If I may be frank, most super-old Scotches are super awful.
Here’s why: Most good Scotch is bottled starting at around 12 years old. Fantastic offerings can also be found up to the 18- to 21-year-old range. Beyond that, the oak tends to overpower everything else going on in the bottle. The effect can be even more pronounced with spirits that tend to age more quickly, like Bourbon. If you sip a 40-year-old Bourbon or 50-year-old Scotch, you’re basically sipping on oak tannins, bragging rights, a sense of history and little else.
Which is why it’s so perplexing to see producers and others rolling out bottles that are decades past drinkability—think stunt Scotches like a 72-year-old Macallan single malt, produced in 1946 and that fetched $110,085 at auction. It’s an interesting nod toward history to own a World War II-era whiskey but forget about drinking it. After 72 years, you might as well go suck on an oak stave.
If you sip a 40-year-old Bourbon or 50-year-old Scotch, you’re basically sipping on oak tannins, bragging rights, a sense of history and little else.
Yet, every barrel-aged spirit has a sweet spot in terms of the maturity where it tastes best.
Two key factors dictate how a spirit will mature: the barrel used to age the spirit (new barrels age a spirit fastest), and the climate where the spirit is aged (heat can accelerate the aging process). The rules aren’t always hard-and-fast, but it’s easy to tell when your pour is past its prime: as Four Roses Master Distiller Brent Elliott explains, it’s “when the barrel influence is so strong that it has become bitter, astringent and has lost complexity.”
Here’s a guide, informed by input from the experts, on when some of the most-gifted spirits categories are likely to hit their stride. For those seeking a special bottle to commemorate a specific year, this may help in finding a vintage-year pour that’s not just enjoyable, but possibly exceptional.
Bourbon and rum: Best aged 5–12 years
By law, Bourbon is made in new, charred oak barrels. That means the distillate extracts flavors from the wood relatively quickly, so Bourbon matures faster than most other barrel-aged spirits.
“The majority of barrels peak in the 5–10-year range,” says Elliott. “In this range, all of the immature character of the white dog is gone, but there are still a lot of the bright and delicate flavors from grains and fermentation that have developed in the barrel, and with the barrel, to create that perfect balance.” Beyond the 12-year range, says Elliott, “there will be fewer and fewer that are still ‘improving’ each year.”
A unicorn does sometimes appear. Orphan Barrel’s line of rare whiskeys has included some very good Bourbons aged around 20 years.
Also, keep an eye out for single-vintage rum bottlings. Very few producers do this; most include a blend of rums of varying ages. But single vintages can be found from producers such as Diplomático, Foursquare and Plantation, including some 10–12 years old. Rum aged in warm climates, like the Caribbean, age two to three times faster than a spirit in a cold climate, experts estimate.
Scotch whisky: Best aged 12–25 years
Since Scotch whisky is aged typically in used barrels, it takes longer to extract vanilla or caramel flavors from the wood. The late distiller Dave Pickerell once described this as “the tea-bag effect.” The second time that a tea bag is used, there’s less flavor left to draw out, so it needs to steep longer. Scotland’s humid climate also slows down evaporation, so the spirit isn’t as concentrated as those aged in drier climates, like Bourbon.
The problem with pinpointing an ideal age for Scotch, is “it all depends on the style of whisky you want to bottle,” says John Glaser, founder and whiskymaker for Compass Box, which releases primarily blended Scotch whiskies. He deems a Scotch too old when the wood notes overtake the distillery character and flavor compounds that have developed over time. In other words, “the whisky loses its cohesiveness,” he says.
Scotches aged 30, 40 and older can be sourced, but know that means paying a substantial premium for whisky that may be past its best years. Note: These ages only indicate the number of years the spirit has been in the barrel. Unlike wine, once bottled the aging process for spirits stops.
For those who seek to commemorate a benchmark birthday with a bottle, Armagnac may be your best bet.
Armagnac: Best aged up to 50 years
You’ll almost never see a single-vintage Cognac, because it’s made with a blend of ages, with the designation signifying the youngest distillate in the blend. By comparison, many Armagnacs are sold as blends, but some producers also choose to release single-vintage bottlings when they are deemed exceptional. Some of these may be decades old. For those who seek to commemorate a benchmark birthday with a bottle, Armagnac may be your best bet.
According to Christine Cooney-Foubert, owner of Heavenly Spirits, an importer of French spirits, Armagnac can age longer than Cognac because it is distilled just once, as opposed to twice for Cognac. This strips fewer fatty acids from the distillate, enabling “more sustainable aging” over longer time frames, she says. It’s also not unusual for producers to reuse barrels over and over again, often to the point where the barrel no longer contributes tannins, but instead acts as a container that enables the brandy to “keep breathing and get rounder.”
“Normally, we don’t leave an Armagnac in the barrel for more than 40 or 50 years,” Cooney-Foubert says, “but some Armagnac will age gracefully” for longer periods in such barrels.
Is there a ceiling, even for Armagnac? Yes, Cooney-Foubert says. “I have tasted Armagnac that had rested in barrels for 100 years and it was my opinion that they were too ‘old.’”