Drink: Aged Whiskey

Experimenting with aging whiskey

by Kevin Barrett
photographs by Keith Isaacs

When I was a child, I received a chemistry set for Christmas. I thought it was the coolest thing in the world, and I was excited about its possibilities. I envisioned mixology of the sort you see on TV: I thought I was going to solve crimes with my sudden forensic aptitude. I thought I was going to be Batman. I planned to make smoke bombs and Batarangs…but Santa swindled me.

The picture on the front of the chemistry set box was of a boy wearing safety glasses, protective gloves, and a lab coat, to me the image of modern-day Archimedes in a eureka moment. Within the box, however, were instructions for me to combine sugar and water before dangling a string in the mixture to watch a crystal form. It took weeks. It was underwhelming. Did Batman do this?!

I’m happy to report that after many years, while I’m still not Batman, I do have a new chemistry set of sorts, and this one is no disappointment. Today I have a barrel instead of a test tube, and it’s full of whiskey instead of sugar water.

Here’s an interesting scientific fact: Whiskey gets up to 80 percent of its flavor and all of its color from the barrel. My grown-up chemistry experiment is to play with this knowledge.

Hypothesis 1: Whiskey served from a barrel will change in flavor after a few months. To test this hypothesis, I bought an entire barrel of Buffalo Trace Single Barrel Select bourbon and put it back in its original barrel to continue the aging process. I expected the liquor to have a slight but noticeable flavor change after a few months.

It turns out, the whiskey changes much faster than hypothesized. A local bourbon club tasted from the barrel for several months, and some members detected changes after just two weeks. This is an important discovery for both bourbon lovers and craft cocktail bartenders.

Hypothesis 2: Whiskey kept in a bottle will change in flavor if given enough time. Conventional wisdom holds that liquor doesn’t change in the bottle. But if you have a bottle from decades ago, I believe it will today exhibit nuanced new layers in its taste profile. I put this to the test by avidly acquiring a collection of antique whiskies. Sure enough, there is a distinct bottle aging. What happens to whiskey is not comparable to what happens to wine, but it most certainly gets better and richer with time.

This holiday season, consider asking friends and families for whiskies of the past and sampling them along with their modern-day versions (try Wild Turkey 8 Year from the ’80s next to Wild Turkey 101 Proof bought today). History and nightcaps make a fine duo and a rewarding experiment: The result might not be hard science or a Batarang, but it sure beats rock candy.

A Lovely View of Heaven

Barrett’s barrel-aged Buffalo Trace is available at his whiskey bar, Dram & Draught. You can request this off-the-menu cocktail there through the new year. Or make it at home:

2 ounces Buffalo Trace Single Barrel Select (available locally at Dram & Draught)

½ ounce coffee (hot or cold brew)

½ ounce honey

4 – 5 dashes Fee Brothers Aztec Chocolate Bitters

lemon zest, for garnish

Combine all ingredients in mixing glass. Add ice and stir for 15 – 25 seconds. Strain into a coupe glass. Garnish with lemon zest.