Age statements on whiskey go back to the 19th century. Whiskey was mostly sold by the barrel until the 1880s. The barrel head did not have the information that is not required by the government, so the consumer had to inquire with the person who owned the barrel as to how old the whiskey was when purchasing the whiskey from the barrel. There were people bottling whiskey for their customers and they sometimes placed an age statement on their label, but not often. After the tax on spirits was passed during the American Civil War, the government did require a paper stamp to be attached to the barrel to show that the tax was paid, but that proved only that the whiskey was as old as the bonding period. This period changed in length up to 8 years in 1894, so before that it was unlikely that the whiskey was more than 3 years old when sold by the distillery.
After bottling of whiskey became profitable for the distilleries, there was a slight increase of brands with age statements. Very rarely were there brands older than 8 years old since that was the length of the bonding period for the whiskey. There were some exceptions. Mammoth Cave Bourbon was sold as a 20 year old Bourbon before W.L. Weller and Sons acquired the brand. This was done by sending the barrels to Germany to age where it was not taxed until it was imported back into the United States, and then only on the amount in the barrel.
Prohibition made age statements popular as whiskey had been stored in bond during that period without taxes being charged until it was bottled and sold. You saw many brands with age statements added to the label, but most brands did not bother with such an expense as changing labels. Since the whiskey was all sold as Bottled-in-Bond, the consumer could look at the tax stamp and know exactly how old the whiskey in the bottle was.
After The Repeal of Prohibition, there were a lot of brands with age statements because the regulations stated any whiskey under 4 years of age had to have an age statement. There were many brands with age statements of 3 months, 6 months, 1 year and so on until the distiller had whiskey of 4 years of age to bottle. World War Two kept the stocks of whiskey low as the distilleries made alcohol for the war effort and not beverage spirits. After the war, there were many brands starting to show age statements. Statements of 5, 6, 7, and 8 years were found on many brands. Once again, there were very few brands aged more than 8 years because of the bonding period on the taxes. Once the distiller paid the taxes, they bottled and sold the whiskey to recoup their tax money. Brands like Very Old Barton and Very Old Fitzgerald were 8 years old because that was the maximum time it could spend under bond.
In 1958 the bonding period for whiskey aging in the warehouse was lengthened to 20 years. At that time many brands began to appear with age statements greater than 8 years. Schenley was the leader in this practice because they had overproduced in the 1950s and had many barrels that aged past the 8 year time frame. Old Charter 10 year old and the Old Charter “Classic 90” 12 year old, and I.W. Harper 10 year old were their flagship brands with age statements, but many of their regional brands also started boasting age statements as well. For the most part, the other distilleries did not bother with these older products because they had not over produced and were selling the whiskey they made within 8 years. That started to change in the late 60s when whiskey sales started to decline. Within a decade every distillery had unsold barrels continuing to age in the warehouse and they started to add age statements to their brands. This was particularly true with whiskey sold in decanters.
It was in the 1990s that age statements become fashionable. The success of Pappy Van Winkle Family Reserve 20 and 23 year old made the consumer demand older whiskey. The distilleries still had many barrels of surplus whiskey in the warehouse because sales had just begun to stop declining and level off. Old whiskey was plentiful and many distillers were happy to sell barrels to independent bottlers. A plethora of brands appeared with age statement over 10 years old. It was a good time for consumers who like old whiskey as there were plenty of brands in the market at reasonable prices.
Then the sales of whiskey started to increase. Old barrels of whiskey were being depleted and not replaced. Age statements started to disappear from brands. Distilleries were selling everything they bottled and had consumers demanding more. Younger whiskey had to be used in brands which had previously had age statements, so the statement disappeared from the labels. Sometimes the distillers hoped to keep the consumers in the dark about this by changing the label in a way that did not look like a change. Wild Turkey 101 8 year old became Wild Turkey No. 8. Old Charter 8 year old became Old Charter 8 seasons old. There are only two seasons in the distilling calendar so the age was cut in half.
There are still some brands with age statements, but they are slowly disappearing. The consumer will not see established brands with age statements for many years to come. Only when the sales decline to a point that the distiller has extra barrels to continue aging, will there be a return of age statements.
Photos Courtesy of Rosemary Miller and Michael Veach