In my opinion, the sweet spot for aging whiskey is between six and twelve years of age. Older is not necessarily better, and whiskey can get too tannic and bitter if aged too long and, in the wrong manner. I have discussed this subject with many distillers and bottlers and I have learned a few things about bottling whiskey at ages over twelve years. If you are going to age a whiskey for over twelve years these are the things I have learned.
First of all, pick the right age to bottle the whiskey. Julian Van Winkle believes that whiskey ages in waves. It gets better in some years, but often takes a swing for the worst in the next year or two before it gets better again. Don’t let a fixed age be your determining factor in bottling the whiskey. If your barrel is fifteen years old and it tastes too tannic or bitter, let it age another year or two, even if your label states it is a fifteen year old whiskey. Remember, the age statement is just the age of the youngest whiskey in the bottle. Taste should be the determining factor, not the age statement.
Next, whiskey barreled at a lower barrel entry proof will age better. Such whiskey has more water, which dissolves more of the sugars from the wood in the barrel staves. It can also help with the breaking down bitter compounds into better tasting compounds through oxidation. With whiskey that is aged for a long time, the number of bottles from each barrel should not be the first concern. The flavor should be the major concern. If you are going to invest fifteen or more years in a whiskey, then you should make sure it tastes exceptional.
The other major concern should be the location in the warehouse. The lower the location, the better. The lower levels do not have the extreme heat found in the upper levels. This allows the whiskey to slowly extract the flavors from the barrel. It also extracts less tannins from the wood. This allows the whiskey to have lots of the sweet vanilla and caramel flavors without too much tannin. This assumes an unheated warehouse. Heated warehouses get very hot on the bottom floors as that is where the steam heat is introduced into the warehouse. In a heated warehouse, you should put the barrels in the middle floors. However, if you are heating your warehouse, you are probably not interested in extra aged whiskey. The whole point of heating the warehouse is to speed up the aging process so you can sell your whiskey sooner.
Finally, you need to filter the whiskey correctly. Filtration is not a one size fits all process. You need to experiment with the type of filtration you need to use. Willy Pratt, at Michter’s Distillery experimented with every one of their brands to find the proper filtration for each whiskey. If done right, filtration will remove the flavors you don’t want, while leaving the flavors you do. With old whiskey, this is often tannins that are making the whiskey bitter. Proper filtration can remove some of the tannins, keeping the whiskey from tasting like you are chewing on a barrel stave.
Old whiskey can be a very special whiskey. However, to get that very special whiskey, you have to plan in advance how you are going to make that whiskey and monitor its process. You cannot let the age be the only determining factor for the brand. If you do, you will probably end up with a whiskey that is inferior in taste and not worth the investment in time and money.
Photos Courtesy of Maggie Kimberl and Rosemary Miller