DOES BOURBON GET BETTER WITH AGE?
DOES BOURBON GET BETTER WITH AGE? YES. TO A POINT.
If you look through all the Barrell Bourbons released over the years, you’ll see a pattern. More accurately, a lack of one. We’re not wedded to a particular age statement.
We’ve released Barrell Bourbons with age statements ranging from five to 15 years. And yes, we’re biased, but we’ll go on record as saying they’re all terrific in different ways.
Still, it’s one of the most common questions we field from fans: What’s the best age for bourbon? And is older always better?
It’s a good question. And, like most things, the answer is a little bit complicated. But here’s what we’ve learned over many years spent up close and personal with some of the world’s greatest whiskey.
For the first few years of its life, bourbon definitely improves with age. New make bourbon isn’t delicious, but six-year-old bourbon certainly can be.
But it’s possible to overdo it. In practice, older whiskey isn’t always better--and that’s particularly true when it comes to bourbon. To understand why, it helps to understand what’s going on inside those charred oak barrels during the aging process.
MATURATION: YOU CAN HAVE TOO MUCH
Bourbon isn’t aged in oak casks just because it’s convenient (or photogenic). In fact, it’s probably better not to think of bourbon casks as simple containers at all. Instead, think of them as a critical ingredient in making bourbon look, smell, and taste the way it does.
Unaged bourbon is fiery and unappealing. But once it goes into the barrel, it starts to extract color, flavor, and aroma from the wood. At the same time, the barrel lets a little bit of oxygen in, kicking off evaporative and oxidative chemical reactions that are equally important in developing a complete bourbon flavor profile. Given enough time, barrels can turn even the funkiest new make into the deliciously rich, spicy, vanilla-scented nectar we all know and love as bourbon whiskey.
But at a certain point, things stop improving and start to devolve. Too much time in the barrel can lead to too much oak character at the expense of sweet, fruity, or tropical flavors. That’s doubly true for bourbon, which usually ages in warm climates where maturation happens more quickly.
“I’ve tasted 30-year-old bourbon, and it tastes like boiled sticks,” says Barrell’s founder Joe Beatrice. “You really lose the flavor of the grains, and the wood takes over.”
One of the most important decisions a master distiller will make is when a bourbon has reached its “sweet spot”--just the right balance between all the different factors. Too young, and a bourbon will taste rough and unfinished. Too old, and it will taste dusty, lifeless, and over-oaked.
Often, the right age is a little younger than you think. Many of the whiskey industry’s most respected distillers have gone on record saying their favorite age for bourbon usually falls somewhere in the six to 12 year range.
Joe’s personal preference? The five to nine year old range, which is when he thinks the balance between oak and grain is just right.
That’s not to say there’s not a time and place for older bourbon. Barrell’s blends of straight bourbon almost always contain a portion of older bourbon, even if the age statement on the barrel is much younger. “We almost always use some 15 to 18 year old whiskey in our blends, even in our five year old blend of straight bourbon whiskeys,” says Joe.
Confused? Remember: The age statement on a whiskey label always refers to the youngest whiskey in the bottle.
Joe says adding a little bit of older whiskey to a younger blend is often the best way to get the most out of each component. “Old bourbon is almost like salt,” says Joe. “It brings out the grains in younger bourbon even more.”
WHAT ABOUT ONCE IT’S IN THE BOTTLE?
The good news for drinkers is that once a bourbon is in the bottle, it doesn’t change much at all. You can expect even open bottles of bourbon to last in good condition for several years.
Over a very long time, especially if there’s not much left in the bottle, you might notice a slight drop in the aromatic intensity of the bourbon--and that effect tends to be more pronounced with older whiskeys.
If you have a few ounces of a special single malt (or the last dregs of your favorite batch of Barrell Bourbon) that you want to preserve, we recommend decanting it into a smaller bottle with less headspace.
But really, if we’ve learned anything from our years in the whiskey industry, it’s this: Whiskey’s made for drinking. Go ahead and finish that special bottle--there’ll be another one waiting to be discovered when it’s done.