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Jun 5, 2009 07:23 AM

Barrel Aging will Make All Booze Taste the Same

Prompted by a thread on the Boston board about Cachaça I thought I would rant a bit about the trend to barrel age all booze.

I will start by saying I have strong opinions about booze and the silly prices people pay for a pretty bottle.

The worst example of this is the trend to super premium vodkas, dictionary definition, "colorless flavorless spirit." Here is Eric Asimov of the NY times giving the nod to good old fashioned Smirnoff:

But I digress, barrel aging is a mixed blessing. Are you interested in the complex botanical tastes that the distillation process brings out: peat and florals in scotch, tangy desert notes in tequila/mezcal/sotol, pungent grapey-fruity goodness in grappas, the nice clean grassy tastes in cachaca and Rum Agricole, the floral grain of corn whiskey, or the fruit in Calvados, eau de vie, and kirsch? That is really what I like in booze.

Side note, prompted by another hounds post, I recently had a remarkable, NY grown, and distilled, non-barrel aged corn whiskey that has to be drunk neat (I keep it in the fridge and then let it warm a bit as I drink it, ice just wipes it out) for it's incredibly delicate taste to be appreciated:

Bottom line, there are only so many sherry casks, sauterne casks, and old Jim Beam casks in the world. If they start aging everything in them, then all booze will taste the same: woody, polished, super smooth, cognac-like (oh that's right it was the cognac guys that started the whole idea of aging brandy made from marginal wine in casks to polish it up). Don't get me wrong, I have had some mind blowing cognac. But it was certainly 20 years in the barrel I was tasting, not any remnant of the original grape.

In the end, I'll take most of my distillates without the barrel.

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  1. I'm not sure if you are saying that no spirits should be barrel aged or just that barrel ageing has gotton out of hand with spirits that don't belong in casks.

    For Scotch, Bourbon and most other whiskies (though not corn whiskey), they can't legally be considered Scotch and Bourbon if they aren't aged. There is just no concept of these whiskies without ageing, it's part of what they are. While it's true that much of the taste comes from the wood, that's not the whole story. A ten year old Bourbon does not taste the same as a ten year old Scotch. Two ten year old Scotches aged in the same type of barrels can taste extraordinarily different. It's just one more flavor element added to the whole, but it is not the only element or the only thing you taste. Different grains and whiskies interact differently with the barrel.

    That being said, what is true for whiskey might not be true for all spirits. I have experienced rums that taste very whiskey-ish, where I've missed the rum taste, undoubtedly from their ageing in old whiskey barrels. And Jim Leff had an article awhile back that criticized the trend in barrel ageing of Tequila. I can see the argument with anejos and extra anejos, but I tend to prefer a good reposado to an unaged blanco.

    All in all, I like my spirits to have some barrel age on them, but I'm not saying that it's a great idea to pop everything into a cask, then fill it in a hand-blown bottle and charge a super-premium price for it.

    7 Replies
    1. re: sku

      I like my Jim Beam Black aged in a barrel, certainly.

      "I'm not saying that it's a great idea to pop everything into a cask, then fill it in a hand-blown bottle and charge a super-premium price for it."

      That was really my point, precisely.

      Aging Scotch in a Sauternes cask, just plain silly, and it tastes kind of funny too, though it is crazy expensive.

      Never even saw the Leff article, but I agree that tequila should not be barrel aged, nor should cachaca.

      Kind of sad that it is nearly impossible to get an American corn whiskey that is not barrel aged.

      1. re: StriperGuy

        Here is that Leff posting:

        With the exception of Bourbon, Scotch, and Cognac I am definitely in the anti-aging camp.

        1. re: StriperGuy

          Actually, of all the corn whiskies on the market, I only know of one that is barrel aged (Mellow Corn). Most corn whiskies are unaged, and there are a lot of new microdistilled corn whiskies on the market.

          Have you ever had Bruichladdich 15 year old single malt finished in Sauternes casks? Absolutely delicious!

          1. re: sku

            Bourbon is essentially barrel aged corn whiskey. If you go into most liquor stores in Massachusetts they will have zero clear (unaged) corn whiskeys.

            I have had several sauternes cask aged scotches and to my taste they are just wrong. Keep in mind 20 years ago noone made a sauternes cask aged whiskey.

            1. re: StriperGuy

              That "Georgia Moon" I think it's called ... it's pretty ubiquitous here in MA and is a clear corn whiskey. I haven't had it since my college days (and even then, only in the midst of some serious boozing), so I have no idea how good/bad it is

              1. re: jgg13

                It isn't really good for sipping, but it makes a surprisingly smooth shot.

                1. re: sourcandy

                  Ooh - I beg to differ. I actually love to sip Georgia Moon. The first sip is a doozy of course, but there is such a nice corn finish that I can enjoy it neat all night.

      2. I was amazed at the title of this thread, because I come to the subject from experience with malt whiskies, which are defined partly by the type of barrel. Premium single malts often are made in two phases: one firm distills, another ages. (The two firms may be the same, but often aren't.) A good distillate can yield different end products defined precisely by the kind of wood aging. I find vast differences in the resulting flavors. (One excellent retailer I know even shelves the single malts in a de-facto grid, distiller on one dimension, aging on the other, when the option's available.)

        The Mitchell Springbank Scotch malt bottlings (single firm throughout) include many different wood finishings, sometimes in small batches, hard to find. Used Bourbon wood has produced some of the most complex and subtle qualities I've experienced in Scotch malts, for example. Port and other wine casks give different flavors and aromas. In such whiskies, the wood doesn't as much bring out the distilled flavors as complement them.

        3 Replies
        1. re: eatzalot

          Most of the flavor from Scotch does not really come from the grain itself and is really a special case. The flavor comes from smoke from the drying of the malt over peat and the barrel. But in the final analysis I find peat smoke and various barrels far less interesting then the volatiles from the grains, fruits, etc in other liquor. Try the corn whiskey mentioned above for an eye opening taste of what a distillate can taste like when not covered up by peat and barrel.

          1. re: StriperGuy

            Though not that particular one (alas), I have experience with unaged corn whiskies over the years, and many other excellent spirits not aged in barrel. I've no problem with that.

            Since you commented about the contribution of barrels being less interesting, StriperGuy, how do you compare the Springbank Port, Sherry, and Bourbon bottlings that I mentioned upthread? Many people perceive them as virtually different spirits. Those who haven't previously tried them find the differences eye-opening.

            1. re: eatzalot

              Have not tried the Springbank versions but have tried one version or another of all the above. As a rule I prefer scotch aged in bourbon barrels. Some favorites: Lagavullin, Bowmore, Tomatin, etc. I do lean in the smokey/peaty direction.

              To me the Wine Wood (Port, Sherry, Sauternes) aged scotches don't quite do it for me. I like the sherry best of all. I'd rather have an actual Port than port wood aged scotch. I find the flavor of the port bumps up a bit against the peat in a way I don't like. And the Sauternes wood aged just somehow is not quite right flavor wise to my pallet as well. This is strictly to my own taste, but I really do prefer the bourbon barrel aging.

        2. The link to the Tuthilltown Old Gristmill Corn Whiskey made from corn grown, fermented, and distilled in NY State:

          These guys had it on sale at a great price. Drink it neat, or refrigerated, ice kills the flavor.:

          4 Replies
          1. re: StriperGuy

            I actually have a bottle of the Gristmill that I haven't opened yet. I may dig into it soon based on your post.

            1. re: sku

              Several years ago, I was pretty must exclusively a bourbon guy, and a friend bought me a bottle of Old Gristmill. I didn't really care for it at the time - it was sweet and grassy and not what I had in mind when I thought of "bourbon." I think that now, my palate has hopefully expanded and I'd like to revisit this spirit.

              That said, I really respect Tutthilltown and what they're trying to achieve. They're not afraid to take risks and try to innovate given the difficult climate of operating a microdistillery. I've actually had the opportunity to visit their operations and meet their owner - they're constantly dealing with less-than-friendly neighbors and duplicative regulation. And I'll be honest that I don't love everything they've made - some of their whiskies are not the smoothest I've tasted, but I totally applaud them. One interesting fact w/ regard to their own aging process is that they put their spirits on the market after aging only 6 months in small barrels - it allows them to save space in their rackhouse and the small barrels apparently provides enough of the surface area of the liquid to come in contact with the wood that allows their spirits to age more quickly - however, they can't legally called their bourbon or rye "straight" whiskey, which by law requires a minimum of 2 years in the barrel.

              Also, you may be interested to find out that starting July 4th weekend, Tutthilltown will legally be allowed to have tastings at their facility. So, now if you go for a tour, you can taste some whiskey! From their press release:

              "Everyone welcome. Tours and Tastings are free. Meet the staff of distillers and discover a real working batch distillery inside and out. Shop and Tasting Room open Thursdays through Mondays, 10am – 6pm. Tours Saturdays and Sundays at Noon and 3pm. Groups and Motorcoaches accommodated. Tour group size limited, call for reservations: 845.633.8284"

              1. re: craigasaurus

                Thanks for the info craigasaurus. I've only had their Manhattan Rye so far, but I enjoyed it. Like many of the new craft distillers, they need to release young whiskey to get cashflow going, but mostly it's a novelty. The real test will be what the stuff tastes like ten years down the line for those who are still around. For Tuthilltown, their young product gives me pretty good hopes about the future.

                1. re: craigasaurus

                  i once tent-camped in TUthilltown's backyard about 6yrs ago when they were just getting going...they gave us a tour of their operations (under construction at the time)...glad to hear they are now a success...btw there is a great restaurant near there in New Paltz called Beso...

            2. StriperGuy, I'm kind of new to Cachaca, but my understanding that most producers who age their spirits do so in native Brazilian woods. In some ways, does that cut against your premise? I would think that distillers are looking for some optimum marriage of sugarcane and wood and choose the woods to emphasize different characteristics.

              In any case, I agree with the idea that throwing some inferior spirit into a barrel does not necessarily make it a "premium" product worthy of some hefty price tag. With the right touch, however, I think you can get some good results.

              On a side note, I was recently reading about a European brand of gin that just released a "Distiller's Reserve Edition" which is -- wait for it -- aged in oak casks! This is not a malty Genever we're talking about, either (which has a flavor profile more akin to whiskey and is traditionally aged) but a London Dry style of gin. Also it costs like $40, where the same brand's regular offering is probably half that.

              6 Replies
              1. re: craigasaurus

                Someone on the Boston board recently posted about a Cachaca aged 8 years in some unique Brazilian wood. Probably interesting, I'd love to try it, but again, you are tasting the barrel, not the booze.

                1. re: StriperGuy

                  That was me! The "woodiness" was definitely very mellow - I've not had unaged Cachaca so I can't really compare the two, but it was very well done. The wood was not charred in any way, like bourbon or rye, so I don't think it overpowered the delicate flavors. I'd like to think that in the right hands, wood aging can enhance certain characteristics. In any case, I'm sort of glad that there are spirits that you can get aged as well as unaged - makes for more variety, if not a lighter wallet.

                  1. re: craigasaurus

                    You got that at the SavMor on McGrath? Might have to grab a bottle. Heck, I'll trade you some Sotol for a taste.

                    1. re: StriperGuy

                      Yeah. I'm happy to go dram for dram. I'll even share some of my homemade cocktail bitters (I've made grapefruit, annisette, sasparilla, and lime) From your posts, looks like you live near Watertown?

                      1. re: craigasaurus

                        I've got a good batch of homemade spiced/boozed cherries in the fridge.

                        Take my cocktails fairly seriously though I am a chowhound first and foremost.

                        Heck, shoot me an e-mail: aram underscore salzman at yahoo dot com

                        Oh yeah, I live in Belmont, currently sipping on a rather tasty sour:


                2. re: craigasaurus

                  You're talking about the Citadelle Reserve gin aged in barrels. I don't like the regular Citadelle, but the aged version is excellent. There is an American company that has been aging gin for decades, and it's a great gin at a great price. Seagram's

                3. I'm sorry, but saying that barrel aging will make all booze taste the same is a bit like saying that hot smoking will make all meat taste the same.
                  Why not complain about filtering, which actually strips flavor rather than adding it?
                  There's nothing wrong with barrel aging if it's done right, so that the flavors of the distillate are not drowned out. And there's nothing wrong with not barrel aging. I'll have one of each, please.
                  Variety is not a bad thing.

                  10 Replies
                  1. re: danieljdwyer

                    I disagree, when my tequila, cachaca, grappa, whisky and cognac all taste more or less the same (like oak) there is something wrong. Barrel aging is just a way to turn interesting local liquors into smooth, international, Super Premium "Brands." What has happened to tequila over the last 10 years is the perfect example. Cachaca is probably next..

                    1. re: StriperGuy

                      What exactly has happened to tequila in the last ten years? Are you no longer able to find it unaged? Because I don't have any trouble finding unaged blancos. And the bottle of Hussongs reposado I've been drinking for the last month or so tastes far more like agave than like oak. The style is also centuries old, not a mere decade. And it tastes as much like the bottle of Redbreast Irish whiskey I was drinking before this as a picnic ham tastes like a brisket.

                      1. re: danieljdwyer

                        The number of super fru fru, Anejo and Reposado tequilas, in ridiculous, over the top blown glass bottles, most of which did not exist 10 and certainly not 20 years ago at price points north of $40 a bottle, to appeal to the gringo, Norteno market, perhaps because they were getting a little bored with Grey Goose is just plain silly in my opinion, and often tastes more like cognac then tequila, period.

                        1. re: StriperGuy

                          So, there are tequilas being made now that appeal to the "gringo, norteno market" and not you. How exactly are you being negatively impacted by this?

                          1. re: danieljdwyer

                            Read the title of the thread: "Barrel Aging will Make All Booze Taste the Same"

                            As somewhat of a spirits-purist, the fact that good, honest, blancos in the $15-$30 range are disappearing is annoying to me. The same juice, now aged in oak, made to taste like cognac, and then sold in fancy bottles for $75 and up is annoying to me.

                            The exact same thing happened to the Bourbon market. Jim Beam Black Label is about as good as anything on the market today. And it actually has authentic history behind it, though now owned by Fortune Brands.

                            How many pseudo "Small Batch" bourbons made by Fortune, or one of the booze big 3, put in a silly bottle, with a semi-fictional marketing story about some hillbilly grandfather on a pretty label on the back do we really need. Particularly when Jim Black is as good as any of them?

                            1. re: StriperGuy

                              There's nothing purer about blancos than reposados. The Spanish colonists started making both in the first half of the sixteenth century. Blancos back then were also never unaged, since they were transported in oak. The blanco that's never touched oak is a newer thing than the anejo. You could possibly argue that a blanco is closer in flavor to octli, but blanco and octli are vastly different things.
                              Yeah, the price has gone up in the last decade. If you haven't noticed, the cost of everything has gone up in the last decade. Personally, I'm glad that it costs more now. The economy of Jalisco has improved a lot in the last two decades, and a lot of it has to do with the surge in the popularity of tequila. Blancos haven't dissapeared, they've just gone up in price due to inflation and an improvement in the standard of living of the agricultural workers that grow the agave.
                              And yes, you're absolutely right that there's a lot of crap liquor being made that people will pay a lot for because it tastes like oak. But there's always been a lot of crappy liquor. A lot of people want it. Why do you want them to not get what they want?
                              The fact that there is a lot of crappy liquor aged in oak does not mean oak is bad. It just means that oak is an easy way to disguise crappiness to ninety percent of the drinkers out there. Oak aging can be done well, in a way that preserves the flavor and quality of the unaged spirit.
                              Jim Beam Black is indeed good, and is aged in oak for 8 years. Green Spot Irish whiskey is also aged in oak for 8 years. Those two whiskeys certainly do not "Taste the Same." Not even close.

                              1. re: danieljdwyer

                                Yes well sort of.

                                I can line up 20, marketing department driven, oak aged, very pricey, super premium Grappas, Tequilas, Cachacas, Rums, and even Bourbons that are all over-oaked, contain no real varietal flavor other then that derived from the barrel and let you taste 'em. You'll taste wood, and not much else.

                                Certainly there are those spirits where wood aging is an integral part of the flavor of the spirit. Jim Beam and Green Spot to name two of hundreds.

                                But instantly appearing, old-timey marketed, Super Premium, over oaked nonsense, which is taking over liquor store shelves is not an addition for the better. The "throw it in an oak barrel and now we are making a world class spirit" mentality is misguided at best.

                                As for old school blancos, yes they were transported in oak and allowed to mellow for 6 months, a year, or even two, but they were not oaked to death. The flavor of the agave was first and foremost. I can name 10 newbie top shelf tequilas that are closer to cognac then anything I would consider a spirit derived from Agave.

                                1. re: StriperGuy

                                  I agree absolutely that you can line up 20 - actually, you're selling yourself short and should add a zero to that - bottles of crappy, over oaked, expensive liquor. And oak is the lipstick they're slapping on the pig. And more subtle liquors like rhum agricole and tequila do suffer more from overoaking. But if it's not overoaking it will be some lame trend that will get the rich to waste their money on a bland product. Just be glad they're not charcoal filtering tequila. Yet.

                                  1. re: danieljdwyer

                                    I guess in the end we agree...

                                    Hold the presses, "Suave Tequila" is charcoal filtered:


                                    And on the wood-aged side, if you ever get a chance try Ron del Barrilito 3 Star from Puerto Rico. Very woody, very good. I like it with 2-3 cubes of ice. A really remarkable product. Here is a little history from Wikipedia:


                      2. re: StriperGuy

                        the something wrong may be your price point or liquor selection. I've never had a tequila taste like anything but. And cognac is a whole different flavor altogether.