Is Bourbon Age Important?
There’s a lot of emphasis placed on a bourbons age. Some brands state the bourbons age on the label with pride while others, for multiple reasons, choose to leave it off. Recently, there’s been several brands that decided to drop the age statement from their labels (Grab Jim Beam Black while it still has the 8 year statement). Prices often increase with the age of a bourbon. Are older bourbons really worth more? Or, is it just more expensive to produce older bourbons and we accidentally correlate price and quality? There’s no denying age is a key ingredient in bourbon quality but it can also be a bourbons downfall. Age is the fickle beast of the bourbon process.
If you haven’t already, you may want to read our post “Bourbon Aging Explained”.
Bourbon needs time to age in charred oak barrels. That’s where a lot of a bourbons flavor and complexity come from. There have been numerous (unsuccessful) attempts from craft distillers to release bourbon younger than a couple years. One sip from one of these bottles and you’ll know immediately you’re dealing with young bourbon. What’s interesting is if you talk with any Master Distiller they’ll tell you the age of bourbon isn’t the most important important factor and a lot of times they’re only looking for a specific flavor profile and not an age. This past summer Diageo hosted a seminar “The Blind Truth About Aging Whisky” which most people discredited because they assumed it was Diageo pushing an agenda. Diageo opinions aside there is a lot of truth there.
Distilleries are dropping age statements at an all-time high (Check out Sku’s blog to see the full list). Should Bourbonr’s be worried about the new trend in bourbon to remove age statements? This is a difficult question to answer. Sure, distilleries could probably hit the same flavor profiles without being tied to a number but typically that’s not what happens. Sure, I don’t notice a big change in W.L. Weller Reserve but Ancient Age tastes a lot different after it went to “10 Star” from “10 Year”.
I had a chance to speak with Buffalo Trace Master Distiller Harlen Wheatley bourbon aging and here’s what he had to say:
B – What are some common misconceptions about a bourbons age?
H – The obvious one is that “Bourbon gets better with age.” This is generally true up until a point and that point is individually picked based on personal preference. Generally the range that most people pick is from about 5 yrs to 23+ years.
B – What other factors effect a bourbon other than time?
H – There are literally 100s of factors. Some of the biggest ones are, recipe, fermentation, distillation, wood and weather.
B – Is there a sweet spot for a bourbons age?
H – As above, the sweet spot would be determined by an individual based on their preference, however; the average age is probably 8-12 years for the sweet spot on most bourbons.
B – When does a bourbon’s flavor profile start to turn the corner from too young to good?
H – It turns the corner sooner than you think. After 6 months in the wood, bourbon is very dark and the oak is ever present. Many of the basic flavors are there and from then on it is just a matter of time to get deeper, more complex flavors from under the char layer. Officially I would say after about 4 or 5 years it is mellowed out enough for me, but again, that’s personal preference.
B – What about from good to over-oaked?
H – There really isn’t an end point because so many people love the older whiskey flavors. The end point is really a physical problem due to the evaporation of the barrel. After so many years there is literally nothing left.
B – Do you have a age range for what you like personally?
H – My range is 8-12 years for rye bourbon, and 12-15 years for wheated bourbon.
As Harlen stated, there are a lot of other factors at play in a bourbons developing flavor profile other than age. The environment a bourbon is aged in is almost as important as the duration. Take Blanton’s and Buffalo Trace for instance. They’re aged 5-6 years and 8(ish) years respectively and have similar mash bills but yet they have a much different flavor profile when tasted side by side. The difference comes from the warehouses they’re aged in. Blanton’s is aged in warehouse H which is a metal-clad warehouse and Buffalo Trace is aged in warehouse C a more traditional style warehouse. There’s no denying that the difference in flavor that comes from the different aging environments (also see my post about Weller 12 from different warehouse levels).
Are we wasting money by paying more for older bourbons? For some reason ultra-aged bourbons have become a new trend. The majority of bourbons that are left to age this long become over-oaked and require heavy filtering just to be considered “OK” bourbon however every now and then an ultra-aged bourbon comes along that is truly excellent, i.e. Parker’s Heritage #2 27 year old bourbon. Ultra-aged bourbons are more like NFL Quarterbacks in their mid-thirties. For every Brett Favre and Peyton Manning there’s thousands of other guys watching the game from their couch.
Does a bourbons age matter? The best answer I can come up with is – bourbons age is vital, until it doesn’t matter.