Patience Makes Perfect: The History and Process of Aging Bourbon

It cannot be rushed. There are no corners to cut, no loopholes to exploit. The process of bourbon is long, exhausting, and challenging. Its requirement of unrelenting patience is a standard of the trade that is well known, yet not always respected.

With other things in life, instant gratification can be awarded to the person who demands it. A fussy child might get its way if a parent is tired and has been worn down long enough. A customer that shouts at a staff person, might get their way, despite proving to everyone how much of an ass they are. With bourbon, there is no such thing. Demands for the immediate are meaningless. To interrupt the process by opening a barrel early (out of a lack of patience) yields only a subpar product— which defeats the purpose. If one cared only for the now, and was willing to sacrifice the unique flavor of proper barrel aged bourbon, I’d simply recommend other spirits, ones that move from distillate to bottle directly— bit that’s those liquors are not “America’s Native Spirit”, and they do not meet the same standard as bourbon.

The truth is, the thing that makes aged whiskey special is the one thing we as a society seem to fear: age. Youth is treasured in most circumstances, and although wisdom and experience come with age, modern society seems to foolishly discredit the value of time spent. Bourbon though is the outlier. It is the exception to the rule that youth wins-out, and even more than that, it is an example of why that mindset is flawed to being with. Simply put, despite anyone’s personal view on youth vs. experience, Father Time could care less. He has his hand in the bourbon business and as we all know, he’s one person you cannot cheat.

The time element might be frustrating to newer generations, or even those of us, myself included, who sometimes struggle with patience, but its value cannot be overstated. It is, in essence, what makes bourbon special.

A Little History

History tells about early settlers expanding westward on the new frontier. Their logistical need for preservation of corn stores led them to distilling their excess as a way to get as much use out of it as possible. Corn whiskey, which was a clear distillate, lacked flavor and consistency. This offers no appeal to consumers like us, but it is important to step outside of our own context, to understand the purpose of their distillation. They had no interest in producing complex flavor profiles, or even creating products that could be mass-produced. I’d assume that if you’d travel back in time and stood face-to-face with Elijah Craig (the Baptist minister who folklore states created “bourbon”) and told him what the industry of American Whiskey would one day become, he’d call you a fool or a liar. To him, and those early distillers, the idea was about functionality over taste— prevention of crop waste.

As time went on though, whiskey’s appeal grew, and the clear liquid, known to us as white dog, began to take on a different hue when unknown distillers chose to put them into barrels, following the traditions of barrel-aged spirits brought to us from Scotland, France, and Ireland. This is where history gets a bit murky and proper records were misplaced, lost, or simply never gathered.

Because of the ambiguity here, It is important to separate what is known and what is speculated. From there, one’s own reasoning must decide exactly what they choose to believe about the origins of bourbon.

What We Know

New Orleans was a Big Deal

First, we do know that New Orleans became the primary export location for whiskey. A city founded by the French, with later Spanish influence, its earliest settlers brought with them a heritage of cognac and winemaking. Due to it’s proximity to the Mississippi River, it became a port city that shipped out grains, corn, and eventually whiskey, helping to connect farmers and distillers from northern regions that included Kentucky, by way of river. Since whiskey could easily be transported down stream to the gulf and then exported out from the Big Easy, New Orleans became a premier spot for whiskey in America, and still holds that history in a place of honor.

The Word Bourbon and It’s French Ties

History also tells us that the word “Bourbon” and the famed street in New Orleans that bares its name, pre-dates American whiskey being called Bourbon by a number of years. While it cannot be proven who exactly coined the term to refer specifically to American whiskey as bourbon, we do know that the infamous Bourbon Street was named in 1721 after the French ruling family at the time, the “Rue Bourbons”. Years later, Bourbon County, Virginia, in what is now Kentucky (an area East of Lexington), received its name as an honor to the French Royal Family, the “House of Bourbon” due to the family providing financial assistance to the Patriots during the Revolution.

Barrel Aging Was a Thing Before “Bourbon”

Thirdly, we know that at some point, there was a transition from white dog whiskey, to barrel-aged whiskey. Barrels were chosen for several reasons:

1. They were relatively easy to make in the frontier— using American wood that was readily available.

2. They were easy to transport due to the their cylindrical shape which allowed just about anyone to move them regardless of physical strength.

3. The process of aging wine and spirits in barrels had already been a known technique, coming from Irish, Scottish, and French settlers, making it less of a revolutionary idea, and more of an understandable next step for American whiskey.

Speculation, Legends, and Tall Tales:

Elijah Craig was a real person. We know that, historically speaking, he was involved with distillation to some extent. The story of exactly much of an influence he actually had on bourbon is often believed to be equal parts clever marketing and exaggerated folklore. Either way, legend says that Craig, a Baptist minister, is said to have pioneered the process of using new charred-oak barrels to age his whiskey. Although this would be a direct connection to how bourbon is aged today, it does imply that American whiskey was already being aged in used wine barrels prior to Craig’s new strategy, proving that the barrel-aging technique was borrowed from other cultures; yet another nod to French influence.

Another legend, regarding the origin of bourbon as the name for American Whiskey, claims that the name was in honor of Elijah Craig, not the House of Bourbon. This version of the story states that Craigs overwhelming influence on America Whiskey– namely, his process of using new charred-oak barrels in aging, was significant enough to earn him naming rights of sorts. Instead of naming the new product after him specifically, Craig’s version of whiskey was called Bourbon, as a reference to the placement of his distillery in– you guessed it, Bourbon County Kentucky.

This creates an interesting contrast in the origins of the name and asks a question that perhaps we will never be able to clearly answer: Was the honor of the name given to Elijah Craig, by way of the location of his distillery, or to the House of Bourbon for their support of early Americans? Both make sense. The latter implies that the French influence, not just in the case of monetary support of the military, but also in the barreling of alcohol, and the significance of the French city of New Orleans, impacted the origins of bourbon. The former, however, puts the honor on Craig, with the name coming not in commemoration on the French Royal family, but instead, as a celebration of the location that Elijah Craig distilled.

Since both have merit, individuals must choose what to believe and decide personally who receives the honor. American minister Elijah Craig, or the French Royal family. Either way, it is worth noting that the majority of the supposed “tall tales” line up with the known history, giving some backing to the legend of Craig and potentially supporting Heaven Hill’s claim to fame that the man behind their flagship product, Elijah Craig, truly was the “Father of Bourbon”.

No matter which story you choose to believe, the reality remains that the aging process in oak barrels not only made bourbon stand out amongst other spirits of the time, but it also created the standard of patience in aging that has helped make America’s Native Spirit special.

What Happens in Aging

When white dog is aged in a barrel— a new charred-oak barrel in the case of bourbon— the original distillate transforms into a product that we are much more familiar with. The time spent interacting with the charred staves of the inner barrel greatly influences the whiskey’s flavor, adds to its aroma, changes its color, and positively affects its overall taste. It is this aging process that specifically gives bourbon its distinct qualities, creating the product we know and love

Although it has its complexities, when broken down to its most simple form, things become clear– time spent in a barrel, creates quality.

But how does that happen?

The Caterpillar, the Cocoon, and the Butterfly

As white dog comes into contact with the charred barrel, it almost immediately begins to interact at a chemical level with the wood it touches. The oak staves contain a number of compounds, including cellulose, hemicellulose, and vanillin, all of which affect various characteristics of the bourbon mash. During aging— especially when the appropriate amount of time is given for the whiskey to interact with the compounds of the wood, the clear distillate absorbs the compounds and begins its slow transformation of changing flavor, scent, and color. I like to think of this as a process of metamorphosis; the white dog is the caterpillar, the barrel is the cocoon, and what emerges, years later, is the fully transformed butterfly, ready to take flight (makes you appreciate the Blue Run logo a little more too, right?)

Charring Leads to Further Flavor

The process of charring not only seals the inside of the barrel, preventing the whiskey from escaping, but it also coats the inner surface of the oak barrel with a solid charcoal layer that acts as a filter. The charcoal filter is known to remove hardness in the white dog and eradicate most impurities in the liquid. It also enhances the subtle positive flavors in the whiskey that are typically picked up by enthusiast as vanilla, cherry, toasted oak, and caramel notes, as well as other more complex and nuanced profiles like spice and smokey undertones.

Note: It is considered good luck to find leftover bits of char in your bourbon. A sample with small bits of this black material is thought be an omen of good fortune; just remember, you can’t pick it out or it’ll have the opposite affect on your luck!

Color Makes it Beautiful

Not many can deny the allure of a deeply saturated bourbon. The richness of the color is tied directly to the amount of time a bourbon spends in a barrel. A darker hue indicates that the whiskey was allowed years to interact with the various compounds of the wood, borrowing from the tannins and other compounds in the wood to create a rich tone. Younger bourbons, those that spend less time in barrel, are brighter, less opaque, and often look more like apple juice or even certain beers than a fully developed whiskey. This does not always indicate that they have less quality, it simply means that their distiller decided to take it out of the barrel earlier in the aging process.

The Angels Help with Concentration

As time passes, the bourbon that is left in contact with the inner surface of the oak barrel begins to do two things:

1. It evaporates through the natural wood’s pores.

2. The staves of the wood absorbs a portion of the bourbon, trapping it in the barrel.

The former is what is known as the Angel’s Share. Although the angels are taking a portion of the bourbon’s volume, resulting in less whiskey output, this evaporation process actually concentrates the flavors and helps intensify the transformation from white dog to full-bodied bourbon. The latter process is called the Devil’s Cut, and it is looked upon less friendly as the name would imply. The loss of volume due to the natural absorption of the staves further robs the barrel, leading to less and less output as the years go by.

Note: It is said that around 5% of the barrel’s volume is lost due to evaporation each year. This is one reason that aged bourbon increases in price, as the bottle yield dramatically decreases with each year it is aged. For example, a bourbon that has been aged 10 years will have lost up to 40% of the barrel and ultra old bourbons like Pappy Van Winkle 23-Year has lost almost 75% of its content (starting at 53 gallons in a barrel and ending with only between 14 and 17 gallons of usable bourbon at year 23).

Find Your Preference

It is important to note that aging process is not a one-size-fits-all model. Various factors will contribute to and influence and change the conditions of the final product. Vriables such as climate, location of the barrel in the ricklhouse, and duration of aging, will alter things like bottle yield, flavor, color, and overall character. Because each batch has unique qualities based on these variables, it is important to try a number of different styles, types, and ages of bourbon to find what you actually prefer.

The notion that the older a bourbon is, the better it is, simply is not true in all cases. Likewise, younger bourbons are not always bad. Personally, I dislike most bourbons that have been aged over 15-years. The time spent interacting with the wood for that long creates an intense flavor of oak that I’m not a huge fan of, meaning that, products like the Pappy 23-year, tastes like licking an oak table to me.

On the reverse side, young bourbons to me, often lack the character that I look for. Usually, their flavor profile, is void of any real “punch” and I can immediately sense that the product would have an improved quality if it either were aged longer, or blended with an older bourbon.

Again, these preferences do have exceptions. I greatly enjoy the Elijah Craig 18-year, and do not pick up near as much over-powering oak pretense as I do with other wbourbons that old. Likewise, some whiskey recipes can pull off a low age statement, and find near perfection at a a younger stage. Bourbons like High Wire Jimmy Red and Buffalo Trace, are excellent at a younger ages.

This is further proof that you, as an individual must never take our word for it, and instead, sample products for yourself. Your preference is the most important thing in the world of bourbon.

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