Forty-Year-Old Gin? Fifty-Year-Old Whiskey? When Is a Spirit Too Old to Drink?

Wine, beer, and other potent potables.
March 18 2013 5:15 AM

Past Their Prime

When is a superaged spirit too old to drink?

Suntory Yamazaki 50-Year-Old whisky.
Suntory Yamazaki single malt 50-year-old whiskey

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.”

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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.”

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.

Kara Newman is a New York–based spirits and cocktail writer, and is the author of Cocktails for a Crowd (Chronicle Books).