When it comes to the age of spirits, it’s commonly accepted – most folks think older is better. This concept is reinforced by producers who release old, rare products for premium dollars and bartenders who tout the merits of aged spirits over younger ones.
But is older always better when it comes to spirits?
First of all, understand that once a spirit is bottled, it really doesn’t change and will keep indefinitely if stored in a cool, dry space. Any talk of the age of spirits refers to aging time before bottling.
In order to answer this question, we must examine exactly what goes into an aged spirit and how that benefits it.
Some spirits are caged in oak while others are not. Spirits like whiskey (scotch, rye, bourbon) and brandy (Cognac, Armagnac) see oak barrels. Like wine, the oak here not only mellows harshness, but adds flavouring agents such as toast, vanilla, caramel and spice.
However, certain things play a huge role in the effect the oak has on the spirit. Five key points that make a difference are the type of oak utilized, the age of the oak, how it is treated, the climate the barrel is stored in and how long the spirit spends in it.
When it comes to type of oak, American has wider pores providing more vanillas, tannins and spice. European oak has tighter pores, delivering a much more delicate flavour.
Aging spirits in one or the other can drastically alter the taste. New oak provides much more flavour in a shorter time frame, as in the case of bourbon. Older oak delivers less effect and spirits need longer aging times to draw out flavours.
Such is the case with Scotch whiskey. Often bourbon producers will pass older barrels onto the Scotch industry for this purpose. Toasting the barrel on the inside to a different intensity will alter the resulting spirit’s flavour as well.
Climate is a huge factor in how the spirit in a barrel is affected – it’s all about evaporation. In a dry climate evaporation happens quicker, resulting in quicker concentration, as in bourbon. In a humid climate, such as Scotland, it’s the opposite. Evaporation and flavour transfer, as well as concentration, are slower.
Finally, amount of time spent in oak can extensively mold the final flavour. Too much time in a barrel, especially a new barrel, can render an over-oaky flavour with little spirit complexity.
So what is the optimal time for aging a spirit that sees oak? Nothing is written in stone here and it’s certainly a matter of personal taste. In fact, I’ve tasted some three- and four-year-old oak-treated spirits that have been absolutely delightful. General consensus, though, is a rye-based spirit is probably best at eight to 12 years of age, bourbon (mostly corn-based) at six to 10 years, Scotch around 18 to 20 years and brandies like Cognac and Armagnac at around six to 12 years.
What about spirits like gin and vodka that don’t generally require a barrel to add flavour? Their flavour profile could be said to be purer as there is no extraneous influencing component. Certainly some producers create specialty or vintage bottlings of these at premium prices, but realistically, it probably will not make that much of a difference. They are most likely best when younger and lively.
Age of spirits is definitely a matter of personal taste, and exactly how a specific spirit is produced plays a huge role in its evolution. This whole ‘age concept’ when it comes to spirits is a big marketing tool that can dig pretty deeply into one’s wallet.
Just remember, older isn’t always better. Keep this in mind, if buying your Valentine a spirited love potion this year.
Edward Finstein a.k.a. The Wine Doctor — wine writer, educator, judge, consultant
My award-winning, comic wine mystery novel Pinot Envy is now available online, at selected bookstores or through my office.
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