Just like a child matures over time, whiskey, brandy, and other aged alcohols become more refined as they sit in barrels for several years. The aging process is crucial for many types of liquor because it gives them the expected color and flavor.
What Effect Does Aging Have on Liquor?
When alcohol goes into the barrel, it is clear and relatively tasteless, similar to vodka. As it spends time in the barrel, it absorbs flavors and colors from the wood, transforming into the dark spirit we are familiar with in the bottle.
Firstly, aged liquor appears darker than unaged liquor. Consider this: whiskey has an amber or golden brown color, while vodka is clear. This is because most whiskey is aged, while vodka is not.
There are exceptions to this in the world of whiskey. Moonshine, for instance, is unaged whiskey. Pisco is another example, as it cannot, by law, be aged in wood. Both moonshine and pisco are clear and colorless.
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The Flavor of the Barrel
More important than color is the flavor that aging adds to spirits. Additionally, this “flavor enhancement” smooths out any harsh notes found in the distillate, which refers to liquor straight out of the still.
You will often come across whiskey reviews that mention an “oakiness” or “undertones of charred oak.” As the spirit comes into contact with the wood, it absorbs some of those woody flavors, much like grilling salmon on a cedar plank.
The flavor varies depending on the type of wood used in the barrel.
Distilleries often experiment with different types of wood in their barrels, and enthusiasts eagerly anticipate the new tastes. The flavor of the liquor can also be influenced by the previous use of the barrel.
How to Determine the Age of Alcohol
Not all distilled spirits are aged, and some must meet certain minimum requirements to fall into a specific category. For example:
Single malt scotch and Irish whiskeys must be aged for a minimum of 3 years.
Other spirits, like rum, have no aging requirements.
Vodkas and gins are typically unaged.
Often, especially with whiskey, the label will indicate the age of the liquor. This is particularly true when the brand wishes to showcase the age of the bottling.
Why Is Whiskey Aged Longer Than Rum and Tequila?
Why do we not see many 50-year-old rums or 20-year-old tequilas? The simple answer is climate.
Consider the climate differences between major whiskey regions like the United States, Canada, Ireland, and Scotland, compared to Mexico where tequila is produced, and the Caribbean and South America where most rum is made. The climate of the region is the primary factor determining how long a spirit needs to be aged to reach its optimal potential.
In hotter climates, the aging process is naturally accelerated, so it is unnecessary to keep tequila or rum in barrels for more than a few years. Tequila reaches its peak at around 2 to 3 years, while rum averages about 8 years.
In the case of rum, the time needed will depend significantly on the location where it is produced, which can be anywhere in the world. A rum aged in New England may require an additional 2 to 3 years in the barrel compared to one aged in the Caribbean.
In contrast, the majority of whiskey and brandy distillers are located in the northern hemisphere, where there are significant annual temperature fluctuations. The extreme cold and heat, combined with mild periods in between, necessitate a longer aging process in order to achieve the desired mellowing and barrel notes in whiskey.
You will notice that the farther north the whiskey, the longer it is aged. Therefore, it is not uncommon to encounter scotch that has been aged for 25 years, while the finest bourbons may spend only 7 years in the barrel.
The location of a barrel inside the rackhouse (or rickhouse, where barrels are stored during aging) can also affect the liquor. Many distilleries choose to rotate the barrels from top to bottom over the years due to the varying temperatures inside these warehouse-sized buildings.