Why do some barrel-aged spirits taste like vanilla? Does a darker color mean a better whiskey? It\u2019s 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 a\u00f1ejo rum can be crystal clear.\r\n\r\nWonder no more. We\u2019ve tapped into the experts to answer some frequently asked questions about barrel-aging and spirits.\r\n\r\n\r\nMyth No. 1: Aged whiskey tastes like caramel, because there\u2019s caramel in the bottle.\r\nUsually, all that toasty vanilla/caramel and spice you taste is derived from the barrel, not from caramel or other additives.\r\n\r\nCenturies 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.\r\n\r\n\u201cWe figured out if we toast or char the oak, we can bring the natural sugars of the oak to the surface,\u201d says Hobbs. \u201cIt caramelizes everything.\u201d\r\n\r\nUp to 60% of a whiskey\u2019s flavor comes from\u00a0the barrel wood, he estimates, while the remaining 40% is derived from the underlying ingredients (in whiskey, that\u2019s referred to as the mashbill; the recipe of corn, barley, rye, etc.).\r\n\r\nSome 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, \u201cthe oak should be the star,\u201d says Hobbs.\r\n\r\n\r\nMyth No. 2: Single-barrel spirits are the holy grail.\r\nLook, some single-barrel spirits are amazing. But don\u2019t underestimate blended spirits, says Karen Hoskin, co-owner/founder of Colorado rum maker Montanya Distillers.\r\n\r\n\u201cEvery barrel is different,\u201d says Hoskin. \u201c Some barrels are vigorous and age much faster than the barrel right next to it. We don\u2019t always know what\u2019s going to happen. That\u2019s why blending became a thing.\u201d\r\n\r\nBy blending barrels together into a larger batch, distillers can create a smoother, more consistent product.\r\n\r\n\r\nMyth No. #3: All barrel-aged spirits are brown. All non-barrel-aged spirits are clear.\r\nNope. 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.\r\n\r\nSimilarly, a dark hue doesn\u2019t always signal barrel time. Hobbs points to amaros like fernet or Cynar. \u201cThey pick up their color from an infusion of botanicals, not oak,\u201d he says.\r\n\r\n\r\nMyth No. 4: When it comes to brown spirits, older is always better.\r\nSometimes 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.\r\n\r\nIn hotter climates like the Caribbean, spirits tend to age faster, while in cooler climates, like Scotland or France\u2019s Cognac region, they can rest longer in barrels to achieve similar flavors.\r\n\r\n\u201cWe consider here that in terms of temperature and humidity, one year in Martinique conditions is about three years in Cognac or Bordeaux conditions,\u201d estimates Lawson. \u201cThe spirit extracts the wood components more quickly.\u201d\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\nIt\u2019s also important to consider the \u201cangel\u2019s share,\u201d which refers to the liquid that evaporates from the barrel. Greater evaporation means a more concentrated spirit left in the barrel.\r\n\r\n\u201cWe are losing about 8\u201310% of our volumes in each barrel,\u201d says Lawson. \u201cIt\u2019s really huge.\u201d By comparison, the angel\u2019s share in Cognac is anywhere from 2-8%.\r\n\r\nProducers in tropical climates do need to keep a closer eye on spirits to ensure that older spirits don\u2019t 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.\r\n\r\n\r\nMyth No. 5: Dark spirits have to be served neat (or at least, on the rocks).\r\nAlthough there\u2019s nothing wrong with enjoying any spirit on the rocks, bartenders can suggest many ways to mix a dark spirit into cocktails, whether that\u2019s aged rum, Cognac, Bourbon, rye whiskey or even a single-malt Scotch.