Aged Spirits: What They Are & How They're Made

Informational

Aged spirits

Do you like the taste of aged spirits? If so, you're not alone. Aged alcohol has a complex and delicious flavor that many people enjoy.

This blog post will discuss what aged spirits are, how they are made, and why they taste so good. We'll also give tips on how to enjoy the best aged alcohol for your palate. So sit back, relax, and let us teach you all about aged spirits!

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What are Aged Spirits? 

Aged spirits are distilled alcoholic beverages stored in oak barrels for some time. The length of storage determines the “age” of the spirit. Alcoholic beverages stored in oak casks or barrels for at least two years can be called “aged spirits.”

There is no set definition for how long a spirit must be aged to qualify as an “aged spirit,” so different brands will have different age requirements. However, anything over four years is generally considered a high-quality product.

The Benefits of Aging Alcohol

Barrel with a bottle of aged spirit

One of the most significant advantages of aging alcohol is that it can help to improve the flavor of the drink. This is because aging helps break down the harsh chemicals and tannins present in young alcoholic beverages while acquiring the distinct taste and aroma of the wood qualities of the barrel.

The barrels, also known as casks, are frequently made of charred oak. Other woods may be used, and the type of wood significantly impacts the final flavor profile of that particular spirit. As a result, the finished product is smoother and more flavorful.

Additionally, aging alcohol can help to improve the color of the drink. This is because the tannins and other compounds in young alcoholic beverages tend to fade over time.

Another advantage of aging alcohol is that it can help increase the product's shelf life by preserving the drink for a longer time. Also, aging spirits can help improve the drink’s smell, releasing the natural aroma present in the alcohol.

How are Aged Spirits Made? 

The process of making an aged spirit begins with distillation. After the mash has been fermented, it is distilled into alcohol vapor which is then collected and cooled down into liquid form. This liquid is then placed into oak barrels, which will continue to age until it reaches the desired flavor profile.

The type of barrel used (new or used), the climate where it is aging, and even the position of the bottle in relation to other bottles all affect how quickly spirit ages and develops its unique flavor profile.

The Barrel Aging Process

Shelves with oak rum barrels

Barrel aging is the process of letting spirits age in wooden barrels. Putting alcohol in casks has been done for thousands of years, and the science behind this technique can be difficult to master.

Importance of Using Barrels to Age Alcohol

Wooden casks appear to command the aging of alcohol instinctively. The barrels direct airflow, gradually introducing oxygen into the aging process while allowing for evaporation and filtering out flavors that would otherwise produce an unpleasant taste.

Furthermore, the wood reduces the level of ethanol in a spirit, removing the sensation of rubbing alcohol.

What Happens During Barrel Aging?

Raw ingredients like water, barley, or other grain are aged in a wood barrel. Wood allows vapor to escape from the barrel while incorporating oxygen into the aging process.

Wood barrels used to age spirits are charred or toasted, leaving a charcoal coating that acts as a filter, removing unpleasant flavors.

Why Use Oak Barrels?

There are a lot of different kinds of wood, like maple, acacia, chestnut, and cherry. Still, oak is the only wood used to age spirits, with a few exceptions. And it can't be just any oak tree.

Only a few of the hundreds of oak species are good enough for making casks. Quercus Alba (North American white oak) and Quercus Robur (European oak) are popular species for aging whiskey.

Types of Barrels in Aged Spirits

Oak barrels for aging alcohol

The type of barrel refers to the specific wood species and whether the barrel is new or used. 

Although American white oak is the most commonly used barrel for aging spirits, other options include French oak, maple, cedar, and hickory.

Each type of wood imparts distinct flavors that are considered when determining the intended flavor of the finished spirit. 

  • French Oak

French oak (Quercus Petraea) is less dense, and its grain is tighter than American oak (Quercus Alba). The flavors imparted by French oak are more subtle, while its tannins are firmer but silkier. French oak is commonly described as cedar, tobacco, and cashew nut.

  • American Oak

Since American oak is denser, it can be sawn instead of hand-split. This results in lower labor costs, which is why American oak barrels are typically less expensive than their French counterparts.

American oak has a sweeter flavor and more vanillin components. Aromas and flavors from American oak are more prominent, bolder, and sweeter. Coconut and sweet spice are two common descriptors for American oak and vanilla.

  • Sessile Oak

This species, also known as the Irish oak, is distributed throughout Europe. Sessile oak is widely used to age cognac.

  • Mongolian Oak

This type of oak is also known as Japanese oak or Mizunara in the whisky industry. It is identified by its distinct spicy rye, oriental incense, and sandalwood tones.

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Barrel selection extends beyond the type of wood. As mentioned, one must consider whether the cask is new or previously used.

Liquors such as bourbon or wine may require a new barrel free of the flavors of another spirit, whereas spirits such as whiskey may need a previously used barrel.

The wood absorbs flavors of the aged spirit during the aging process, which you can infuse in any future aging in the same barrel. Aging whiskey in a used barrel allows experimentation as a distiller seeks the perfect blend for various types of whiskey.

Charring and Toasting Oak Casks

Charring whisky barrels

Charring and toasting an oak cask alters the chemistry of the wood, changing it into more suitable ingredients for the spirit to extract during maturation.

When the temperature rises, the liquid within an oak barrel expands, increasing the pressure inside the cask. As a result of this enormous pressure, the spirit is forced into the wood.

Later, the pressure reduces when the seasons change and the weather cools. The spirit is then driven out of the wood, carrying complex flavor components.

How Long Do Spirits Have to Age?

Whiskey bottle beside a rocks glass and an oak barrel

The amount of time spent aging depends on the alcohol. Some spirits have aging requirements, while others have fewer restrictions, and thus the aging time is left up to the distiller.

Liquor

Aging Period

Añejo Tequila

At least 1 year but no more than 3 years (after 3 years, it is classified as extra Alejo)

Single Malt Scotch Whisky

At least 3 years

Irish Whiskey

At least 3 years

Straight Bourbon

At least 2 years

Straight Rye Whiskey

At least 2 years

Bonded Whiskey or any alcohol referred to as "Bottled in Bond"

At least 4 years and up to 20 years

Since we do not sample barrels until 2 years old, all of the bourbon and rye are considered straight. And although aged gin is gaining popularity, most other types of spirits, such as rum, vodka, and other gins, do not need to be aged and are marketed in unaged forms.

Other Factors to Consider When Aging Alcohol

The climate in which the barrels are stored significantly impacts the aging process. Spirits aged in humid climates, such as the Caribbean, take less time to age than spirits aged in dry climates.

For example, rum made in New England will take 2-3 years longer to age than rum made in the Caribbean region. Of course, warehouses are now kept at specific humidity and temperature control levels to ensure the ideal aging environment.

The Best Way to Enjoy Aged Spirits

Cognac in snifters

Many people believe that the best way to enjoy an aged spirit is neat, without any mixers or ice cubes. Others prefer their aged spirits mixed with ginger ale or cola. And finally, some people like their aged spirits served on the rocks.

No matter your preference, there is no wrong way to enjoy this delicious drink!

Aged Spirit FAQ

1. What spirits should be aged?

The most common aging liquors are brandy and whiskey. Many styles are required to spend a certain amount of time (usually three years) in barrels before bottling. Many rums and tequilas are also aged, though this is not mandatory for all styles of these liquors.

2. Is vodka an aged spirit?

One way to categorize distilled liquors is as aged or unaged. Unaged spirits include vodka, most gins, and neutral spirits for various products. The majority of aged products are whiskeys, rums, and brandies.

3. What are the oldest spirits?

Poitín (pronounced put-cheen in English) has been made in Ireland since the 6th century and is thought to be the world's oldest spirit. Long before whiskey, Irish monks learned the art of distillation from Moorish scholars and created rural moonshine.

4. What alcohol is aged the longest?

The Old Ingledew, bottled in LaGrange, Georgia, is thought to be the oldest known whiskey, with a possible age of over 250 years. It was sold for $110,000, smashing auction estimates.

While it is the world's most historic bottle of whiskey, the Old Ingledew is far from the most expensive. The Macallan Fine and Rare 60-Year-Old 1926 became the most expensive bottle of spirit ever auctioned when it sold for $1.9 million in 2019.

5. Is 50-year-old whiskey still good?

In terms of spirits, 50-year-old whisky is almost the holy grail. Only a tiny fraction of whisky casks will be 50 years old and still drinkable.

Conclusion

Aged spirits are a complex and often misunderstood category. By understanding the process of aging alcohol, you can better select the right drink for your needs. With this knowledge, you're ready to explore the world of aged spirits and find the perfect bottle for your next celebration. Cheers!

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