Traditionally, Whisky’s age comes from how long the distiller has kept it in charred oak barrels. Once the whiskey is in a bottle, the age no longer changes. Legally, whisky gets its age based on the youngest whisky in the barrel, as each barrel often contains a variety of whiskeys.
In this brief article, we’re going to take a closer look at whisky. We’ll be looking at the science, the history, and the marketing of the ageing process, so that the next time you open up a thirty-year-old bottle, you’ll already have the answer to your question: How does whisky gets its age?
Table of Contents:
- What is the process of distilling to determine how does whisky gets its age?
- Are different whisky varieties aged differently?
- How does the whisky’s age affect taste?
- How old can whisky get?
- How future technologies can affect how whisky gets its age?
All whiskies begin with a base ingredient. This can depend on the region, the local laws and can drastically affect the taste of the whisky. The distiller will treat and moisten the grain, allowing the malting process to begin. It is important to know the perfect moment to cut off this reaction and move to the next phase.
Next, it’s time to get all the delicious sugars to extract, so later the distiller get that fermentation process to begin. The method distillers use to achieve this is not so sweet; they will smash the chosen grain into a mixture known as a mash.
To continue to the next process, it’s time for the distillers to introduce their mash to some yeast. In this process, the yeast feeds on the released sugars, leaving alcohol behind. The process so far may sound very similar to beer brewing, but this isn’t over yet. Next comes the step that makes the biggest difference.
Get to know everything about How Scotch Whisky is Made!
Now the ‘distillers beer’ needs to become more alcoholic. Stills come in many forms, but all achieve the same result. By washing the mixture through a repeating process, the alcohol is extracted. This repeats until the distiller is left with a highly alcoholic spirit almost mistakable for whisky, but it hasn’t quite matured yet.
This process makes whisky what it is, and is the most important step in the question of how does whisky gets its age. With a few exceptions, the distiller will introduce the spirit to a barrel. The type of wood, where the storage area is located and the age of the whisky will depend on what variety of whisky they are after. It is important that a distiller always stays aware of local statures and classifications.
The short answer is that it is not so much about the wood itself, but how the barrel transforms when it is seasoned by charring or burning.
The practice of oak barrels in whisky-making is ancient, leading back as far as the Romans. In Scotland, for a hundred years, modern laws and statures decree that Whisky must be maturated in oak barrels, defining the practice as mandatory.
There are many methods to prepare the oak barrels, but scientifically, the purpose is to both release certain chemicals that affect flavor, and help seal the wood by melting the sugars found within.
Of all the oak varieties, an American oak known as Quercus alba is in most common use as it is the most abundant in whisky distilling regions. There are currently no legal statutes defining that one particular oak is necessary, so many countries make use of their local variety of oak.
Whisky comes in many varieties and even different spellings. Ranging from the traditional to more modern methods, each whisky gets its age according to its own classification and statutes. This isn’t just all down to fussiness–every distilling area has its own culture and produces unique flavors.
Scotch and Irish Whiskies may vary in taste and distillation, but both require an ageing time of no less than three years. The differences between the two varieties are more than just regional. Scotch consists of malted barley and water, while Irish whiskey derives from a mix mash of corn, wheat and barley.
To classify as Straight Bourbon Whiskey, rules stipulate that it must be aged a minimum of two years. You can recognize American Bourbon by its sweeter taste, the grain region, and distillation resulting in notes of vanilla, caramel and spices. Finally, this whiskey comes with a different spelling.
Up until recently, Japanese Whisky classifications were almost non-existent. New laws passing in 2021 now demand a minimum ageing of over 3 years. Unlike more traditional whisky laws, Japan does not insist that a distiller should age the whisky in barrels of oak, leading to a mix of classic and exciting new flavors and blends.
After just a few days, the whisky contained inside of the oak barrel is, in most cases, ready to drink. However, the liquor within may not resemble the same smokey, rich flavors that we associate with an older, or more mature whisky. So, after considering how does whisky gets its age, its time to consider how the age of the whisky affects its aromas ans flavours.
Ageing the whisky is a long process that affects the taste and color of the spirit, creating vastly different results depending on how long the maturation process has taken.
At the beginning of the process, the immature spirit will be clear in colour. After some time spent inside the oak barrel, the color becomes deeper, and the flavor becomes smoother and gains some of the character and flavor of the wood.
After five to ten years, much of the influence of the cask will be apparent in the drink’s flavor. By this time, the whisky will be closer to an amber color.
The longer the whisky ages, the darker in colour it becomes. At around fifty years, the spirit could taste almost completely of the wood and lose the flavor of the original ingredients.
Many people prefer an aged taste, but distillers find that certain bottles of whisky will each have their own limit for ageing.
“How does whisky gets its age” is just one one the questions when talking about whisky aging. Another question might be “How old can whisky get?”. Well, the oldest whisky sold in the last few decades was the Glenavon Special Liqueur Whisky. It is said to be over 160 years old. The distillers bottled it in Scotland in 1851, and the company has long since closed down.
In 2006, at the Bonhams auction house, in London, a bottle was sold for £14,850. Whether or not this would be drinkable, that would be up for debate.
However, even if a whisky that old remains in perfect condition, it doesn’t mean the taste would necessarily be worth the money. While most liquor enthusiasts have sworn by the unwritten rule that ‘older is better,’ the over-aging of whisky is not only possible, but it may be quite common in older blends.
The process of distilling whisky can be a little different in each barrel, leading to vastly different tastes. The longer the maturation process takes, the more accentuated these tastes become. Meaning that some blends of whisky may taste better earlier in the maturation.
In certain regions, statures do not mandate that distillation must occur in barrels, which means the whisky ages much quicker. Japan is notable for using a native kind of oak, Mizunara, which requires a longer distillation period because of the particular wood grain. Other factors include climate and location of the barrel.
All in all, it is difficult to determine one optimal ageing time when it comes to age and flavor.
Whisky makers like the Lost Spirits Distillery are experimenting with new ways to speed up the ageing process of whisky, using state-of-the-art technology to bypass traditional ageing methods.
On average, 22 million barrels of Scotch Whisky are reported to be maturing at any one time. Many distillers are interested in making whisky as quickly as possible to meet the ever-growing demand. Flash-aged whisky is a term that describes whisky that has been aided technologically using light, heat, wood splinters and even sound to speed up the process.
Many traditional whisky distillers believe that the modern technology goes against the culture of barrel-aged maturation, and in some countries flash-aged products may not be even legally defined as whisky.
Regardless of old ageing practices, modern distillers are in fierce competition to perfect the technique, and the emerging trend has split whisky lovers on the results. Future advancements will likely provide entirely new answers to the question of how does whisky gets its age.
Now you know the answer to the question of how does whisky gets its age. No matter what part of the world, you can expect to find whisky at your local liquor store. The amber liquor is as vast in variety as it is in taste. By now, you will have a good idea, and you can make an informed decision next time you want to grab a bottle, don’t forget – always read the label!