Past Their Prime
When is a superaged spirit too old to drink?
Courtesy of Suntory
The first time I tasted a superaged spirit—a rare 50-year-old Glenfiddich single malt scotch—I was taken aback. Not by the whiskey itself, but by the rapturous swooning of the whiskey geeks all around me at a tasting hosted by the whiskey brand. “It’s chewy,” one commented, smacking his lips for emphasis. “It’s kaleidoscopic,” another assessed. “It tastes like cigar tobacco and leather … and then caramel and spice … and then I taste oak … and then … ” And finally: “It’s been almost 10 minutes and I’m still tasting it!”
Their reactions weren’t surprising: In the world of wine and spirits, we’ve been told that older is always better. Spirits producers and bartenders have capitalized on this belief, releasing old and rare vintages at an increasing clip and selling them at premium prices. To a certain extent, the logic makes sense: unaged “white dog” whiskey can be good, 17-year-old scotch can be great, and 20-year-old bourbon can be mind-blowing. But to my tongue, that 50-year-old Glenfiddich was delicious but not awe-inspiring. Are some supervintage spirits just too old?
“Yes,” Dave Pickerell emphatically says. As a former master distiller for Maker’s Mark in Kentucky for 14 years and the current master distiller for Hillrock Estate Distillery in New York’s Hudson Valley, Pickerell has aged his fair share of whiskeys. “It is possible for a spirit to get too old. Sometimes older is better—but sometimes it’s just older.”
There’s a lot of debate about optimal aging times—particularly for whiskey—and the ranges vary further still depending on how the spirit is made. But here’s a good rule of thumb: If it was aged in a barrel, those extra years might mean extra flavor. If it wasn’t, age is unlikely to correlate with quality.
When it comes to barrel-aged spirits like whiskey and brandy, Pickerell points to two key variables: the history of the barrel and the climate it’s stored in. Bourbon, for example, is aged in brand-new barrels in relatively dry conditions. By comparison, scotch is aged in previously used barrels in a relatively humid climate.
What distinguishes these two approaches is what Pickerell refers to as “the tea-bag effect”: The first time a tea bag (or barrel) is used, there’s more flavor to draw out. Resting in brand-new barrels, bourbon needs less time to extract what Pickerell calls “wood goodies”—it sucks vanilla and caramel flavors, as well as spice-like notes, out of the wood with ease. Many of those same bourbon barrels, once emptied, make their way to Scotland, where they are used to age Scotch whisky. At this point, most of the “wood goodies” have been depleted, so scotch often needs a longer aging time to suck out the remainders. Evaporation plays a role, too: In the dry climate favored by bourbon distillers, liquid evaporates more quickly, and the product becomes concentrated more quickly.
Pickerell puts the ideal aging range for rye (whiskey made with rye as its primary component, as opposed to corn or other grains) between nine and 11 years, while the “sweet spot” for bourbon (made with corn as its primary ingredient) is anywhere from six to 10 years. And scotch? “While it depends on the type and style,” he says, “20 years is a good number.”
But these aren’t necessarily hard and fast rules; there are plenty of delectable two-decade-old bourbons out there. Pickerell has had his share of favorites, too. “Pappy Van Winkle 20-year-old is a very tasty bourbon, not too tanniny,” he says. (Tannins—another byproduct of contact with oak—create that dry, unpleasantly puckery sensation in the mouth.) “But the 23-year-old is very tanniny.”
Kara Newman is a New York-based spirits and cocktail writer, and is the author of the forthcoming book Cocktails for a Crowd (Chronicle Books, May 2013).