won't have enough strength to hold together. Most distilleries specify #3, #3.5 or #4, so in most cases, there isn't much left. Remember too that a used barrel will still have some of the characteristics of the whiskey stored in it originally. That isn't necessarily a bad thing. It might be a very good thing, but it's another factor to the experiment.

As for used barrels, Julian wasn't kidding. They are cheap, especially right at the distillery. Remember that a barrel can only be used once for bourbon, so all the distilleries have tons of barrels they need to get rid of. People in Kentucky make furniture out of them and it seems that just about everybody in Kentucky has a half-barrel planter (I did when I lived there). Barrels cost about $100 new and if the distilleries can get $30 for them used, they're grateful. Most of them are knocked down and shipped to Canada, Ireland or Scotland, where they are reassembled. The used cooperage those countries use for their native whiskeys is almost always used bourbon barrels.

--Chuck Cowdery (http://cowdery.home.netcom.com)

03-23-2000, 11:48
Chuck, Just found out last week that Jerry Dalton is now at the Beam facility in Clermont.
(since John has gotten me into Collecting American Whiskey with him I figured that I might as well join the forum!) I'll mostly be lurking and enjoying the discussions!


03-23-2000, 18:26
> Jerry Dalton is one of the few Master Distillers who is also a Ph.d. Chemist (Jerry was at Barton, anyone know if he still is?)

Would you believe?... Jerry is now the master distiller at Jim Beam's Clermont plant.

-John Lipman-

03-23-2000, 18:30
Whoops! Guess that'll teach me to read the forum messages before answering directly from my email :-)

Hi honey! (psst! we're gonna have to stop meeting like this; I think your husband is starting to suspect something)

-John Lipman-

03-25-2000, 15:08
That is great news for all concerned. Did you meet him? Jerry is a great guy.

--Chuck Cowdery (http://cowdery.home.netcom.com)

03-25-2000, 21:29
> That is great news for all concerned.

Why thank you! I thought it was pretty neat myself. I had no idea my wife was also contributing to the forum. She's pretty sharp for someone who doesn't really like bourbon (or any other form of canned corn for that matter), but has tried nearly all of them and can tell one from another as well as anyone I know.

Did you meet him? Jerry is a great guy.

Oh, you meant Jerry! No, I'm sorry to say we didn't meet him. We were given a special tour of the Clermont plant (by a Beam family member whose name I've sworn never to reveal) and he told us that Jerry has recently taken the position. I certainly agree with you that it is a majorly positive thing for both Jerry and the Jim Beam company. Maybe next time we get to Bardstown we can get a chance to speak with him. We have met Bill Friel, with whom Jerry ran the bourbon still at Barton Brands for so many years.

-John Lipman-

04-05-2000, 10:10
I found Bushido's comments on what happens after a bourbon bottle is opened (oxidation/evaporation) intriguing. It has left me with some questions.

I am new to bourbon and am starting to build a collection (to drink, not display). I have about 17 bottles of various bourbons I've purchased recently and I'd like to taste several over a short period of time (say a weekend.) But I do not drink so much -- so for now, I have opened only two or three bottles and am waiting till they are almost gone before moving on to try something new in my modest collection. I'm afraid if I do a mass tasting, several bottles will stay untouched for months and may oxidize. Unfortunately, many of the bourbons I'm purchasing aren't sold in miniatures or 375 ml size, so I have a buy the full 750 size which takes longer to consume. Is there a general guideline (perhaps by distillery or bottling) which indicates how much of a shelf life the product has once opened? Are we talking 6 months, one year, two?
Thanks for your thoughts.

Omar (bourbonmed)

04-05-2000, 17:05
If I have a bottle of something special, I have a bad habit of leaving about one-drink-worth in the bottom of the bottle. It is a bad habit because I am just begging for oxidation damage. Better just to finish it off. That said, though, I have never polished off a bottle to discover I had waited too long. It has happened to me in bars, but never at home.

However, there is no great urgency to this. It depends on how sensitive your palate is, but you can probably measure the time in years, rather than months. A full bottle, well sealed, will last virtually forever.

A personal example. A friend gave me a bottle of Very Very Old Fitzgerald--100 proof, distilled in 1963, bottled in 1976--in June of 1996. Yes, a very good friend. I couldn't resist trying it, so I probably broke the seal within a few months. I have had one or two drinks from it since, but the bottle is still about half full. It occurred to me just last night that I really need to either drink it or transfer it to a smaller bottle. (Drinking pretty much won that argument.) I then poured a snifter-full and drank it. The whiskey is still fine. "Fine," in fact, doesn't even begin to express what it is. It is wonderful. The point is, it hasn't suffered noticeably and the bottle has been open for more than three years. I don't want to press my luck, so I probably will finish it soon, but that gives you a benchmark.

There is no reason one distillery's product should be affected more or less than any other by oxidation. Remember, the spirit is exposed to plenty of oxygen while it is aging. Keep your caps tight and drink up when the level gets down to the last drink or two, and you should be okay.

If you are concerned, you can transfer the whiskey into progressively smaller bottles as you drink it. The key is a good seal, so you only have the small amount of oxygen that is already in the bottle to worry about.

If you want to see what oxidation is all about, leave a small amount of whiskey on the counter in an uncovered glass for a day or more, then taste it. It isn't necessarily horrible, but it definitely damages the taste.

--Chuck Cowdery (http://cowdery.home.netcom.com)

04-07-2000, 08:53
So Chuck gets this fabulous bottle of bourbon and says: "I couldn't resist, so I probably opened it within a few months." A few months? What is *that* all about? I have a friend with a really good collection of single malts, and I couldn't believe he had a number of unopened bottles. Why buy whiskey and not taste it? Especially something you know is going to be amazing. Is this part of the treat, building up lots of anticipation? Sheesh. My curiosity would get the better of me, if nothing else. Crack that cap and let's see what comes out!

--Jeff Frane

04-07-2000, 10:03
In my defense, the gift of the VVO Fitz was on the occasion of my graduation from law school. Everyone knows I enjoy fine spirits, so a lot of my gifts were along those lines. The VVO Fitz was merely the most distinguished. I don't recall exactly how long it was before I cracked the seal, but it was no more than a couple of months. It may have been a couple of days. In other words, I totally agree with you and don't understand the appeal of collecting unopened bottles with no particular intention to ever open them. As far as I'm concerned, whiskey don't keep.

--Chuck Cowdery (http://cowdery.home.netcom.com)

04-08-2000, 08:29
Don't forget guys, you can't take it with you-so ENJOY!.
Chuck, I'm very envious of you having that bottle of VV Old Fitz that my father made in the 60's. NOBODY makes whiskey like that anymore.

04-08-2000, 13:21
It is a delight and I am savoring every drop.

BTW, I got your sister's book today and it looks terrific. More after I have had a chance to read it. My kudos to both of you for embracing your legacy and keeping the spirit alive.

--Chuck Cowdery (http://cowdery.home.netcom.com)

04-08-2000, 16:24
Yes, let me add a plug in here, too. Linda bought me (us) a copy of the book (But Always Fine Bourbon - Pappy Van Winkle & the Story of Old Fitzgerald) for Christmas. She couldn't find it anywhere and ended up locating the publisher and calling them on the phone. Sally Campbell (Julian's sister) autographed the book for us, and when we went to visit Julian in February, he did, too. It really is an impressive work, and she can be very proud of it. The book itself, aside from the contents, is a work of art. Obviously, no expense was spared to produce an impressive work. The paper, the binding, the multiple stock used, everything about this book just screams "quality". And the contents are no less impressive. We have a lot of bourbon-oriented books in our collection, but none give this kind of perspective. When you read a book (or at least when I do) you imagine someone is speaking to you. In this book, the "someone" is a little girl, telling her fifth or sixth grade class about her summer visiting at her grampa's company plant. I'd sure love if my own grandaughter would be able to write a book like that. Pappy would be really proud to read this book. By the way, sentiment aside, the fully adult Sally Campbell has taken care to put plenty of real information into this book, so it's not just a bunch of sentimental "stuff". It belongs in ANY serious collector's library.

-John Lipman-

04-10-2000, 20:24
I can understand not cracking open a good bottle immediately. For example, I received a bottle of Pappy's 20 Year Reserve for Christmas, and I still haven't opened it -- I feel like I should wait for a special occasion or something, especially since I have a couple of other bottles of great stuff to go through right now (Woodford Reserve and Buffalo Trace).

Oh well... with finals over in a few weeks, I may have to open that bottle up, especially after my Property exam (those of you who went through law school know what I'm talking about....for the rest of you, imagine algebra/calculus word problems without equations to work with).

Good drinking all,