I just celebrated a birthday. I’m 42, which means it’s been 21 years since I turned 21. So age has been firmly on my mind. Am I getting better (or wiser or more attractive) or am I simply getting older? I saw a study a few years ago, published in the Neurobiology of Aging, which pinpointed that men’s dexterity peaks at age 39, which I sailed past a few years back. Researchers at UCLA proved that the old greeting card jokes are true: After 39, men’s brains and motor skills decline “with an accelerating trajectory.” When I start pondering the idea of aging in this way, it generally leads me to one thing: A glass of bourbon or rye.
The whiskey, of course, leads me back to thinking about aging. If I were a whiskey, I wonder, would I be considered over-the-hill, or would drinkers be willing to pay top dollar for me? If a poll, conducted in 2010 by Chivas Brothers is to be believed, consumers would see me as a decent buy. Better than, say, a 25-year-old hipster. But most would want to leave me in the barrel a few more years. Chivas found that 94 percent of consumers believe that the age statement on a whiskey serves as an indicator of quality, and 89 percent actively look to the age statement when making a purchase.
Chivas, of course, was most concerned with Scotch whiskey, but the same holds true when we talk about American whiskey enthusiasts and age. I see it when certain buddies come over. My standard evening pour is a maybe six-year-old rye or an eight- to 10-year-old bourbon. But when the, ahem, whiskey snobs are over, they demand something middle-aged from my cabinet, say, a 12-year-old W.L. Weller or 17-year-old Eagle Rare or 18-year-old Elijah Craig. Or maybe something even older, say, a 23-year-old Pappy Van Winkle, or 25-year-old Michter’s, or 27-year-old Parker’s Heritage Collection. I am, of course, always a good host and oblige.
Still, in my 42nd year I’ve really started thinking hard about all this age lust. Older is certainly more expensive, but is older always better? And so a question arose: What is the optimal age for American whiskey?
LINES IN THE SAND
Of course, when I started asking around Kentucky, strident and conflicting positions quickly emerged on bourbon.
“Eight to 10 years is premium bourbon,” insists Eddie Russell at Wild Turkey. “After about 12 years the oak just takes over. Fifteen- to 18-year-old is a just a novelty. It doesn’t taste like a bourbon anymore. It’s just wood whiskey.”
Russell even went one step further, questioning the taste of those who prefer older bourbons. “To me,” he says. “They are not bourbon connoisseurs.”
Jim Rutledge, master distiller at Four Roses, echoes Russell’s sentiment. “I think you have scotch drinkers who prefer the older bourbons. But bourbon should have a sweetness that scotch doesn’t have. Bourbon will peak between six and eight years, when the sugars are at their peak. After that, it will begin to trail off.”
It is no coincidence, of course, that most of the whiskeys Russell and Rutledge produce fall in the eight-to-10-year-old range. Four Roses Single Barrel is around nine years old; Russell’s Reserve is 10.
It was equally unsurprising that Julian Van Winkle, whose flagship bourbon is the 23-year-old (and $350) Pappy Van Winkle, politely disagreed with them. “I feel that 15 years or older are the better bourbons,” Van Winkle says, calling even 15 years “midrange” and adding that a 12-year-old is his everyday whiskey.
Van Winkle did agree on one thing, however: The market for older bourbons has been driven by single-malt converts. “We’ve captured a bunch of single-malt drinkers who once thought bourbon was too young. Diplomatically, he added: “Optimal age? Who knows what that is? I’m used to older bourbons because that’s what I grew up on. It’s all a matter of personal preference. Different strokes for different folks.”
KENTUCKY IS NOT SCOTLAND
Of course, bourbons and ryes are always going to be younger than scotch. For one, American whiskey goes into charred, new oak barrels that impart significantly more influence on the liquid, compared to the barrels used in scotch aging, which previously held sherry, port, or bourbon.
Beyond the barrel, Scotland’s a lot cooler than Kentucky, which gets hot as hell in the summertime. “When it gets really hot over long periods of time, that’s when you start to get the real woody flavor,” Van Winkle says.
Grain also matters. With American whiskey, what’s in the mash bill often plays a big factor in how long it can age. Bourbon always contains a majority of corn, but the choice of wheat or rye for the secondary grain will often determine its aging potential. Many believe wheated bourbons such as Van Winkle or Weller can age much longer. On the flip side, Maker’s Mark, one of the younger bourbons on the market, is also wheated.
“Wheat marries better with the oak,” Van Winkle says. “I describe our 20 year old as ‘butter whiskey’ because it’s so soft on the tongue.”
Rye, on the other hand, is much more difficult to age for long periods of time. “Rye is such a special flavor, and you don’t want too much oak,” Russell say. Wild Turkey 101 is only aged 4 years, and the Russell’s Reserve rye is only six and a half years.
“There really aren’t many old, old rye whiskeys on the market,” Van Winkle says.
Still, there are exceptions, such as Michter’s 25-year-old and Sazerac 18-year-old. Van Winkle produces an even older rye, but as it turned 19 approaching 20 years old, Van Winkle took it out of the barrel and put it in a stainless steel tank to stop the aging. “It was much better at 13 years,” he says. “I wish I’d taken it out of the barrel before I did.”
Discussing age with big distilleries in Kentucky is one thing. Talk with smaller microdistillers across the country, and you quickly hear a different story. Cash flow is such an issue for small start-up distilleries that they need product to sell…yesterday. That’s why so many begin with vodka or another white spirit, or even release a white dog. Ten or 20 years of aging is nowhere in the business plan. In fact, even five or six is almost out of the question. The solution: Small distilleries used small barrels for quicker aging.
At Tuthilltown Spirits in Gardiner, New York, Gable Erenzo says they use barrels ranging from three to 14 gallons to age their whiskeys for blending, as opposed to the standard 53-gallon barrels used at the bigger bourbon distillers. Smaller barrels mean more contact for the liquid on the wood. “For us, age is very dependent on the size of the barrel,” Erenzo says. “For small distilleries, for start-ups, small barrels are expected.”
When talking about small barrels, the time periods discussed shift from years to months, or even days. Erenzo says Tuthilltown estimates about 45 days per gallon in the smaller barrels. “If we leave whiskey in a five-gallon barrel for eight months, you get the same flavor profile you’d have after eight to 12 years in a 53-gallon barrel,” Erenzo says.
But Erenzo also believes smaller barrels give his whiskey its unique taste. “We’re getting deeper flavor out of the wood. When we migrated out of the smaller barrels, we found we weren’t getting the same flavor profile,” Erenzo says. “So we sort of shot ourselves in the foot. We’re the only ones stupid enough to use three-gallon barrels.”
Even more unusual about Tuthilltown’s whiskeys are the mash bill. Their white whiskey and its Hudson Baby Bourbon is 100 percent corn. Its Hudson Four-Grain whiskey is 60 percent corn. “What I like about younger whiskeys is the raw, vibrant flavor. You can really taste the grains,” Erenzo says. “I don’t think anything about 12 years works.”
IS THE PROOF IN THE PRICE?
What distillers say and what consumers perceive are, of course, two different things entirely. After all, the consumer sees that older whiskeys are usually more expensive than younger whiskeys. So they must be better, right?
Older whiskeys, though, are more expensive for one simple reason: supply and demand. There’s only so much whiskey left in the barrel after years of evaporation. “The price point makes sense,” Erenzo says. “The longer the whiskey stays in the barrel the less whiskey you’re going to have.”
And price isn’t always just an effect of age. Buffalo Trace’s recent, experimental, limited edition Single Oak Project—which is only aged eight years and three months—is selling for $46 per 375 milliliters. What you’re paying for in the case of the Single Oak Project is a combination of things—rarity (only 400 cases of each), the interesting backstory of the experiment, as well as the attention and care lavished on each barrel. It’s a story that mostly will appeal to the hard-core whiskey aficionado.
For everyone else, age trumps all.
“The perception is that age is good,” Rutledge says. “But that’s not always true. Even with scotch.”