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Bourbon Age Does it Matter?

Does age matter?

I’m the first whiskey writer to complain when a bourbon drops an age statement. Just ask Heaven Hill, Jim Beam, Buffalo Trace, and others who endured my public and private whining. Once, while waiting in line at the Louisville airport, I told a distillery executive that they didn’t need to discontinue age statements if they stopped making flavored whiskey, my other favorite thing to hate in American whiskey.

But one should not take this age dropping disdain for a belief that older always means better. In fact, I’ve found many younger whiskeys actually taste better than the old stuff. My point of contention has always been one of transparency and that consumers have a right to know the age of the whiskey they’re drinking, be it 6, 8, or 12 years old. But you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to know that Scotch’s brilliant older releases combined with general human nature make many consumers believe older is better.

And some brands are capitalizing on this. In the past decade, we’ve seen multiple American whiskeys north of 25 years old, and they’re all as satisfying as licking a sap-saturated fence post. Old timers question the palates of the modern consumer, asking how anybody could like the woody and tannic flavors in 28-year-old bourbon.

Yesterday’s bourbon drinkers appreciated a good 8-year-old bourbon, the exact age cited for “quality” in the movie the Hustler. At 12 years and older, they questioned if it was too woody. That’s why 12- to 15-year-old bourbon sat on the shelves in the 1950s and 1960s. But many beautiful 17-year-old bourbons and older were launched in the 1990s. Some of the more brilliant older bourbons are Pappy Van Winkle 20- and 23-year-old bourbons, Jefferson’s 17-, 18- and 21-year old, Michter’s 20, Elijah Craig 18-year-old, Evan Williams 23-year-old, and Wild Turkey Tribute. These releases defied the woody profiles old timers held in contempt of whiskey. But these whiskeys were better because of the palates blending them.

Both Jefferson’s Trey Zoeller and Julian Van Winkle have built careers around their ability to blend barrels. Unfortunately, not everybody has this skill, and many older bourbons flooding the marketplace will deceive consumers into purchasing them.

Here’s how you can make sure you don’t spend $500 on bad, woody bourbon: Study younger bourbons and find the age that meets your palate.

If you think older is better, you’re missing out on the opportunity to taste inexpensive whiskey between 4 and 10 years old. Unfortunately, most in this age range don’t have age statements, such as Four Roses, Elijah Craig, and Knob Creek. So you’re back to the drawing board for studying whiskey’s age. However, when you don’t see an age statement, you can assume it’s at least 4 years old. By law, the distiller must disclose the age if it’s less than 4 years old.

But why not reward the brands with age statements?

I’m talking Barrell Bourbon, a non-distiller producer that discloses the age of every batch; Henry McKenna 10-year-old, one of the greatest values in American whiskey; Bulleit 10-year-old, a fun pour; and Smooth Ambler, which gives age statements for all the releases. One could buy every bottle mentioned here and create an incredible bourbon cabinet that allows you to study age and see how it impacts flavor. It also sends a message to the corporate boardrooms that we, the consumer, want age statements.

Of course, I’m a hypocrite. Here I am telling you to reward the few, the brave, the age-stated, and I personally buy more non-age statement whiskey than anything else.

I purchase a lot of Maker’s Mark ($23), Old Forester ($14) and Four Roses Small Batch ($24), three brands that do not carry age statements. These are fairly inexpensive pours that I believe present wide-ranging differences in flavor profiles, allowing me to educate my guests on the differences between the wheated bourbon (Maker’s) and the high-rye bourbon (Four Roses) as well as the more traditional mash recipe in Old Forester. I can buy all three from my local liquor store for a little more than $60, which wouldn’t even get you a shot of Pappy 23 at a bar.

So, does age matter?

You bet. But my bank account is more important.

In a perfect world, we could have our non over-oaked, age-stated whiskey and drink it, too.