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While we humans like to blur the concept of aging when it comes to our bodies. “Age is just a number,” or “We are always the same age inside,” or, my mantra, “We’re only as old as our knees” — aging in whiskey is just as important as mash bill, distillation, and rick house storage.
In fact, it is so important to bourbon, it’s a part of several legal designations. But first, people are surprised to learn that aging bourbon for any specific amount of time is not a requirement of the rules as outlined by Congress in 1964 — you could technically pour distillate into a new charred oak container for five seconds and call it bourbon. However, we all know age does matter when it comes to taste.
How Old Does Bourbon Have To Be?
To be called a Kentucky Bourbon, it must be produced and aged for at least one year in the bluegrass state. And to be called Straight Bourbon, it must be aged for a minimum of two years, and if it’s less than 4 years old, it must have an age statement on the label. And finally, if it’s labeled Bottled-in-Bond, it must be aged for at least four years, along with a handful of other standards, like being distilled at one distillery in the same season and bottled at 100 proof.
Generally speaking, unless there’s an age statement on the bottle, most brands contain bourbons that have been aged anywhere between 3 and 7 years old. If it’s a blend of various years, the age statement — if the brand chooses to list it — is only as old as the youngest barrel it uses.
So say you’re making some Four Roses Small Batch and you decided to use three 10-year-old barrels, one 8-year-old barrel, and two 6-year-old barrels. If you were to put the age on the label, the bourbon would be 6 years old.
In The Barrel
Keeping bourbon in the barrel for (at least) a handful of years is important because it allows nature to work its magic. It’s also where the distillate picks up that gorgeous amber hue, and the longer you leave it in the barrel, the darker the distillate will get.
Strictly speaking Kentucky bourbon here, in the hot summer months, the bourbon expands and seeps into the inner layers of the charred interior of the barrel, picking up those familiar caramel and vanilla notes. And in the cold winter months, it restricts back out of the barrel. This in-and-out motion of the distillate, which is mainly achieved with time, is what helps create a fantastic bourbon.
There’s a certain charm to the process — and bourbon in general — since there is no way around simply waiting. And waiting. And waiting. In the whiskey business, it takes both Father Time and Mother Nature to produce well-balanced offspring. And although many have tried various methods — sometimes even chemicals — to speed up the maturation process, all have failed. As it should be.
On The Bottle
Listing the age of the bourbon on the label is a marketing tool that reassures the customer that the bourbon inside is not only quality but also mature. With age comes a premium aspect, and brands can increase the cost the older the bourbon is. Think Weller 12 or Pappy Van Winkle 20-Year.
In recent years, some brands have decided to drop the age statement off labels — much to the chagrin of bourbon aficionados like myself — most likely due to high demand and not enough stock of that particular aged bourbon. But as brands ramp up production, it is my hope that age statements will return at some point in the future. Elijah Craig, I’m looking at you.
In my opinion, the bourbon’s sweet spot falls between 8 and 15 years old, and anything after 15 tastes a little too oaky for my taste. Yes, older bourbon is highly coveted simply because there is less of it to go around (thirsty angels), but I’ll trade you a Pappy 23 for a Pappy 15 any day. If I only had any.
Photos Courtesy of Maggie Kimberl