Three years can make that great a difference? “It doesn’t have to be three years,” he responds. “It can be six months. Sometimes it goes over the cliff and never comes back because there’s too much wood in it.”
Wood type plays a role, too. Japanese whiskey offers a useful example. Since Japan traditionally didn’t have access to French or American oak, particularly after World War II shut off Western supplies, Japan’s scotch-like whiskeys are aged in Mizunara, also known as Japanese oak. The tight grain of Mizunara, explains Gardner Dunn, an American representative for Japan’s Suntory Whisky, means that more time is needed to release flavors from the wood. As a result, it’s not unusual to see 25- to 30-year-old Japanese whiskeys. Suntory recently released a 50-year-old bottling, which has been billed as Japan’s most expensive single malt but isn’t available in the U.S.
The benefits of aging whiskey and brandy in barrels—up to a point—are clear. But what about spirits that don’t need to suck up “wood goodies” for their flavor, like vodka, gin, and most liqueurs? A lack of barrel time isn’t stopping some bartenders from experimenting with “vintage” bottling—but there’s no reason to think those bottles have gotten better with age. A bottled 80-proof spirit, if kept in a cool and dry environment, will keep more or less indefinitely, though “it won’t improve,” according to Pickerell. But bottled liquors below 80 proof are more volatile. What’s more, botanicals (the industry term for herbs, spices, flowers, and other added flavorings) may change in flavor over time and not always for the better.
At Pouring Ribbons—the thoughtful East Village bar dubbed by Imbibe magazine as the “best new cocktail bar” of 2012—co-owner Troy Sidle has assembled a noteworthy spread of 15 vintage Chartreuse bottles, all sourced from his own collection and spanning up to 70 years old.
I had the opportunity to sample a 1994 bottling of Yellow Chartreuse alongside a new bottle, courtesy of Tim Master, a representative of Frederick Wildman & Sons, the New York-based importer of Chartreuse. Eighteen years made a big difference: Though still drinkable, the older liqueur had faded from a trademark sunny yellow to a pale straw hue, and the botanicals were muted. The older Chartreuse tasted of mellow honey and anise, while the newer one contained bright cinnamon, vanilla, and mint notes. The discrepancy might have been the result of oxidization in the bottle or perhaps a sign that the recipe had evolved over the decades. Probably both.
The effects of aging on Chartreuse may be unpredictable—though not necessarily unpleasant—but other bottles are always best kept on the shelf. I found this out the hard way: sipping a 1970s-era “vintage martini” served at a Tanqueray event to commemorate what would have been Frank Sinatra’s birthday.
Poured at Mulberry Street Bar in Little Italy, a dark-paneled dive where Old Blue Eyes was known to enjoy his share of martinis, this one would have disappointed Sinatra for sure. Left in the bottle for decades, the juniper that ordinarily gives gin its perky, piney note had blunted (another example of those unstable botanicals). And mixing that flabby gin with an elderly bottle of vermouth did it no favors.
Tanqueray rep Angus Winchester conceded that this was essentially a stunt martini. “After 10 years, we don’t recommend it,” explained Winchester, who stirred martinis in a gallone, an Italian pitcher used for making several drinks at a go. “It gets out of balance.” Although there was some magic to sharing a martini with Sinatra’s ghost, in the end, it was a conceptual drink better left to the imagination.
And while there’s nothing wrong with the occasional conceptual drink, if taste is what you’re after, it’s best to regard superaged spirits with skepticism. I, for one, intend to keep my gin young and sprightly, my whiskey middle-aged and mellow, and my history in a book—not in my glass.