Whiskey is like a lot like people – some mature quicker than others. The passage of time is not the only thing that determines how good a whiskey is going to taste. In fact there are six sources of flavor in whiskey production and maturation is only one factor. A good whiskey takes elements from all six sources of flavor. A whiskey can be very good at two or three years of age. I have had some two year old whiskeys that I thought tasted better than twenty year old whiskeys that have a taste dominated by bitter oak wood and tannins.
It is hard to determine when a whiskey is going to be really good at a young age, but there are factors of production that all good young whiskeys all have in common. The first is the mash bill. Excellent tasting young whiskeys often have grains that give more flavor such as an heirloom corn or beer malt. The grains are giving flavors to the final distilled spirit.
Next is fermentation. These young whiskeys get a lot of flavor from the yeast strain that is used in fermentation. Too much age can overpower these flavors from the yeast so young whiskeys are often better examples of the flavors found in a yeast strain. The type of fermentation can also play a role. Was this a sour mash or a sweet mash fermentation? Sweet mash is more difficult to make but it does make a different flavor profile in the spirit.
Distillation also plays a role in the flavor profile of the young whiskeys. Was it distilled in a pot still, a column still or a hybrid still? How much copper was in the stills? How high a proof was the final distillation? The higher the proof of the distillation, the less of the flavor that is left from the grains and the yeast. Very good young whiskeys will probably have a lower distillation proof than average.
Finally, there is the maturation process itself. Lincoln Henderson once said that you get a lot of flavor from a barrel in the first six weeks of aging and then you spend the next four years trying to get rid of those flavors. What he meant was that there are a lot of bitter tannins and other not so pleasant flavors from the barrel as soon as the whiskey is entered in the barrel and it takes time and oxidation to change those bitter flavors into flavors that are desirable to drink.
There are things that alter this equation. The first is barrel size. A smaller barrel is going to produce more bitter tannins than vanillas and caramels in a whiskey because thinner staves are going to produce less vanilla and caramel compounds in the charring process. The level of toasting to the staves will alter the amounts of sweetness as well and smaller barrels that are heavily charred will burn away much of the toasted wood. The barrel entry proof will also play a role in the amount of sweet sugars to be extracted from the wood. Water dissolves sugar better than alcohol, thus the lower barrel entry proof will get the sweet vanillas and caramels from the wood at a younger age.
I personally find that my sweet spot for whiskey is in the six to twelve years of age range. However, I have found many very good whiskeys that were two to four years of age that I thought were just as good as many whiskeys in my normally preferred age range. When I went back and looked at these whiskeys, I found that they all had one or more of these flavor sources in common. I do not look at age as the determining factor of the taste of a whiskey and thus, its value.
Give me a well-balanced, flavorful two-year-old whiskey any day over a whiskey that has been aged to the point it tastes like chewing on a barrel stave. Maturation is not only about the time in the barrel.
Photos Courtesy of Rosemary Miller