by - January 12th, 2016

“What is the perfect age for bourbon?” is almost an unanswerable question. Or rather, there are so many different answers it may as well be. There are certainly whiskey lovers who believe older bourbon is better, but there are just as many folks out there who enjoy 8-12 year old bourbon just fine. The Whiskey Wash has asked before whether older bourbon really is better, so now we want to know: what makes bourbon the perfect age?

“In my opinion there is no perfect age for bourbon,” says Bourbon Historian Michael Veach. “It depends upon what flavor profile you are going for as to where you age the whiskey in the warehouse and for how long. It is more about maturity or ripeness than a specific time frame. Some barrels mature quicker than others. That is why whiskey production is as much art as science. Whiskey is not constrained to a tight formula.”

This is a common sentiment echoed throughout the bourbon industry. To put it in basic terms, it’s ready when it’s ready.

Larry Kass, Director of Trade Relations for Heaven Hill, points out with so many different brands they are on both extremes in regard to age. “Barrel selection is driven by the attributes of the product and by inventory,” says Kass, adding that Heaven Hill has “1.1 million barrels in inventory – an embarrassment of riches in terms of what we have to draw from.” When they are bottling a 12 year old Elijah Craig, for example, they have a wealth of barrels from which to choose in order to maintain the necessary flavor profile and attributes. In order to bottle a Heaven Hill product at the perfect age, it’s all about “knowing where to look and having good tasters.”

Orphan Barrel bourbons

The bourbons from Diageo’s Orphan Barrel series. (image copyright The Whiskey Wash)

There does seem to be an age range when most Master Tasters and Master Distillers believe bourbon has aged to its best possible state. Buffalo Trace Master Distiller Harlan Wheatley says, “It depends on the person tasting the bourbon for their opinion on the perfect bourbon. For me, I like a bourbon that has matured to the point where the barrel flavors (like tannins and vanillas) are prevalent and balanced with the recipe. For a typical wheat bourbon, I prefer about a 12-15 year old and for a typical rye bourbon I prefer about an 8 to 10 year old. Both of which would be aged in a heavier charred barrel with average aging environments. The variables to determine when a barrel is ready are almost endless but must be managed to each product’s specifications.”

Award-winning bartender and Down One Bourbon Bar General Manager Beth Burrows says, “Personally, I like my bourbon between 8 and 12 years old. I think that is a palate sweet spot. Not to neglect any juice above or below that age, it just seems to hit perfectly for me. I think that at 8 years, it has had time to be influenced by the wood, by the seasons. After 12 years, it tends to take on stronger oak notes, masking some of the subtle intricacies that I enjoy while imbibing.”

As for the age range most customers prefer, that’s another difficult question to answer. When it comes to customer demand, age seems to be less important, at least for the clientele who frequent Burrows’ stop on the Urban Bourbon Trail. “As far as what customers are looking for – I don’t think age is as important. The general consumer thinks of ages when it comes to Scotch and in bourbon, Pappy. It is like they feel that the older the juice, the better, where I think that is not always the case. Many people have taken age statements off the bottle, understandably.”

Package sales are a little different, though. Westport Whiskey and Wine owner Chris Zaborowski often selects private barrels from various distilleries for his store in the east end of Louisville: “I don’t have a perfect age for a bourbon. I seem to prefer ones in the 8 to 10 range. I appreciate older ones and younger too. When we pick a single barrel bourbon, we look for balance, then we ask for the age. We rarely pick the oldest in any selection, as we have found that many times the wood tannins start to skew the flavor.”

Zaborowski’s customers, though, tend to put more weight on age statements. “As a retailer, I have found that most of our customers are fixated on age and proof. There is the prevailing thought that older is always better. We frequently are asked for anything over 20 years, which as you know is very, very limited. It is a shame, because it limits them to their choices and they really miss a lot of very good whiskey. As more products become NAS (no age statements) it will be interesting to see what the sales trends will be.”

The driving force behind older bourbons, which many whiskey experts agree are not necessarily better, is often blamed on consumer demand. While that is sometimes the case, there was also a lot of very old bourbon sitting in rick houses across the state of Kentucky before the bourbon boom really started to take off. Diageo was able to capitalize on these stocks by rolling out The Orphan Barrel Project. for example. If very old bourbon is your thing, grab these releases when you see them because they won’t be around long.  But if you’re looking for balance and perfect ripeness, those 8 to 12 year old releases and masterfully mingled NAS bourbons are here to stay.

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