There has been an everlasting debate on how much a barrel influences the taste of American whiskey. There is no doubt that the longer whiskey ages in a new oak barrel, the more the influence it has on the whiskey. In fact, I once did a blind tasting for a friend of a twenty year old Bourbon and a twenty year old Rye whiskey. He was a person who claimed that he did not like wheat recipe Bourbon whiskey and preferred Rye whiskey, so I poured him a taste of twenty year old Society of Bourbon Connoisseurs and a taste of twenty year old Red Hook Rye. He could not tell the difference between the Rye and the Bourbon. He liked them both and even said the Bourbon was his favorite of the two whiskeys.
The barrel has lot of influence on the whiskey. This influence grows as it ages. A new make whiskey is all flavors from the first four sources of flavor. The grain and the yeast flavors dominate the taste of the whiskey. Place that new make in a barrel and the wood flavors immediately become part of the whiskey flavor as it ages. Lincoln Henderson once said that you get a lot of flavor from the barrel in the first six weeks after putting it in the barrel and you then spend the next four years getting rid of that flavor. What he meant was the wood tannins and other bitter flavors come through very quickly, but it takes time for oxidation to turn those flavors into more pleasant flavors.
After about four years, the barrel flavors from the natural sugars have come through and balances the bitterness of the wood flavors. Oxidation also turns some of those wood flavors into other flavors such as spice and nut flavors. This influence becomes stronger as it sits in the wood. The barrel entry proof also has a large influence on the whiskey as the natural sugars in the wood dissolve quicker in water than they do in alcohol, giving the whiskey a sweeter flavor in less time.
After about twelve years, the wood once again becomes the dominant flavor. The position of the barrel in the warehouse has a lot to do with this time frame. The higher up the barrel is in the warehouse, the more the heat forces the whiskey into the wood, extracting more wood. This is why Julian Van Winkle prefers to age his whiskey on the lower levels of the warehouse. When you are aging whiskey for over twelve years, you want a slower extraction of wood compounds.
When the whiskey is over twelve years old, wood becomes the dominant flavor and the fruit flavors from fermentation become hidden by the bitter tannins from the oak. A distiller then can filter some of the tannins out of the whiskey to let the fruit flavor come back through in the taste. When whiskey gets over twenty years of age, it becomes harder and harder to let these flavors come out, even with filtration. This is why you rarely see an American whiskey older than twenty years old. The prime example of an Bourbon being aged for thirty plus years was the whiskey that Buddy Thompson released several years ago. This whiskey was so dominated by oak wood flavor, it was undrinkable. It tasted of nothing but oak wood and was bitter and very dry in flavor.
For me, the rule for American whiskey is older is not necessarily better, better is better. An older American whiskey has to be aged properly in a lower level of the warehouse and preferably with a lower barrel entry proof. I have tasted some very good twenty year old whiskeys, but I have also tasted some that were bitter and tasted as if I were chewing on a barrel stave. The barrel has a growing influence on whiskey with time and that is not always a good thing.
Photos Courtesy of Rosemary Miller