Why do some barrel-aged spirits taste like vanilla? Does a darker color mean a better whiskey? It’s easy to get confused in a world where classic white liquors like vodka or gin can show up on the shelf in an amber hue, while extra añejo rum can be crystal clear.
Wonder no more. We’ve tapped into the experts to answer some frequently asked questions about barrel-aging and spirits.
Myth No. 1: Aged whiskey tastes like caramel, because there’s caramel in the bottle.
Usually, all that toasty vanilla/caramel and spice you taste is derived from the barrel, not from caramel or other additives.
Centuries ago, people figured out that oak barrels were strong and water-tight enough to ship liquids. That included distilled spirits, says Richard Hobbs, of The Barrel Mill, a cooperage (or barrel maker) in Avon, Minnesota.
“We figured out if we toast or char the oak, we can bring the natural sugars of the oak to the surface,” says Hobbs. “It caramelizes everything.”
Up to 60% of a whiskey’s flavor comes from the barrel wood, he estimates, while the remaining 40% is derived from the underlying ingredients (in whiskey, that’s referred to as the mashbill; the recipe of corn, barley, rye, etc.).
Some exceptions do exist, however. For example, flavored whiskeys add agents and/or sweeteners, though that information should be stated on the label. Also, some producers may add a small amount of caramel to unflavored whiskeys to boost color or flavor. But if you get a reputable bottle, “the oak should be the star,” says Hobbs.
Myth No. 2: Single-barrel spirits are the holy grail.
Look, some single-barrel spirits are amazing. But don’t underestimate blended spirits, says Karen Hoskin, co-owner/founder of Colorado rum maker Montanya Distillers.
“Every barrel is different,” says Hoskin. “ Some barrels are vigorous and age much faster than the barrel right next to it. We don’t always know what’s going to happen. That’s why blending became a thing.”
By blending barrels together into a larger batch, distillers can create a smoother, more consistent product.
Myth No. #3: All barrel-aged spirits are brown. All non-barrel-aged spirits are clear.
Nope. For example, many white rums and cristalino Tequilas are barrel-aged to add flavor and body, then their color is filtered out for a pristine appearance.
Similarly, a dark hue doesn’t always signal barrel time. Hobbs points to amaros like fernet or Cynar. “They pick up their color from an infusion of botanicals, not oak,” he says.
Myth No. 4: When it comes to brown spirits, older is always better.
Sometimes yes, but it can also depend on where the spirit is made, says Cyrille Lawson, the Martinique-based head of commercial development for rum maker HSE.
In hotter climates like the Caribbean, spirits tend to age faster, while in cooler climates, like Scotland or France’s Cognac region, they can rest longer in barrels to achieve similar flavors.
“We consider here that in terms of temperature and humidity, one year in Martinique conditions is about three years in Cognac or Bordeaux conditions,” estimates Lawson. “The spirit extracts the wood components more quickly.”
It’s also important to consider the “angel’s share,” which refers to the liquid that evaporates from the barrel. Greater evaporation means a more concentrated spirit left in the barrel.
“We are losing about 8–10% of our volumes in each barrel,” says Lawson. “It’s really huge.” By comparison, the angel’s share in Cognac is anywhere from 2-8%.
Producers in tropical climates do need to keep a closer eye on spirits to ensure that older spirits don’t become over-oaked, which can result in a tannic and hard-to-drink liquid. The same is possible in cooler-climate spirits, but it takes much longer to get to that state.
Myth No. 5: Dark spirits have to be served neat (or at least, on the rocks).
Although there’s nothing wrong with enjoying any spirit on the rocks, bartenders can suggest many ways to mix a dark spirit into cocktails, whether that’s aged rum, Cognac, Bourbon, rye whiskey or even a single-malt Scotch.