A nice, easily readable post for folks curious about whiskey over on DrinkSpirits this morning. It talks about barrel aging of whiskeys, the difference between Scotch and Bourbon aging, and how environment matters more than the number years in a barrel. Plus, empirical proof! The Buffalo Trace folks aged the same distillate for an identical length of time in three different locations in their aging warehouse, and got very different results which you can buy and taste for yourself.
Among the key points of the article:
- Bourbon (i.e American whiskey) must be aged in new charred oak barrels, whereas Scotch is aged in previously used barrels, often bourbon barrels. Yes, we Americans ship a lot of our used barrels overseas for use in aging other spirits.
- Bourbon usually reaches optimal flavor somewhere around 8 years, whereas Scotch takes several years longer.
- Kentucky has much wider temperature variation than Scotland. Bigger temperature swings mean the whiskey expands/contracts more, thus passing through the wood in the barrel more.
- Just because it’s aged longer doesn’t mean it’s better. You can over-age.
As you can imagine, the same environmental considerations apply to rum, which ages in a very hot Caribbean environment.
I’m all about categorizing, comparing and putting things into a structured view. It helps me understand more, and it’s easier to add incremental new knowledge as I learn new bits and pieces. The world of spirits gives me plenty of opportunity for practice. One of the more densely populated kingdoms is whiskey. It can be a real challenge trying to keep straight the difference between Scotch Whisky, Irish Whiskey, Bourbon, Rye, single malt, single mash, and on and on and…
Recently Fastcodesign.com did a very detailed infographic on the topic of Whiskey. While it won’t explain the stylistic difference between different brands, it does a nice job of laying out the major categories and sub-categories and mapping them to specific brand families and labels. While a small legend would be helpful and the “leaves” can be small, I think you’d be hard pressed to make a better chart yourself. Check it out: