Whiskey is experiencing a surge in popularity at the moment, leading to more options than ever when you open up the menu or peruse the options at the bar. How should you decide which whiskeys are worth the cost? Is an older whiskey always better than a younger? How much does it matter how the whiskey is aged? Here are the answers to many of the most common whiskey questions:
1. There are many kinds of whiskey.
Whiskey (also spelled “whisky” in Ireland and Scotland) is made from a fermented blend of grains such as corn, wheat, rye, or barley. Scotch whisky (no “e”), is only made in Scotland and aged for at least three years in oak barrels. Bourbon, on the other hand, is another kind of whiskey that is made from at least 51% corn and aged in a new, charred oak barrel. Rye whiskey is just that: whiskey made from rye.
2. Whiskey evaporates while it ages.
One of the reasons that aged whiskey will cost you more than a younger whiskey is that whiskey evaporates during the aging process. Within the industry, the portion that is lost during aging is called the “angel’s share” and can be upwards of 40% of a batch of whiskey aged 20 years or more. This loss is one of the main factors that drives up the cost.
3. The wood matters.
It matters what kinds of barrel whiskey is aged in. Scotch must be aged in oak. Bourbon must be aged in new, charred oak. Other types of whiskey, like Canadian, Japanese, or Irish whiskey are sometimes aged in barrels made from other woods.
Even among whiskeys that use purely oak barrels, the type of oak makes a difference. Oak from one forest will impart different undertones to the whiskey than barrels made from oak from another region or part of the world.
4. Older is not always better.
Age alone is not a reason to buy one whiskey over another. All spirits can be over-aged if not handled properly, and whiskey is no exception. You will need to figure out what you prefer because each drinker (even the experts) have a different “perfect” age. Meanwhile, researchers and distilleries are currently studying a number of ways to replicate the aging process in significantly less time, with everything from ultrasound to pressurizing the liquid and cask together.
5. …but it often is.
There are good reasons to reach for well-aged whiskey, however. The process of aging something like a Glenfiddich 21 imparts a smoother and more complex flavor than a fresh whiskey can ever deliver. When whiskey is left to age in the barrel, it gets smoother, richer, and more flavorful. The actual flavor of the barrel seeps into the whiskey, which is one reason that different whiskeys can have such distinct flavor profiles. In fact, older whiskeys tend to take on a honeyed flavor that many connoisseurs prefer to the smokier notes of a new whiskey.