There is a lot of interest in “Extra-Aged” whiskey today. The market is mourning the loss of age statements and consumers are paying high prices for whiskey that still have age statements with double digit numbers. At the same time consumers complain when a whiskey that is less than four years old has a fairly large price tag. The question then becomes, “is extra-age a standard for charging higher prices?”
Historically, age has been a factor in selling American whiskey – Bourbon, Rye and Corn whiskeys for the most part. Early distillers, before 1821, did not age whiskey on purpose. If they had “old whiskey”, it probably meant the previous year’s production. After 1821, when Bourbon began to be advertised, the distillers had an incentive to age whiskey in charred oak barrels and there was no Federal excise tax to prevent them from doing so.
However, most whiskey sold by the distillers was probably only two or three years old. Like any other business, distillers wanted to make a profit, so the majority of the whiskey they made, they would sell at the first opportunity. Only a small percentage of their whiskey barrels would be aged for over three years.
The American Civil War changed the way distillers aged whiskey. The first excise tax imposed on the distilling industry also created the “Bonded Warehouse” that allowed distillers to age their whiskey for one year before paying the taxes. The result was that the distiller, after paying the excise tax after the first year, would sell those barrels in order to get his tax money back and to prevent losing tax money as the whiskey in the barrel evaporated with the maturation process.
If the whiskey the consumer purchased was over a year old, that was because the middleman took it upon himself to age it further. The distillers increased the amount of aging they did as the bonding period for the excise tax was increased, first to three years and then eight years. It was rare to find a whiskey as old as eight years old however, since most distillers sold their whiskey as soon as they could find a buyer.
In the 1880s the manufacturing of glass bottles made it profitable for distillers to sell their whiskey by the bottle, instead of in the barrels. In 1897, the Bottled-in-Bond Act of 1897 made four year old whiskey the standard age for “good whiskey”. Most distillers were selling their whiskey as a four year old bonded whiskey. They would release older whiskey of up to eight years of age, but that whiskey would be only a small percentage of what they sold. They never wanted to sell whiskey over eight years old because that would mean that whiskey would not be bonded since the tax was already paid and there would be additional loss of whiskey (and tax money) as the whiskey aged longer and the angel’s took their share from the barrel.
After Prohibition, old whiskey was available as the last of the pre-Prohibition stocks were sold, but most of this whiskey was actually blended into blended whiskey as the consumer considered these 17-20 year old barrels as over-aged, woody and generally inferior whiskeys. As aged whiskey became more available after World War II, the market saw bottles of bonded whiskey that were bottled at 5-8 years of age. Brands like Very Old Barton and Very Old Fitzgerald were 8 years old because that was considered to be the maximum age for whiskey.
Overproduction in the early 1950s led to a change in aged whiskey. In order to keep from going bankrupt over the taxes due on all of the barrels of whiskey in their warehouses, Schenley led the effort to get the bonding period for whiskey increased from 8 years to 20 years. This happened in 1958 and after this increased bonding period, producers created brands with 10, 12 and 15 year age statements on the label. They were not popular when they first came out as consumers believed what the distillers had been telling them that whiskey over 8 years old gets woody and bitter. In fact, in many cases, that was true. To age and bottle whiskey over 8 years of age took a whole different strategy of aging the barrels to prevent that bitter, woody flavor.
Extra aged whiskey was not what the distillers intended to make. They wanted to sell their whiskey within that four to eight year period and not sit on inventory for over a decade before they could get paid for the product. However, the decline in the whiskey market in the 1960s, 70s and 80s kept their warehouses full of whiskey they were not selling and older whiskey became more common.
Even brands with 7 or 8 year age statements often had whiskey in the bottle that was as old as 10 or 12 years old. The 1990s saw a huge boom in extra-aged whiskeys as Julian Van Winkle found success with his Pappy Van Winkle Family Reserve 20 year old and 23 year old whiskeys. Every distiller started selling older whiskeys from their warehouses and getting a premium price for them.
The supply of extra-aged whiskey was short lived. As Bourbon sales increased, the amount of aged stocks in the warehouses decreased. This led to less extra-aged whiskey being on the market. Age statements disappeared from labels. More and more whiskey reverted back to four to six year old products. Once again, an 8 year old age statement is considered to be an “Old Whiskey”.
Photos Courtesy of Rosemary Miller