Lincoln Henderson was fond of saying that whiskey has to be made correctly every step of the way or it will be an inferior product. I know many people that worship extremely old whiskey and unless it is 10 years old or older, they don’t think of it as anything less than rotgut whiskey. Needless to say I don’t respect their opinion on whiskey, because a true expert knows what to look for in whiskey at every age to determine whether it is a good whiskey or not. I thought I would write about what I look for in a young whiskey to determine whether it is a good whiskey or not.
It depends upon the age of the whiskey I am looking at as to what I want to find in the drink. Of course, there are a few things that I look for that are common to every age and those are the tastes I don’t want in the whiskey. Those are aromas and flavors such as mustiness, acetate (fingernail polish remover, for those not familiar with the aroma of acetate), skunky, sulfurous aromas and flavors. New make whiskey can often reveal these aromas and flavors quite clearly, but even at a year old or more they can be detected if there are flaws in the grains, fermentation or distillation of the whiskey. Sometimes mustiness can be caused by the aging process – a bad stave in the barrel or the barrel sitting in wet conditions such as a flooded warehouse or a broken window letting the rain into the warehouse.
An unaged new-make spirit can be very informative as to how the whiskey will taste down the line with maturation. When I look at a new make, I look for the flavors of the grains, corn, rye or wheat and malted barley. These grain flavors should be apparent and pleasurable.
Next, I look for the flavors from fermentation – fruits and spices, floral notes or herb flavors. The yeast will impart these flavors to the spirit. Finally, I look at the flavors from distillation – or I should say the lack of flavors from the distillation. Distillation done right means that the unpleasant flavors from the heads and tails have been removed and the other flavors are left in the spirit. The copper from the still will remove sulfurous notes and proper cuts of the heads and tails will remove many other unpleasant aromas and flavors. However, there are other flavors left in the new make that will break down during maturation into more pleasant flavors, but most of those flavors actually come from the wood in the barrel.
Lincoln Henderson once told me that you get a lot of flavor from the 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 was saying was that time and oxidation will break some of these unpleasant flavors down into more pleasing flavors. That is what I look for in young whiskey that is a year or two old. Do I find many pleasant flavors emerging in the whiskey? If I do, then I will like the young whiskey well enough. I do believe that time in the wood is important but there is more to aging than simply letting it sit in the barrel.
I look at barrel entry proof. The lower the proof, the more water in the barrel and wood sugars are more soluble in water, so the whiskey will have more caramel flavors sooner. The location of the barrel in the warehouse and even the location of the warehouse itself will impact these young whiskeys. The size of the barrel is important and must be a factor in the final taste. Smaller barrels have thinner staves and take less heat to bend while making the barrel, thus they are getting less toasting of the wood. That means if the distiller asks for a heavy char, then the char will burn away a higher percentage of the toasted wood and the toasted wood contributes to the vanilla flavor.
With all of these considerations of the barrel and aging made, when I look at a young whiskey, I look for vanilla and caramel flavors to see how strong they come through in the taste. If they are coming through within a year or two of aging, then they will only get stronger with further age. If there are no bad flavors and the fruit, spice, floral or herb notes are coming through, as well as, the grain flavors, and I like those flavors, then I determine it to be a good whiskey, even at a young age. I like tasting young whiskey as I look at it as a window into the future of that whiskey.
Photos Courtesy of Rosemary Miller