Whiskey barrels in aging room


Is Whiskey Better When Aged? Understanding the Effects of Aging Whiskey

American Single Malt Whiskey has a long and storied tradition and history. What began in Ireland more than a millennia ago reached America in the late 1700s. Its legacy carries forward today, in no small part thanks to brands like Stranahan’s, which has long been a favorite among American Single Malt enthusiasts.

Aging is a critical component of crafting American whiskey. To be called American whiskey, the spirit must be aged for a minimum of two years in cask. The length of aging and the type of casks used are significant components contributing to the uniqueness of each product.

But first, let’s drill down on single malt whiskey. What does single malt mean, exactly?

Without getting into a lengthy discussion about the different types and designations of whiskey, let’s simplify for the sake of today’s discussion. When you see “single malt” on a label, it denotes that the whiskey inside is blended from malt whiskeys originating from a single distillery. A whiskey that is not single malt may contain spirits from multiple distilleries.

This does not mean, however, that the whiskey comes from a single cask. Single cask whiskeys are labeled as such and are very limited in quantity by nature of the fact that there is only one barrel to be had.

The age designation on the label, if there is one, denotes the youngest spirit in the blend. So for example, a 12-year-old whiskey may contain spirits aged much longer than 12 years.

Why Whiskeys Are Aged

Whiskey is traditionally aged in oak barrels, much like wine. Aside from the two-year aging regulation for American whiskey, the primary reason for aging is to soften and mellow the spirit. Whiskey barrels infuse unique aromas and flavors into the spirit and play heavily into the final flavor profile and mouthfeel.

When the spirit is first distilled, it comes out of the still over-proof, anywhere from 67% to 85% ABV. It is then diluted and placed in a barrel, which, over time, will help it develop the desired character, style, and finish.

Many types of barrels can be used to achieve the result the distiller intends. Different types of oak impart different flavors–even the forest the oak came from can make a massive difference in how much flavor imparts to the spirit. Barrels that have been previously used for sherry, tequila, or wine might also be used as they add a layer of complexity to the flavor profile.

Stranahan’s Sherry Cask is an excellent example of this technique, offering up aromas of sweet apples, raisins, almonds, and saddle leather notes.

If you drink a whiskey that has not been barrel-aged, diluted, or blended, it would be searingly harsh and so high in alcohol that it would be impossible to enjoy. High alcohol dulls the palate, and no flavor receptors, no matter how sensitive, would be able to evaluate or discern the flavors.

Oak Influence: A Critical Factor in Style

Technically, not all aging involves barrels. Aging can simply be the process of holding a product back for some time. However, whiskey does not improve once bottled, so for this discussion, we’ll focus on cask aging as it pertains to America’s #1 single malt, Stranahan’s American Single Malt Whiskey.

Whiskey barrels are unique in many ways. They impart distinct flavors into the liquid they hold, notably vanilla, caramel, and spice. Varying degrees of flavor will impart to the spirit depending on the type of oak, the age of the barrels, and the level of char. The barrel imparts more flavor when it’s new and less as time passes. The longer the spirit rests in barrel, the more the oak flavors and extract will integrate, mature, and soften over time.

For example, if you were to fill a new barrel with new spirit, the oak character would be highly aggressive in the first few months, resulting in a whiskey that’s unbalanced. These characteristics will round out over time. The longer the spirit is in the barrel, the smoother and more refined it will become.

Generally, whiskey is aged in barrel for several years before bottling and blending to produce the final product.

Most whiskeys, even single malts, are blended products—which means each “batch” of whiskey contains spirits from multiple barrels, many of which were filled at different times. This is how whiskey producers achieve the style they want. Single barrels are distinctive, and while some can be very special, they can’t be replicated.

So, when you see a whiskey labeled 10-year, 12-year, 18-year, and so on, it indicates that the youngest spirit in the blend is that old. Many of the best whiskeys from the oldest distilleries contain spirits that are much older than noted on the label. Therefore, you might say that every sip is a step into the distillery’s past and part of its legacy!

Is Unaged Whiskey a Thing?

Lower-quality whiskeys may add coloring and flavoring to mimic a certain style of whiskey, but barrel aging is a bottom-line component required for the spirit to be called whiskey.

You’ll sometimes see “white dog” spirit (aka moonshine), which is made like whiskey but not aged in oak. Though they certainly have their own personality, these spirits can’t be called whiskey because they were not aged in barrel—and they will never have the spicy, malty, sweet, and smoky flavor profile you know and love.

Is whiskey better when aged? Let’s recap. First, all whiskey is aged to some degree. Second, if it were not aged, it would not be whiskey. Lastly, we know we’ve now piqued your curiosity about fine American single malt whisky–but there is so much more to discover. Book a tour and tasting of Stranahan’s distillery and learn what makes Stranahan’s America’s #1 single malt whiskey.


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