Friday, January 12, 2018

Should You Decant Your Whiskey?

Doesn't that look nice? Sure, but does decanting do anything for the whiskey?

With some wine, decanting prepares the wine for serving. It does this in two ways. First, proper decanting keeps sediment in the bottle. Second, it aerates the wine. Neither is an issue with whiskey.

Because we call this vessel a decanter, people tend to apply the wine analogy, but whiskey is more robust than wine. There is very little you can do to hurt it or help it. Decanting whiskey has no practical value.

So why decant whiskey? The sole reason is so you can serve it from an attractive decanter rather than a tacky bottle.

It is more about decorating than drinking, which is not to say decorating is a trivial thing.

To personalize this, I have a lot of whiskey around the house. Some of it is in cabinets but some is out in the open, in several different rooms, in bottles. Sometimes I wish I was the guy who keeps a nice decanter of fine bourbon on a silver tray with a few matching glasses, on a spiffy side table in my elegantly furnished sitting room. Maybe two decanters, the other one with the house cognac.

In my imagination it is a Victorian scene, but there are modern equivalents.

For better or worse, I am not that guy.

If you are that person, I salute you. I may not practice elegance, but I respect it. There is nothing wrong with decanting, but don't believe anyone who says it affects the whiskey one way or the other. It doesn't.

From a lifestyle perspective, maybe the way you enjoy whiskey (or any fine spirit) is to buy a bottle, drink it until it is gone, then buy another one of the same or different provenance. If you are that person, the decanter model works great for you. Again, there are times when I wish I was that person, but I'm not. If you are, God bless you. That is a perfectly fine way to be too.

So, to decant or not? As with most whiskey-related questions, the only right answer is to do what pleases you most.

AFTERTHOUGHT (10/11/2021). While watching an old movie recently, it occurred to me that the frequent appearance of decanters in movies and TV shows may be part of what drives curiosity about their use. I believe decanters are often used in those circumstances to avoid showing an actual or fictional brand. That's not to say you don't see bottles in movies, of course you do, but I believe decanters appear more often in fiction than they do in real life for that reason.

AFTER-AFTERTHOUGHT (10/19/21). Decanters were born in a world before bottling. In a time when glass was almost as precious as gold, a decanter would be filled from a barrel in the cellar. Glass bottles didn't become common until they became cheap and that didn't happen until the beginning of the 20th century.  


Erik Fish said...

I decant whiskeys where I don't like the bottle. I always have lots of bottles open, so they are around for awhile and contribute to the ambience. And I just can't abide certain styles. Like the anorexic-wine-bottle look on Eagle Rare. Or Crown Royal; not bad for a Canadian blend, but who's going to put a bottle on his shelf that looks like a giant perfume flask? Some scotch I like comes in opaque bottles, like Highland Park Dark Origins; great stuff, but I want to see my whisky, so the bottle has to go.
So I keep some cleaned-up Bulleit bottles around; love that style. They're my decanters. An unobtrusive stick-on label tells me what's currently inside. Works great. And if impressionable friends think I have my own hand-bottled whiskeys, all the better :)

Anonymous said...

I have to disagree to some degree about the aeration. A whiskey bottle that has been open some time (months) or a glass that has been poured and sat for an hour or so, tastes quite different than a freshly poured glass or opened bottle. In multiple blind tastings, shaken bottles that are then poured, have consistently performed better than non-shaken (see bourbonr reviews or try for yourself). I have found on nearly every bottle and glass had, that some time open really "smooths" (alcohol evaporation I assume) the whiskey and allows for a lot of the flavours to come through. I highly recommend the next time a bottle is near the end at the bar, you order it and ask for a another pour from the new bottle that replaces the old. I have found myself shocked that I am even drinking the same whiskey.

So, I do believe that a decanter could add some tasting value, but maybe not enough to get over the snobbery aspects.

Anonymous said...

Q. So why decant whiskey?
A. To hide the true identity of the whiskey being served.

Anonymous said...

In the good old days cheap glass decanters and matching glasses were a classic Christmas gift. There are apparently good reasons not to decant into lead crystal.

Dave S

Brian McDaniel said...

So Chuck, you don't believe in using that wine preservation gas with your whiskey? Ralfy Mitchell uses it. But to be honest, Ralfy does a lot of odd things.

Anonymous said...

I love that Sazerac (baby saz) bottle,while not my favorite pour that bottle is very unique.

Mark said...

I have to agree with the person who finds that oxidation can change a whiskey - I find it it particularly the case with oaky/well aged, or high proof whiskies. However, I find the changes take place over days/weeks, if not months, not hours as seems to be the case with wine.

I still remember the first time I was lucky enough to get an Eagle Rare 17 - I had a pour immediately after opening it, and it was lifeless and overoaked, and I couldn't understand how it had the reputation it did. I revisited it a couple days later, and it was much more in line with what I had hoped for, as the oakiness was dialed back enough to be well balanced with the other flavors, and the flavors that were there had a lot more "pop" to them.

Brian McDaniel said...

All of this sounds completely anecdotal and subjective. Completely and entirely. Unprovable.

Anonymous said...

It doesn't matter if you open it or put it in a decanter. What matters is how you pour it. Splash it out and excess O2 will get sucked back into the blend and mix. This will cause oxidization and it will change the flavor over a period of a few weeks to a couple of months. Pour it gently and reseal it while it s still tipped. Or drink it all in a few days and it doesn't matter.

Rye Whiskey Lover said...

On a related note, I decant in a 1950's Old Grand Dad bottle because it just looks awesome. Any way to preserve that cork that is attached to the glass stopper? Thanks and love your work!

Chuck Cowdery said...

Stopper rehab is outside my area of expertise. Sorry.

Anonymous said...

I've collected a wide variety of about 50 cork stoppers over the course of time so I have a replacement if and when another cork disintegrates. You'll have something comparable in appearance and fit. As you empty bottles, just save the good corks.

Nicholle said...

Well, for me I actually decant my Whiskey especially if I find something unique decanter. For me the taste wasn't changed at all it was always the same.

Anonymous said...

Overall I'm going to agree with decanting being for aesthetics; however, I practice it with the occasional Whiskey where I think it would have benefited from more age. One current example being a corn whiskey which had enough oak but not enough oxidation. I may pour the 750ml bottle into a 1.75 liter bottle and top it off with oxygen. Cork it, shake it and repeat the oxygen blast then see where it is in two months. Being unsure of the lead content of the pretty decanter I own, it isn't something I keep it in for an extended amount of time. It is as likely to go to a mason jar as the original bottle and I rarely remember to write what the contents are on said mason jar so end up with a guessing game when cleaning out the cabinet. It's one way to save or ruin a bottle of something that isn't just right in my opinion.
-brewer Jeff from Austin

Anonymous said...

I have been a wine collector for 45 years and possess a few thousand bottles, help me. What I have found out is the same with all liquors or wines, open them up and there is a definitive change. Wine will degrade as we all know rather quickly. I could go on for two hours about that, save that discussion for another time. For some of my very special bottles of scotch and bourbon I do two things. I have a very long, very large by ML eye dropper. I do not pour or shake the bottles. I gas and recork. Why? I want to retain the original taste if you will, and the hope that there will be little degradation over the years. Yes years. So far, so good. This is a personal thing for me. I could be a little over the top with this but the desire to preserve what was in the bottle is driven by the decades of wine collecting. There is only two things wrong with collecting wine. it changes dramatically over time, decades, and when you open an old bottle sometimes you only have 15 minutes to drink it or the flavor profile changes. Usual for the worse.

Brian McDaniel said...

Whiskey is a completely, completely different animal from wine. The alcohol content is way way higher and that means they aren't comparable at all.

Brian (AKA The Dean) said...

Actually, Brian McDaniel, you just compared the alcohol content of whiskey and wine, so they ARE comparable. Anything can be compared to anything else. But they are not equivalent.

With that said, many (if not most) "experts" suggest letting your whiskey rest for some time (10 minutes, I see mentioned quite a bit) before drinking. And if you've ever found a very old bottle of whiskey unopened/sealed but considerably reduced in volume, how do you account for the reduction? Of course whiskey can evaporate.

Ever pour a snifter of cognac, but not finish it that very evening? I have. It doesn't taste the same the next morning. It seems, sitting open for hours mellows the taste, quite a bit.

But as you said earlier, Brian, these are all anecdotal stories. That doesn't mean this phenomon can't be studied scientifically. Surely there can be chemical analyses done to examine any differences from exposure (of various lengths of time) to oxygen. But as chemical analysis only goes so far, we could also do blind tastings, comparing the flavor of the same whiskey in various stages of exposure to the air. Get a big enough (and diverse enough) sample, a number of different distillates and you may start to see some very real differences in perceived taste.

But until then, logic suggests exposure to the air makes SOME difference---just probably not very much, especially when compared to wine.

Now back to decanters. I find them pretentious and I typically suspect their contents are something less than desirable. I have a few clients who decant, and it's usually JD Black in the "Bourbon" or "Whiskey" decanter. But I doubt they have much impact on the flavor of the whiskey, unless the seal is terrible and/or they are kept exposed to a lot of light.

Brian McDaniel said...

By not comparable, I mean they are totally different. That's what the word means. I mean the alcohol content is hugely different and makes a huge difference. Wine and whiskey do not behave the same at all because of the hugely different alcohol content. Fact.

Anonymous said...

Difference between whisky and wine is irrelevant here. O2 - molecular oxygen in air - doesn't become less chemically active as oxidizer just because a liquid has over 40% or even over 50% of ethanol in it. Ethanol will preserve a liquid by keeping microorganisms out, sure, so a distilled spirit can't go sour or "spoil". But the aromatic congeners in it WILL oxidize with time and exposure to air. Whether the flavor improves or degrades from that will vary with the spirit and time (and the palate's ability to detect the change). Very often an older more mature spirit will improve/benefit from a few minutes in the glass or a few weeks/months in opened bottle. Decanting will accelerate this. Personally I've yet to taste any seriously degraded whisky or cognac - but I do finish bottles once they pass 1/3, just to be sure.

IMHO citing a glass of cognac or whisky left overnight is not the same - it smooths out from ethanol evaporation (and water, too), not just oxidation. So the resulting liquid will probably be lower proof but also more concentrated in non-volatile flavors (and it will have lost the more volatile aromatics, so it'll be "different").