Age Is Just a Number

15. 20. 23. Those aren’t the winning numbers from last night’s lottery. Those are the ages of a rather popular bourbon that is harder to find than Waldo at a candy cane convention. You probably know which one I’m talking about. Hint: It rhymes with “happy”, which is exactly the opposite of what you’ll be if you try to hunt a bottle down at a reasonable price.

Those ages are meant to imply that the whiskey in the bottle is better because it has spent over a decade or two in a barrel. Whiskey that’s been in the barrel for 15 years obviously has to be better than something that’s been in the barrel for 14 years, right? And something that’s only been in for 5 years or, say, 6 months, couldn’t even hold a candle to it, right? Here’s a dirty little secret the big guys won’t tell you. Age his hardly more than a number and has much less effect on the taste of the product than most would lead you to believe. In fact it’s entirely possible for a whiskey to spend too much time in the barrel. Age statements on whiskey are pure marketing at its best (and worst).

When new make whiskey enters the barrel, it settles in for a time to pick up both flavor and color from the barrel. The barrels are charred on the inside, which serves two purposes. The charring caramelizes the sugars in the wood, allowing it to impart those familiar caramel, toffee and vanilla notes in the whiskey. It also opens up pathways that make it easier for the liquid to move in and out of the wood. It’s the heating and cooling of the whiskey as the temperature outside the barrel fluctuates that expands and contracts it in and out of the wood, picking up tannins, flavor and color each time.

So many other factors are at play in the aging of the spirit that the duration it has been in the barrel has little bearing on what it actually tastes like. Ever noticed that Scotch tends to be aged longer than other whiskeys? That has everything to do with how Scotland’s climate differs from the United States. The temperature is much cooler on average and doesn’t fluctuate as much. Thus the whiskey does not contract and expand in the barrel as rapidly, which means it takes longer to pick up the flavor from the wood. Compare that to the hot summers and cold winters here in Michigan, where the drastic temperature differences moves the whiskey in and out quickly and quickens the acquisition of flavor.

Barrel size also has an influence on how quickly a spirit ages. The smaller the barrel, the greater the percentage of spirit in relation to the surface area. This greater percentage of spirit in contact with the wood helps speed up the aging process. That’s why we predominantly use 15 gallon barrels (and 5 gallon barrels for Silver Cross). As a young distillery without years and years of whiskey in storage, we have to find ways age our whiskeys to the right flavor profile quickly. The big distilleries use 53 gallon barrels, which age the whiskey more slowly.

Those aren’t the only factors at work but I’ll spare you even more whiskey geek talk. What does this all mean? The same whiskey is going to age much more slowly in a 53 gallon barrel in a climate that doesn’t see much temperature fluctuation than it would in a 15 gallon barrel in a climate with wild temperature swings. There’s no simple, easy way to translate all these factors into a simple number that means the same thing across the board.

And have you ever heard of the law of diminishing returns? It’s an economics term that explains the decrease in the marginal output of a process as a single factor is incrementally increased. Applied to whiskey it means that each year in the barrel produces smaller and smaller flavor changes. Let’s pretend there’s a Whiskey Flavor Unit (WFU). In year one, the whiskey may acquire 10 WFU’s from the barrel. In year two it might only get 6 WFU’s. By year three it’s down to 4 and year four it only picks up 2. Thus a whiskey aged 15 years does not have 15 times more mythical WFUs than one aged 1 year.

Not to mention that it is entirely possible for a whiskey to age for too long in the wood. There’s a point where the charred wood overpowers everything else and it starts tasting like sawdust water. You could save a lot of money just drinking sawdust water instead.

I’ll go into further detail about how age statements became a driving factor in the perception of quality another time. For now, grab yourself a bottle of Silver Cross (aged on average six months in 5 gallon barrels) and pour yourself a couple fingers of the spirit Distiller rated two points higher than Pappy 15 and 23.

Cheers!

Nick Yoder

Marketing/Distiller

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3 Comments

  1. Shane Adamczyk
    Posted July 21, 2015 at 9:49 pm | Permalink

    I was introduced to journeyman a few years back. Since that time, I have tried over 25 different single barrel and small distillery whiskeys. And compared to the longer aged. As mentioned above. I have not found but a few single barrel 5 years that compare to journeyman ravens rye. It is still my goto drink when I want to sit back and enjoy a great glass of flavor. Thank you for the knowledge on how whiskey gets its flavor from a barrel.

  2. Posted July 26, 2015 at 10:33 pm | Permalink

    Hey guys! Love the products, the brand, the distillery, but this blog post…eh, not so much. We, as the collective producers, peddlers, bartenders/consultants who will shape the current and future state of imbibing, have a responsibility to deliver honest and correct information to a public more interested than ever in transparency and fact when it comes to what they are consuming.
    My main beef with this post regards your use of the term “aging.” Barrel aging is a complex and still not well understood process of reactions that take place among the spirit, the barrel, and the surrounding environment. My issue is that you seem to imply that aging refers only to the extraction of oak compounds into the barreled spirit. While this is certainly the largest contributing factor to the flavor of the finished spirit, there are so many more processes occurring in the aging period.
    Take for example the process of esterification in which aldehydes become acids and in the presence of a large concentration of ethanol are gradually transformed to esters. This process takes time.
    Or ethanol-water clustering, in which the non-polar ends of the ethanol molecule group together in the center while the polar ends attract water molecules, lessening the perception of ethanol and contributing to the “smoothness” we so often hear attributed to well-aged spirits. This process also takes time.
    I am so glad you pointed out the quite-right assessment that a longer aged spirit does not equate to a better spirit and that in certain climates barrel-aged spirits can certainly become over-extracted (the “orphan barrel” series of spirits aged 20 years and up fetching a ludicrous price for an extremely subpar whiskey, IMHO, is a perfect example.). But there is a much larger story to tell here and I fear parts of this post could fuel the abundance of misinformation that the internet is wading in right now.
    I love you guys and wish you nothing but success, however it is you personally define that, and it is that respect that made me have to call out something that didn’t seem quite right.
    Wishing all the best to you and yours and looking forward to the followup on this piece.

    Respectfully Submitted,
    Noah Roberts
    Owner-Operator of oddbird labs

    • Posted August 10, 2015 at 5:23 pm | Permalink

      Noah,

      There definitely is more to it than just the extraction of oak, but for the sake of brevity that was the main process looked at here. Perhaps a deeper dive into the other aspects is in line, but the main point of this post was to point out that the age statement does not tell the entire story.

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