So I’ve been asked “What is the sweet spot in age for bourbon?”
The answer always goes the same way. “The right age whiskey is the whiskey you enjoy. If you like it young, than that’s the right one. If you like it old, than that’s right for you.”
It’s like answering the question, “Who’s the best artist in the museum” or “What’s the best food on the menu?” The truth is that the best is relative. You have to develop your palate and determine which you prefer. The more you’re exposed to, the better your own understanding will be of those preferences. What I can tell you is there are reasons that your bourbon tastes the way it does. Knowing how age affects your whiskey is the first step to knowing which ones to sample next. That, and knowing that price has very little bearing on flavor.
First- All whiskey is as clear as water when it comes off of the still. All white whiskeys (“white” is just another way to say it has not been aged) have different characteristics and those traits tend to morph and change as they age in the barrel. It is the barrel that makes whiskey amber colored and contributes about 70% of the flavors that you taste in your bourbon.
Second- The barrel is charred on the inside and that char affects how the distillate (white whiskey) ages. There are 4 different levels of char- 1 through 4, with four, the “alligator char”, being the highest (though experiments have been done, the integrity of the barrel can be compromised if the barrel is fired for too long). The char acts as a filter (think charcoal filter) and the toasted wood beneath is where the caramelized sugars lie that seep into the whiskey and give it immediate sweet flavors. When a whiskey is aged in an average American standard barrel, 53 gallons, it is given a few years to really sit and absorb what the wood has to offer. (Smaller barrel sizes tend to rush the process by allowing for a higher surface to liquid ratio.) A straight whiskey is at least 2 years old, but is usually at least four years old because the bottle must state if it is younger than four years. Many bourbons on the market today that are under $35 tend to be 4 years old or less. Look for that straight designation on the bottle to know that it is a pure product without additives. If it is a bourbon, however, strict rules regulate that nothing can be added to the product.
Third- The longer a whiskey sits in the barrel, the more the oak will affect it. Think of a barrel as a tea bag- the first time it’s used it makes really strong tea. All bourbon is made in brand new barrels and therefore, is very strong tea! (Scotch, in contrast uses reused barrels which diminishes the influence of the oak.) At first, caramel and vanilla flavors infuse into the spirit. Then, over time, molecular changes take place as bonds are broken and created between molecules. This is the process of esterification. (I have written a few logs on the topic.) Suffice it to say that this requires patience and time and is what many consider the “magical” part of the maturation process. The seasons and microclimates within the warehouse affect how much the barrel expands and contracts, drawing the whiskey in and out of the wood like a sponge. So more heat and more temperature fluctuations mean more wood interaction. Sometimes to limit how much the oak interacts with the spirit, the barrels will be stored in the lowest floors of a warehouse to keep them from huge temperature swings.
Fourth- They don’t make barrels like they used to. The barrel shortage has forced cooperages (the places that make barrels) to take shortcuts. A properly seasoned barrel has staves that have aged outdoors for at least a year to let the tannins leach out naturally. Wood must rest before being used. Now, many kiln dry the staves (the boards used to make barrels) and rush the process leaving the tannins trapped in the wood. Where do you think they end up? In your whiskey.
Fifth- Over aging make the whiskey dry, oaky and unbalanced. The job of the distiller and tasters is to determine when the whiskey has reached the most palatable age and has reached its full potential. Think a bottle of wine that has been aging in a cellar that went past its prime. Bourbon is in brand new barrels that give a lot of strong flavors very quickly. It can be overaged. There are barrels that are determined to be too old that the distillery disposes of. They also may sell what they feel does not meet their own standards to another company that then bottles it or blends it for their own purposes.
Most people will tell you that the sweet spot for bourbon is between 8 and 12 years old. I’m not going to do that. I’ll just say that there are reasons that your 20 year old whiskey has a dry mouth feel, your 2 year old bourbon has a young burn, and your 8 year old bourbon has a fruity flavor. The more you know why that’s the case, the easier it will be for you to stock your shelves at home with your favorites!