Thursday, December 5, 2013

What A Drag It Is Getting Old

I am generally not a fan of bourbons and ryes aged more than 12-years. When I do like one, it's usually in the sense of "it's pretty good for something that old."

I did a lot of camping in my youth and when a whiskey starts to taste the way I smelled after several days in front of a campfire, it loses me.

Earlier this week, I expressed this view in a somewhat forceful way in a different forum and got a lot of pushback. People who like very old whiskey tend to be passionate and perhaps a bit defensive. So let me be clear. This is about what I like. You may like something different. That's okay.

This is an issue limited to American straight whiskey, bourbon and rye (and Tennessee whiskey too), because the new charred oak barrel imparts so much flavor. Scotch, Irish, Canadian, Japanese and just about every other whiskey species aged in used barrels tend to always get better with age, although there are exceptions.

With scotch, heavy peating might be parallel. It's a very strong flavor that you either love or hate.

Long aging is very risky and expensive for distilleries as so much is lost to evaporation and there is always a question mark as to how what is left will come out. We had a lot of very old whiskey in the recent past because of the post-collapse glut, some good - some not, but distilleries will try to avoid that if they can.

I'd say the 'sweet spot' is 8-12 years and distillers have been bottling more in that range in recent years. For me, it's about balance. I prefer whiskey that has a good balance of all the elements and is not super-heavy in one or another of them.

It's okay to have a different preference.

There's also a bit of a trick involved with very long aging as it's done now (i.e., post-glut). Barrels intended for long aging are put into the lowest and most central warehouse locations; which are cooler, with less temperature variation, and higher humidity. Some producers are experimenting now with very large casks, which might also lend themselves to long aging.

I'm all for offering many different styles, whether I happen to like them all or not.


Anonymous said...

"I'm all for offering many different styles, whether I happen to like them all or not."

So long as you stay off my lawn!

Dan C. said...

To add to the evaporation loss point, in the Alton Brown podcast Julian Van Winkle said that he estimated that they could get about 18 cases of the 10 year per barrel but perhaps only 10 cases of the 20 year and then down to 6-7 cases of the 23 year. That's a big loss. That helps explains the scarcity of older spirits, and therefore the higher cost associated with them.

sam k said...

We're in an almost ostracized minority, Chuck. The rest of the world's "informed consumers" want the hoppiest beers, the hottest Southwestern cuisine, the smokiest Islays, the deepest, darkest coffees, the oldest Pappy.

Much as the realm of politics has become uber-polarized, so have the tastes of many consumers who can no longer comprehend balance as an option.

When I see Lew Bryson taking grief for simply championing the cause of session beers, I can only scratch my head and wonder what's happened to reason.

I have nothing against these preferences, I just don't understand the constant and overwhelming need for over-the-top at all times, and at all costs.

I've even gone on a bit of a crusade of my own, looking for great cheap whiskeys wherever I go, just to counterbalance the other end of that spectrum. You know what? (And yes, you do!)

There are plenty of them out there, in quantity, available almost everywhere. Pappy be damned!

Chuck Cowdery said...

Sam and I disagree about some things but on this there is not a sliver of daylight between us. I also rarely spend more than $10 for a bottle of wine.

Justin said...

I often wonder about the disconnect between the "all knowing" whiskey reviewers and the common man. Chuck, as you have so frequently pointed out that many a newby to the world of whisky reads what the so called experts like and then go and buy that so that they can "avoid any heavy lifting on the way to connoisseurship." I think there is a lot of that going on. Someone says this whisky is better because it's older. So the feeding frenzy ensues and people bunker up on it. Too many of us forget how truly awesome some of the main stream bourbons really are. Take knob creek for example. After tasting the new beam 12 I am of the opinion that knob creek may be the true sweet spot coming out of Clearmont, and it's nine years old.

Different factions in Scotland have been going to bat for years on the age issue in trying to educate joe punter that age does not necessarily mean better.

One of my favorite whiskies out there is predominately only 2 years old: Stanahan's Colorado. The guys in Colorado are achieving success by making a whiskey all their own.

Drink what you like. Age is not a definitive statement of quality.

Ben said...

There is this odd obsession many have with age statements. I think it has something to do with using a quantitative measure to judge something inherently qualitative. It may justify the price point for some, even if it's not something they honestly prefer. The power of suggestion and mindset of "older is better, more is better" is pervasive.

Which of course brings up another point: how aggressive a spirit was aged. If something is aged in a refrigerated warehouse for 18 years, is it really 18 years old? What about next to a furnace?

What does time taste like?

Unknown said...


I don't think the interest in age statements is all about an obsession with old whiskey. It's more about losing a well-aged whiskey to the distillery's interest in filling more bottles by using younger, and possibly not quite ready, whiskey. The age statement is a reassurance that the distillery allowed the whiskey to reach maturity.

CWelch said...

I have no doubt that some folks genuinely prefer the taste of older, woody whiskeys. However, I think a majority of the demand for very old whiskeys is simply due to fact that they are rarer and more expensive. Many folks would eagerly fork over the cash for an expensive bottle of 20 year old bourbon that is past its prime, all the while convincing themselves that they are special and that the whiskey is among the best they've had.

merrymash said...

All very good points here. I do like the inclusion of an age statement, just because I like knowing as much as possible about the whiskey I'm drinking; not because older whiskey is inherently better.
I too have found that most bourbon over 12 years (or even slightly younger) can be too woody. And since rye is a complex and rich flavored grain to begin with, I like that younger still. I find that 4-6 years of barrel time for a rye is the sweet spot for my palate.
Sam k: You are not alone. I too am puzzled by the craze for triple hopped (usually high alcohol) IPA's, peat asphyxiated versions of Islay whisky, and yes... 20+ year old bourbons.
On the bright side for those of us who like balanced whiskeys: Perhaps the demand and fashion for the big flavor monster spirits helps keep the supply up and the price down for the nicely balanced drams that we enjoy.

buffdaddy7533 said...

It is silly to expect me to prove I am a human & not a robot. Please get rid of the BS Capitcha crap and treat your commentators as adults!
As for older aged whiskey vs younger whiskies....Well listen Pilgrim.... I stole this money fair and square so please let me piss it away as I please without your approval!

Chuck Cowdery said...

Sadly, spam never takes a holiday, but you can avoid the captcha by opening a Google account.

Anonymous said...

I think the notion that "older is better" follows the same flawed theory that "expensive is better". I bought a PVW 20yr (retail a couple years back) without ever having tried it, and I honestly prefer a blend of Weller 12/Old Weller Antique (at a sixth of the cost). People should explore as you encourage them. Just because others like or dislike something doesn't mean squat.