Earlier this year, a historic whiskey over 250 years sold for $110,000, smashing all auction estimates. The Old Ingledew Whiskey was bottled in LaGrange, Georgia, and according to the Skinner auction house, which facilitated the online sale, it is the oldest whiskey in existence. The auctioneers expected bids would range between $20,000 and $40,000.
Officials who dated the Bourbon say it was crafted between 1762 and 1802, during the Whiskey Rebellion and Revolutionary War. Its origin is unclear. Despite its age, this bottle of whiskey is far from being the most expensive on the market. With a price of $1.9 million, the Macallan Fine and Rare 60-Year-Old 1926 was the most expensive bottle of spirit or wine ever sold at an auction lot.
So do spirits become more desirable as they age instead of old and outdated? Let’s find out below. But first,
It depends on the distillation method—column or in a pot. Like Vodka and London dry gin, column distilled spirits don’t age well because of their higher alcohol content and fewer congeners. The exceptions to the rule are Bourbon and Rye—both column-distilled spirits that are aged very well. But pot-distilled spirits keep more original character and funk after the distillation process and benefit from aging, like scotch, mezcal, and brandy.
There are several factors involved in the aging process to improve the flavor of an alcoholic product:
A spirit’s flavor is as important as its color. This ‘flavor enhancement’ also mellows any frictional notes in the distillate. As the spirit is in contact with the wood, it soaks in woody flavors. Most distilleries age cognacs for two years but can go for up to eight years. Have you ever seen reviews that mention an ‘oakiness’ or an ‘undertone of charred oak’ flavor? That’s what they mean.
If you have been drinking aged spirits, you’ve likely noticed patterns because of aging limits and also maturation periods for a particular spirit. Cognacs age a minimum of two years but maybe aged eight years and beyond. Most scotch whiskeys—single malts—age at least ten years. But a rare 1938 Mortlach 70-year Speyside single malt went on sale in 2010 for 10,000 Euros a bottle.
Distillers bottle White tequila after distillation, Reposados after two months to a year, and Anejos after a year (though they can be “ultra-aged” for three years in smaller barrels for a richer taste since 2006). A spirit’s age varies for good reasons.
A labeling law might be helpful here. You must pay attention to the age statement on a bottle of spirit if there is one. The older the bottle, the more expensive it probably is. Don’t simply look at the color to judge age. For example, distilleries age white rum briefly and then charcoal-filter it again to its “white” color.
You will get different flavors depending on the type of wood used. One example is the Master Collection of Bourbon from Woodford Reserve. As part of the brand’s annual release, the company offers a limited-edition whiskey that differs from the standard edition based on the barrel-finishing process.
For instance, they will pour your everyday Bourbon into a special barrel to ‘finish’ it. For the 2009 whiskey, Woodford charred the barrels, then left them outside for 3 to 5 years before filling them. Because the wood itself had gone through so many changes over time, the Bourbon produced was far more complex than anything Woodford had created to date.
Distilleries often experiment with the wood they use in their barrels, and enthusiasts enjoy the new tastes that they produce. It is also likely that the previous use of the barrel will affect the flavor of the liquor.
Spirits don’t age like wines. Once they’re in a bottle, they do not improve. Your whiskey, rum, and brandy won’t change while they’re not opened, and they won’t mature further on the shelf. But it’s an excellent site to look at.
The location of your distillery and the container of your spirits directly impact how long they have to age. For example, Bourbon is aged in new barrels, while scotch can age in barrels previously used for Bourbon. Despite having to wait longer, Scotch producers also get the benefit of the older flavors. A lot depends on the desired results.
In the aging process and finishing, it is all about finding out what the spirit should taste like and doing whatever it takes to reach that goal. One type of glass bottle-aged mezcal doesn’t even need to stay in the barrels for over 43 days.
Aging also depends on:
When it is hotter, more alcohol penetrates the wood, and the angel’s share becomes thirstier. Combine heat with humidity, and evaporation speeds up.
Kentucky’s seasonal temperature fluctuations allow barrels to “breathe”–cooling during the winter and warming during summer. In contrast, Scotland’s constant climate offers a consistent climate year-round. Craig Bridger, ambassador for The Macallan, says Speyside has a mild climate, unlike the extreme swings of temperature you get in Kentucky.
Asked whether a spirit could be too old, Dave Pickerell, former Maker’s master distiller, replied, “Sometimes older is better, but sometimes it’s just older.” Choosing an old whiskey might be expensive, but for the best flavor, choose a whiskey aged between six to ten years for Bourbons and twenty years for scotches. More aged Scotches might not be as flavourful as younger ones, but they are more expensive because of their age.
The reason old whisky is expensive is not that it is old, but because it is rare. Distilleries begin with most of what doesn’t end up in a bottle. Join us for a spirits class.