You’ll have noticed that whiskeys have different ages. You’ll have also noticed a correlation between a whiskey’s age and its price with older whiskeys being more expensive (unsurprisingly) and sometimes exponentially so. You’ll have hoped this means an older whiskey is a better whiskey but is that actually true. Does whiskey get better with age or is it just the price – at least for the seller.
The answer is that yes, whiskey does get better with age.
As long as your maturing it at the time. And as long as you’re not maturing it too much. And as long as you actually like the flavor of the whiskey in the first place. And once it’s bottled it won’t get better with age but it will retain its condition, until you inevitably open it after which it’s on the road to deterioration.
But apart from all that, whiskey does get better with age.
But let’s start at the beginning with some definitions.
Does Whiskey Get Better With Age? Defining ‘Better’ and ‘Age’
The question seems quite simple. Does whiskey get better with age or doesn’t it? But it’s important that we’re all on the same page about what is meant by, ‘better’ and ‘age’.
Hopefully we’re all already on the same page about what is meant by whiskey. If not, come and see me immediately after the class for a drink.
When it comes to whiskey, ‘better’ refers to its taste. A better whiskey is one that tastes better. A worse whiskey is one that … well I’m sure you get the idea. The more of a delicious flavor a whiskey has, the better its taste.
Aging, in the context of a whiskey improvement program really means maturing because the simple process of aging, that starts the moment the whiskey has been made and continues at a rate of one second per second until the time it’s drunk, doesn’t make whiskey taste any better. It just makes it older.
It’s the maturing of whiskey in barrels which makes it taste better but since that takes a long time – years, decades, ages even – the process is also called aging. When a whiskey is maturing, it’s aging. When a whiskey is no longer maturing, it’s no longer aging.
Therefore, what is really meant by, does whiskey get better with age is, does whiskey (the delicious alcoholic beverage we all know and love) get better (more delicious) with age (maturing)?
And the answer is yes.
At least, mostly yes.
Why Whiskey Gets Better With Age
Whiskey is made by extracting the starches of a grain, converting them into sugars and then into alcohol.
If you could get hold of your favorite whiskey at this stage of the whiskey making process, you’d find that it would not have its usual look or taste. It would be a clear liquid that lacks all the expected flavors. It would, however, be significantly cheaper. So swings and roundabouts.
In order to acquire its usual look and taste, whiskey has to be aged / matured. This means placing it in barrels and storing it for years or even decades, during which time, changes in temperature and humidity cause the whiskey to seep into the wood of the barrel and then back out again bringing with it all sorts of chemicals (wood sugars, vanillin, lactones, tannins and other compounds) that give it its flavor.
At the same time the chemicals remove some of the unpleasant, sulphury notes and some of the lighter and more volatile compounds evaporate through the barrel walls. This is known as the angel’s share.
The more this seeping-in-and-out-of-the-wood process occurs the more the wood of the barrel transmits different and intricate flavors to the whiskey giving it its taste and character, and the more of its harshness is removed making it smoother. It also gives it its golden color.
And it’s not simply a matter of putting the whiskey into barrels, leaving it for 30 years and hoping that it will taste really good at the other end. No, there are a lot of variables in the aging process that help determine the final flavors, which is why we have so many different whiskeys.
One variable is the wood the barrels are made of. This is usually American White Oak. Whether or not the wood is toasted or charred, new or old will also affect the taste. Bourbon and other American whiskeys must be aged in new, charred, oak barrels and Scotch is often aged in barrels that previously held Bourbon.
Another variable is the length of time the whiskey is aged. Scotch must be aged for three years, but most single malts lie in barrels for eight, ten, twelve, or fifteen years. Or longer. Excellent single malts are aged for 12 to 21 years.
The air quality, temperature and humidity of the environment the whiskey is stored in, are also variables. This is because wood is porous so it will give these environmental factors easy access to the whiskey. Scotch whiskeys are aged in cool, wet conditions, so they absorb water and become less alcoholic. American whiskeys are aged in warmer, drier conditions so they lose water and become more alcoholic.
Whiskey acquires 80% of its flavor from its years of storage in variously conditioned, flavor-transmitting wooden barrels, so obviously, the longer it’s exposed to the source of its flavor, the more flavor will be transmitted and the better it will be.
So does whiskey get better with age? Absolutely … as long as it’s being matured in flavor-transmitting barrels.
When Whiskey No Longer Gets Better With Age
Although whiskey does get better with age there will come a time when this will no longer be true. This is because of evaporation and over oaking.
Anywhere from 2% – 10% of whiskey evaporates from the barrel each year, depending on the size of the barrel, the year of storage, the method of storage and the climate of the storage location. During the entire aging process, a barrel could lose 30% – 40% of its whiskey to evaporation. I know awful. Not only is so much precious whiskey lost but to add insult to injury it’s the whiskey drinker that has to pay for this with higher prices for older whiskeys.
This means that you can’t age whiskey indefinitely, because eventually, with part of it continuously evaporating, you’ll have very little whiskey left.
Also, since alcohol evaporates slower than water, the alcohol to water ratio is constantly increasing and at some stage the whiskey will become too alcoholic.
Whiskey can become over oaked. This is when whiskey takes too much flavor from the wood and tastes too … well woody and bitter.
That’s why distillers try to find the optimal aging time for each whiskey and because they’re aged differently the optimal aging time for each whiskey will be different.
For example, the optimal aging time for Bourbon is between five to ten years but for Scotch it’s between 15 to 30 years. That’s because Scotland has lower temperatures, so whiskey ages slower. In hotter climates however, the aging process is naturally sped up so whiskey can reach its optimal age in a shorter period of time.
So does whiskey get better with age? Absolutely … as long as it’s being matured in a barrel and as long as it’s not over-aged.
When Whiskey No Longer Gets That Much Better With Age
There may also come a time when the amount a whiskey improves with age is not enough to make continuing the aging process worthwhile.
This is the well-known law of diminishing returns and applies to whiskey because it gets its flavor from barrels. Even if a new barrel was used at the start of the aging process with lots of flavors ready to be extracted, as time goes on it takes longer and longer to extract the remaining flavors.
This is why older whiskeys are not simply more expensive than younger ones, they’re exponentially more expensive and at some stage the small amount of added improvement will not be worth its significant increase in price.
Measuring a Whiskey’s Age Properly
Whiskey gets better with age so an older whiskey is better than a younger whiskey. But you have to know how to measure age properly.
The first thing you have to take into account is the optimal aging time of the two whiskeys you’re comparing. For example, as mentioned above, the optimal aging time for Bourbon is between five to ten years but for Scotch it’s between 15 to 30 years. It would be wrong to say that a fifteen-year-old Scotch is better than a five-year-old Bourbon just because it’s ten years older, when both have just reached the beginning of their respective optimal aging times.
You also need to take into account that any age written on the bottle is not the simple age of the whiskey. It’s the age of the youngest whiskey in the bottle.
This is because all whiskeys are blended – even non-blended whiskeys.
A blended whiskey is a mix of several whiskeys from different distilleries. A non-blended whiskey is a whiskey from one distillery, but it may still be mixed with whiskey from other casks (runs) and years. This is done in both cases, to ensure a consistent and recognizable taste, but it also means your whiskey is made up of many whiskeys of different ages.
If the age on the bottle was the average age of all the whiskeys in the blend, then it would be easier to compare the ages of two whiskeys. But the age on a bottle of whiskey is the age of the youngest whiskey (youngest straight whiskey in the US) which makes it difficult to know exactly which of two whiskeys is older. A twelve-year-old whiskey has to be labelled as such even if it’s mostly made up of much older whiskeys than those that comprise an eighteen-year-old whiskey.
Granted this may not be very likely especially if the younger whiskey is cheaper than the older whiskey, but it does mean that the age of a bottle of whiskey is shrouded in more mystery than the age of that family member who insists they’re 21 for the 43rd year in a row.
Taking Personal Preference Into Account
Earlier we defined a better whiskey as a whiskey that tastes better. And since the more a whiskey is aged the more flavor it has and the better it tastes, an older whiskey will be better.
But this is only true if you like the flavor of the whiskey in the first place. In such a case you’re bound to like versions that are older because they have more of flavor you like. But if you don’t like the taste of that particular whiskey, more of it won’t be better it’ll be worse. In such a case you’ll prefer a younger whiskey with a taste you do like over an older whiskey with a taste you don’t.
This means, when comparing two different whiskeys with two different flavors, you can’t say the older whiskey is better as that depends on personal preference.
What you can say is that if a person does like a particular whiskey, an older version will be better because it will have become better with age.
Does Bottled Whiskey Get Better With Age
Since whiskey only gets better with age because it’s maturing in the barrel absorbing its flavor, once it’s bottled it can no longer do that and it will not continue to get better with age. This is in contrast to wine that does continue to age in the bottle.
This means that a 12-year-old single malt remains a 12-year-old single malt regardless of how many years have passed and an 18-year-old whiskey you buy today is better than a 12-year-old whiskey your dad bought 30 years ago.
Sealed and stored properly a bottle of whiskey will last indefinitely but stored badly or once opened a whiskey will now start to get worse with age.
This is mostly due to oxygen coming into contact with your whiskey and oxidizing it (binding itself to one chemical compound and changing it into another), causing the flavor to change. And not for the better.
Once you open a bottle of whiskey this process is inevitable although if you close your bottle tightly between pours and keep the headspace (the gap between the cork and the whiskey) to a minimum you can extend your whiskey’s life to about two years. An inch or two of headspace won’t have much effect on the whiskey’s taste for at least a year but if three quarters of the bottle is air, the quality will degrade in about a month.
Which means drinking the whiskey of an open bottle is the best thing you can do for it. I have personally saved many bottles of whiskey this way.
Making Bottled Whiskey Better by Continuing the Aging Process
It is possible for even bottled whiskey to be further improved by age by continuing the maturation process at home. This can be done by simply buying a barrel and placing your whiskey in it. Since home-aging barrels are smaller, the wood to whiskey ratio is higher than in the commercially standard 53-gallon barrel, so the aging process is faster. You can turn your 12-year-old single malt into a 15-year-old single malt in a fraction of the time distillers take (although being in a second and different barrel it might not taste exactly the same).
You could also improve a whiskey by maturing it in a barrel that has been conditioned with a wine or another spirit for a few weeks. When you do this, some of the previously stored liquid that has been absorbed into the walls of the barrel will, like flavor from the wood itself, seep into the whiskey and improve it.
This is something professional distillers do. They take their fully mature whiskey and give it some extra time (maybe a year) in a different barrel. It’s called barrel-finishing or secondary maturation and if you want to improve your bottled whiskey you can do it too.
Oak Aging Barrel
Does whiskey get better with age? Absolutely. But only as long as it’s being matured in a barrel and only as long as it’s not over-aged. And only as long as you actually like the flavor and only until you bottle it whereupon it stops aging and may actually deteriorate.
The important thing to keep in mind is that since older whiskeys have been aged for longer, they have more flavor and as long you like the flavor of a whiskey you’ll like the older versions better. Now all you have to do is find all the whiskeys you like. There’s a lot of whiskeys out there so that’s a lot of work to do, but somehow, I suspect that like me, you’ll manage.