If there’s been one central theme to every major whiskey story of the last decade, it has been age: The rare Pappy Van Winkle 23 so coveted that an actual heist occurred, the absurdly old 72-year-old Macallan release, thinly stretched bourbon makers who dropped numbers from their bottles so they could use younger whiskeys to meet demand. The age statement of a whiskey is, in popular culture, a simple quality marker, with an even simpler rule of thumb: Older is generally better.
But the rule—and the age statement in general—are both painfully generalized, simplified ways of informing the average drinker quickly of what he or she is buying.
The truth is that age statements aren’t nearly as simple as they seem, that most whiskey drinkers might not fully understand what that number means, and that worrying too much about numbers makes you likely to miss some incredible bottles.
Here’s what you need to know.
What Is Aging?
One of the things that makes whiskey whiskey, legally speaking, is contact with wood. Contact with wood is how age is determined, so a flash “aged” whiskey that was in contact with wood for a few seconds still qualifies as whiskey in the U.S., but not straight whiskey. And other styles of whiskey like bourbon, Irish, Scotch, Canadian, and Japanese all have their own rules.
For instance, bourbon must be aged in new, charred oak barrels. Straight bourbon must do so for a minimum of two years. In Scotland, it can’t be labeled “whisky” until it has aged for three years and a day.
But regardless of numbers, the barrel is significant because it’s often the No. 1 source of flavor for a whiskey by the time it’s bottled. Whiskey penetrates the wood fibers, breaks down compounds like wood sugars, and then pulls them out of the wood into the whiskey. Temperature plays a major part in this: When wood gets warm, it expands, letting more liquid in. When it gets cold, it contracts, pushing whiskey (and color, sugars, and other flavors) back into the liquid. It’s very much like steeping tea.
Your Dad’s Bottle of Macallan 12 From 1990 Isn’t 32 Years Old
A few months ago a friend texted with a question. He’d been rummaging through his parents’ liquor cabinet, and came across a dusty bottle of Scotch acquired, from what he could tell, when Bush Sr. was in office. Did he find a bottle of 32-year-old whisky? No, he didn’t.
Whiskey doesn’t keep aging in the bottle. “A whiskey’s age is a reflection of the time from when it is first put in the barrel till when it is dumped,” says Lew Bryson, a whiskey expert and author of Tasting Whiskey: An Insider’s Guide to the Unique Pleasures of the World’s Finest Spirits.
Bryson also explains that the age on the label is a reflection of the youngest ingredient in the final bottle.
“There are probably older whiskeys blended into the mix,” he says, “[so] a whiskey’s age statement is, legally, the age of the youngest whiskey in the bottle, at the time of bottling.”
So if the interaction with wood is where “aging” happens, that means our hypothetical bottle of Macallan has always been 12 years old, even while it sat in a cabinet.
Whiskey doesn’t age in the bottle. In fact, it’s quite inert. Assuming it’s properly stored, whiskey won’t change much itself in the bottle. What change it does see has to do with oxygen exposure, light exposure, and temperature fluctuations—and all of these things are generally bad for it.
The best you can hope for with an old bottle of a 12-year-old whiskey is that it still tastes like a great 12-year-old whiskey.
The Limits of Age Statements
Age statements can also be reductive. Many of the bottles labeled 12 years old could contain a blend of whiskeys aged from 12 to sometimes 15-16 years of age or more, depending on the brand. With the exception of single barrel or single cask whiskeys (a bottle labeled single barrel or single cask can only contain whiskey from one barrel), some bottles are the product of a master blender using a variety of whiskeys to achieve the desired final result.
Master blenders might use older stock to add nuance to younger whiskey, in order to replicate the profile of a whiskey from batch to batch. But the whole process is sort of like trying to mix a new can of custom paint: You may have to use different ingredients the second time.
Making a 12-year-old whiskey is not so easy as just taking a few pallets of 12-year-old whiskey and dumping it into a tank.
Barrels mature differently, and no two are the same. Balvenie Global Ambassador Gemma Paterson emphasizes that even with upwards of 20 million casks in warehouses across Scotland, “every single one as unique as a fingerprint, a snowflake. The art of maturing whisky really is a waiting game that relies on time and patience. Samples have to be drawn from casks on a regular basis and shared with our Malt Master to then determine when that whisky has hit the sweet spot in maturation.”
Beyond Age Statements
There’s a second element to this seemingly tedious process as well: the search for exceptional casks. While some whiskeys are hitting their peak around 12 years of age, others might still have room to grow to get to 18, 21, or even 30 years of age. Some whiskeys can hit staggering ages—70-plus is not unheard of in Scotland, and in Kentucky, you’ll occasionally hear of bourbons over 25.
A lot of people wonder why every barrel isn’t just aged to, say, 23 years of age. It would certainly make Pappy Van Winkle fans happier.
There are a few reasons experts will point out if you ask. No. 1: 23 years of waiting is 23 years of paying taxes without profit. Most shareholders (and all accountants) would consider this a nightmare. You, the consumer, would have to pick up some of that cost, by paying more for their bottles to balance out their cost to produce.
But more importantly, some whiskeys just won’t make it to 23—in fact, most don’t.
Bryson says that if whiskey is left too long in a barrel, a lot of bad things can happen. “A whiskey can completely evaporate, or go all solventy, or get so fragile it ‘collapses’ [loses structure], or [it could] go underproof in the barrel, at which point it’s no longer whiskey,” he says.
Buffalo Trace Master Distiller Harlen Wheatley, who maintains one of the most sought-after ranges of bourbon in the country, says as whiskeys age, “they pick up more of the wood flavor from the barrel. Sometimes a really old whiskey can be over-oaked. My personal favorite is the 8-10 year range.”
It’s a sentiment you’ll hear echoed by Wild Turkey, Maker’s Mark, Jim Beam, and others as well: The majority of Kentucky’s masters consider the sweet spot for great whiskey to be somewhere between 5 and 10 years of age. In Scotland, because of the lower temperatures, whisky will age more slowly (about a third of the speed, generally). Scottish whisky makers aren’t as uniform, but if you ask many of them to show you a delicious barrel, inevitably it will be in its mid-to-late 20s, up to its mid-to-late 30s.
Why these ranges? Well, in Kentucky, between 5 and 10 years of age, the whiskey is reaching an interesting equilibrium between the impact of the barrel and the impact of the wood. This means that, in a good barrel or small batch, you’ll taste the best flavors of the grain and the barrel in the liquid. The same is more or less true of Scotland’s sweet spot.
The Future of Aging
For the entire history of whiskey, it’s been pretty hard to cut corners on aging. People have tried lots of strategies to “trick” the whiskey over the centuries. Some have tried to increase the surface area of wood that the liquid is in contact with in an attempt to speed up flavor extraction. They’ve used smaller barrels, they’ve added wood chips. And for the most part, it has produced pretty poor whiskey.
As a counterbalance, it’s also the case that whiskey is difficult to save when it gets “too old.” An over-the-hill bottle will taste of lightly toasted sawdust, and leave thick tannins in your mouth, as if you’d just been chewing on a tea bag.
One thing that does seem to have impact is temperature control. Woodford Reserve and several other distilleries will “heat cycle” their warehouses, essentially warming them up in the winter to get a few more cycles in.
Buffalo Trace has taken this to the next level. In 2018 Buffalo Trace and sister brand The Last Drop opened Warehouse P: a Kentucky cold storage warehouse meant to slow down the cycles of heating and cooling to test its effects on whisky. We’ll know more in the next decade about what that means.
What This Means for Your Whiskey Glass
Despite decades of marketing saying otherwise, the unifying truth is that age is just a number. That number might make a great guideline for finding more things you’ll like, but beating yourself up because that $200 pour tasted like you were milling lumber without a breathing mask isn’t worth the stress.
We asked Wheatley if there’s a perfect age for bourbon, and his simple response was that there isn’t one. “It’s relative to each person’s taste profile, too,” he explained. “What may taste too old to me may be perfect for you.”
Whiskey making is about more than one number, and while age may be significant, it’s not even close to the only factor.
“There are so many variables one can tinker with, such as placement on different warehouse floors, barrel stave seasoning, different grains, all which will affect the outcome,” Wheatley says. “There really are no limits as long as you desire to stay within the confines of bourbon.”
Paterson is on the same page. “Some younger whiskies can be of incredibly high quality, and some old whiskies can be past their best…taking on too much influence from the cask, for example, or too little if matured in an over-used cask [Scotch whiskies aren’t limited to a single use like bourbon]. The quality of the cask is the biggest determining factor of quality.”
If you’re more uncertain about what to drink now that you were a few minutes ago, the good news is that you have a blank slate. Take the whiskeys you love, and see what they have in common. Use that to find new favorites. Explore the wide world of whiskey without baggage.
You might find something incredible you’d never have tried before. And no matter how “into” whiskey you are, it’s never too late to start anew. Remember: Age is sometimes just a number.