Tuesday, April 9, 2013

How Long Does It Take to Make Good Bourbon?

"How Long Does It Take to Make Good Bourbon?" he asked with the innocence of youth.

Little did he know what a slug fest asking that question can ignite. Since the micro-distiller age has dawned, much of the discussion on that question has been bullshit. This is an attempt to answer it honestly and equitably in the context of our times.

Most micro-distillers are faced with a dilemma. They rarely have enough capital, or patience, to put their product away for four years or more, so they try to come up with ways to make it drinkable at a younger age. If they tell you it's the product they want to make and not a financial decision, they are lying. If it's not money it's petulance. They just don't want to wait so long.

So we have small barrels, spirals, vacuum pumps, finishes, and rationales that remind one of the fable, "The Emperor's New Clothes." And we have a lot of very hot, harsh, white-doggy spirits.

But it's not all bullshit. Some producers have tried to solve the problem thoughtfully and stylistically, remembering that the first rule of beverage making is: "Don't try to pass off disgusting crap with a good story. Make something that, first and foremost, tastes good."

At this, some have been more successful than others, but no product has been completely satisfying. Still, it's a worthy quest and none of them have been at it for very long. They will get better. They probably hurt themselves when they call their product 'bourbon' or 'rye whiskey,' if the taste and character one usually associates with those styles are nowhere to be found.

Which brings us back to the original question: "How Long Does It Take to Make Good Bourbon?" Let's assume that by "good bourbon," the questioner means the drink most whiskey drinkers would recognize as "good bourbon." The wisdom of the families and companies who have been making bourbon for a long time--several centuries in some cases--is that in a climate similar to Kentucky, it takes a minimum of four years in new charred wood to make something you would like to drink.

There are a few three-year-olds out there from the major distilleries, and they pretty much prove the point.

And four years, in itself, is a short cut compared to the minimum ten to twelve years it takes in chilly Scotland or Ireland. The short cut Americans came up with is the new, charred oak barrel, emphasis on 'new.' That innovation was a different and shorter route to deliciousness, but it made a different style of whiskey, as did our use of corn and rye instead of barley malt. We call that style 'bourbon.' 'Tennessee whiskey' is what Tennessee producers call the same style.

In a way, American rye whiskey should be called 'rye bourbon,' since it is whiskey made in the bourbon style but with rye as the dominant grain rather than corn. Wheat whiskey could probably be called 'wheat bourbon,' using the same logic. That's because, under U.S. rules, mash bill is the only variable. All require the new, charred oak barrel.

But that's just by way of making a point. No one is proposing that nomenclature.

If you're worried about all of those used-once barrels going into land fills, they don't. They go to Scotland, Ireland, Canada, Mexico, Puerto Rico, Jamaica. You get the idea.

Looked at in that broad historical context, you can say today's micro-distillers are working on their own new style of whiskey, something that's tasty after less than four years in wood, and frequently much less. It's a work in progress. Some are trying to do it the old-fashioned way, although few have anything on the market that's more than two years old.

Eventually, though, they will. And through experimentation the younger products will get better too. Either that, or there will be a lot of second-hand stills for sale.

So, again, back to the question. Traditionally, in Kentucky and Tennessee, the consensus is that four years is the minimum, five to six is better, eight to ten is optimum, and beyond ten you're again getting into a different, wood-heavy style, which is risky but can be superb.


Unknown said...

Great piece, Chuck.

Dad always says, and I agree somewhat, that 8 years is the optimum maturation. From a consumer basis, this bears out as the studies show diminishing consumer returns as the taste profile advances much beyond that timeframe. Of course, there is still the place for the nuances of older distillate....


Lazer said...

I think 2012 saw the release of some two-year-old "craft" whiskey. My prediction is that in 2013 we might see some 3-year-old and in 2014 we'll hit the big 4 years. I'm very good with numbers, especially the ones I can count with my fingers.

Anonymous said...

Chuck, one thing that has puzzled me is how well Kilchoman, on Islay, has done with their very young Scotch whisky. Without the benefits of a warmer/drier climate or new barrels, they've been turning out pretty good Scotch with only a few years of barrel maturation (5 is their max, as of today).

I fully expect that we will see some new techniques/technologies prove successful in this area. I expect that smaller barrels will be a success, while vacuum pumps will not.

Chuck Cowdery said...

The better of the small distillers tell me it's all about the distillate. If you're going to age something for less than normal, you need a cleaner distillate. Then the trick is keeping enough flavor without getting too much.

David D said...

That's a great point about Kilchoman and you're right about the reason, Chuck: Kilchoman is taking smaller heart cuts and putting optimal resources into making as good of a distillate as possible. However, with a spicy peated distillate that tastes great off the still, you don't want to mask it with too much wood. That's why those whiskies taste so good in their youth. Column still corn distillate, however, isn't something that I've ever been wowed by the way I have with Kilchoman's new-make spirit. Maybe someone can do that and create something more satisfying in its youth. I haven't seen or tasted one, however.

Chuck Cowdery said...

A good example of what can be done is Koval, not with corn but with rye, wheat, oats, spelt, and millet. With the quality of their distillate, very brief aging adds characteristics but doesn't have to rectify anything. Yes, I think aging can be considered a rectification technique and, no, I can't think of anyone who has accomplished the same thing with corn. Town Branch might be close. Their corm spirit is very mild, perhaps because they use processed corn rather than whole grain.

Anonymous said...


I like TPS (The Party Source) as a Retailer.

Personally not sure what they have planned for distillery they are building on their grounds.

Warehousing extremely important to bourbon.

What they have planned for warehousing to age bourbon is a Mystery.

Anonymous said...

You're being generous... for the most part it is ALL bullshit.

Anonymous said...

Balcones for corn? They use blue hopi corn and most of their product is very young. However, the quality control through fermentation and distillation followed by aging in a variety of barrel sizes creates an excellent final product. I am surprised I am first to mention it with all of the attention they have received lately. Balcones True Blue 100 and True Blue Cask strength are young but pretty complete whiskeys. They are releasing a single barrel bourbon to commemorate their 5th anniversary. 100% corn and finished in eastern european oak barrels. Cask strength.

Anonymous said...

Richnimrod says;
Here's a question for which I already know the answer....
How long does it take to DRINK good Bourbon? Hint: it ain't all that long.

Alex said...

Stranahan's is my favorite craft whiskey. It's all malt and it's aged 2 years, I believe, but in a temperature-controlled warehouse. To me, it tastes as good or better than the 4 year-old bourbons on the market from the big producers.

Anonymous said...

As far as I understand it none of the large bourbon producers make any heads cuts so they certainly need time in the barrel to clean up their spirit. Does it turn out good? WIthout question yes. There is a reason they go for the #3 char though. Does the micro stuff in small barrels taste the same? No. I have to agree that this is something of a style difference but I am not sure which is better. I first came around to whiskey drinking Irish whiskey's perhaps because they also make some heads cuts and are cleaner. I wonder if new whiskey drinkers would find the micro producer's products better for this cleaner taste. Probably part of the reason the majors never tried selling their white dog is because it was awful and needs the heavy char and time to filter out all of the impurities. An interesting Buffalo Trace experiment would be to take young drinkers and have them compare good micro whiskey with theirs and see which they like better, my guess is actually the micro.

Liberty said...

Chuck, I do believe that when I wrote something to the effect, 'These new distilleries should be called "Emperor's New Clothes Distillery"' in the ADI forums, that was what caused Forrester to boot me. HA! I'm glad to see someone say the same thing.

And, it's not just that - when they age their bourbon (no matter what the age is of the whiskey or size of the barrel) in a temperature-controlled warehouse? What the fuck!? You can pay someone to develop for you a great mashbill, and then show you how to turn the right knobs on a still...but how do they not understand that there's a relationship between how the temperature affects the movement in and our of the wood. How do they miss this reality? Did they not read that chapter in their study-guide?

ilium55 said...

Anon - Buffalo Trace sells their white dog, and it tastes like white dog

Liberty - some major distilleries have temperature controlled warehouses -- and use them for major products -- I believe the Blanton's warehouse (at Buffalo Trace) is steam heated

Lazer said...

Anon - you're right, whenever I hear somebody in a bar asking the bartender for something with a large heads cut I always think to myself, this guy hasn't developed much of a taste for whiskey yet.

Alex said...

Liberty, I believe you're referring to temperature changes moving the alcohol in and out of the wood?

I believe that explanation is over-simplified. Some molecular movement and diffusion of flavor and color compounds will always proceed faster at higher temperatures, so I don't believe there is any need for cold temperatures to "squeeze" the alcohol back out of the wood. Certainly there are other important reactions as well that contribute to the flavor of bourbon, such as filtering and oxidation, that maybe cannot be accelerated. This is why a 12 year-old bourbon produced in traditional warehouses with seasonal temperature fluctuations will never taste like a craft whiskey aged for 2 years in a small barrel and temperature-controlled warehouse.

Also, temperature-controlled doesn't mean that there aren't temperature fluctuations. I believe many of the heated warehouses cycle their temperature up and down much more frequently than nature could. That doesn't mean that they cool their warehouse to winter temperatures, but I'm not sure that's needed--cycling the temperature from 50 degrees to 80 degrees may be enough.

Anonymous said...

Let's not forget the "Ocean Aged" bourbon experiment that Jefferson's did, where they stored barrels on a boat for 3 years.

So if you combine all these...have hundreds of quater casks (or smaller) stored on a shaker table, in a hyperbaric, temperature controlled rickhouse with temps cycling from 30-100 degrees (48 cycles a day) and pressures cycling from 0 to 6 bar. That should get us some pretty good whiskey by Friday!

ilium55 said...

I was surprised that the Ocean Aged thing was caused such controversy. Madeira has been aged that way for some time, and Kelt ages one of their top level Cognacs in this manner.

Pete said...

Spring Mill Bourbon from Indiana is aged 4 years in new charred oak yet tastes much older. Sometimes, higher proof expressions lie Spring Hill carry a little more heat and flavor on the palate and finish "older".

Then again, I would make them all cask strength if I could.

I'm sure Harvey Fry would agree.

Sandy said...

Can you elaborate a bit more on why more than 10 years makes it risky? I'd assume the same kind of reasoning goes for rye whiskey, right? I ask as if you look at what many will select as the best rye whiskeys (http://www.ranker.com/list/best-rye-whiskey/bottoms-up has examples of what I mean), some are aged way past 10 years, like the 21-year-old High West Rocky Mountain and the Black Maple Hill 23-year-old straight. Are these exceptions to the rule or is there a difference I'm missing?

Chuck Cowdery said...

After about ten years, the character of the whiskey begins to shift to wood dominance and the grain and yeast character recedes. It's becoming a different style of whiskey. Just like a whiskey in the <10-year style can be good, bad, or indifferent, the same is true of the >10-year style, but it would be wrong to think that a good whiskey at <10 will be equally as good at >10. That's why I say it's risky. You know it's going to be different, but you don't know if it's going to be good.

Dale Bronstein said...

It can also have a lot to do with the temperature at which the whisky is distilled.

Some whiskeys don't do well when aged a long time in wood.

That is what killed Sehenley's original George T. Stagg brand in the 50s. It was meant to be an upgrade of the Old Stagg brand, but the eight year old whisky tasted "burnt" and people wouldn't buy it.

In those days no one would drink any Bourbon that was less than 4 years old (particularly because after the war there were 2 year olds on the market that were vile)

Four to six year old was considered the ideal with the real changes coming about around 8 years.

Until sometime in the 50s the bonding law meant that whiskies had to be paid at 8 years, so there was not much older product until the law was changed. Then Schenley came out with Champion as a 12 year old and the Very Old and Very, Very Old Fitzgeralds came from Stitzel-Weller.