I have a copy of a 1945 booklet given to the sales force at Schenley in 1945. It is titled “Know What You Sell – Tell What You Know” and was an educational booklet on Blended Whiskey. In 1945 Blended Whiskeys were a very important category of sales. The end of Prohibition and the Second World War made aged stocks of straight whiskeys limited and blending was a way to make these stocks fill more bottles. The book however discusses how whiskey is made and describes all of the categories important to the 1945 market. What I want to concentrate on here is what they wrote about the aging process. They say some interesting things and I am not sure all they say is accurate, but it is interesting nonetheless and give a glimpse as to why 1940s whiskey tastes the way it does.
The first thing of interest is this quote: “The char, contrary to popular belief, does not give whiskey its color and other characteristics. The char is merely charcoal (almost pure carbon) and is, therefore, practically neutral. It is the layer of wood beneath the char that is of greatest importance, as this layer contains within it several important wood compounds that are readily soluble in whiskey.” I am quite sure that the char is not “practically neutral” as they say and does contribute tannins to the whiskey, giving it the red color and bitter wood taste. They are correct in my opinion that the wood underneath is more important as that is where the caramel and vanilla flavors in the whiskey are extracted.
The book goes on to discuss storage conditions. It says “whiskey ages more rapidly in high temperature than in low. In fact, when the temperature falls below 40°F, aging practically ceases. Seasonal changes also make for very erratic aging. …. Today, however, our whiskies are aged in air conditioned, temperature and humidity controlled warehouses. Here, a constant, even temperature is maintained year-around, thus insuring steady, constant aging.” I know they had heat cycled warehouses at many of their distilleries but I do not think they air conditioned them in the summer season so this is a bit misleading in the wording. There are still distilleries that follow this idea of heat cycling the warehouses to increase the rate of maturation of their whiskies.
Finally there is a list of general facts about aging for the salesperson to use:
- Each whiskey differs from every other one in its reactions and, therefore, in the length of time necessary to age it properly.
- No set, arbitrary time can be designated for the aging of all whiskies. Some whiskies reach maturity in a short time – others take longer periods.
- In general, a Bourbon whiskey ages in less time than a Rye whiskey, all other factors being equal.
- A light-bodied whiskey ages in less time than a heavy-bodied one, all other factors being equal.
- A whiskey ages faster in a shallow-charred barrel than in a deeply-charred one. The depth of the char should be adapted to the type of whiskey.
- A whiskey ages faster, but not as evenly or smoothly, at high temperatures. A medium, even temperature is best. Whiskies age faster and smoother in charred barrels than in uncharred ones.
- Aging will not make a poor distillate a good whiskey. But aging will make a good distillate a better whiskey.
- A whiskey which has reached its optimum maturity should be withdrawn from the barrel, lest it become to “woody” or astringent.
This list says some things that contradict what was said earlier in the chapter about aging. If the char is practically neutral then the uncharred barrel should be very similar to a charred barrel. The booklet does not talk about the caramelized sugars from the charring process or the conversion of wood fiber to create vanilla compounds. Their definition of light bodied whiskeys is one distilled at a higher proof, closer to the maximum 159.9 proof allowed. Heavier bodied whiskeys are distilled between 130 and 140 proof.
I hope you enjoyed this glance at the past and I would love to hear your comments on what Schenley said about aging whiskey. I found this to be an interesting booklet revealing as to what was important to Schenley when educating its salesforce.