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Whisk[e]y varieties often have significant differences in how long they are aged. While there are always exceptions, Bourbon is often aged for 5-10 years. Scotch, on the other hand, is more commonly aged for 10-20 years. Why is this?

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Aging or 'Finishing' is an extension of the maturation process, when the spirit is subsequently filled into empty casks that previously held other wines or spirits for a further relatively short period at the end of maturation.

The selection of casks can affect the character of the final whisky. Outside of the United States, the most common practice is to reuse casks that previously contained American whiskey, as US law requires several types of distilled spirits to be aged in new oak casks. To ensure continuity of supply of used oak casks some Scottish distilling groups own oak forests in the US and rent the new barrels to bourbon producers for first fill use. Bourbon casks impart a characteristic vanilla flavour to the whisky.

so really the longer you age the whiskey the more of the flavor you are going to capture form the cask

  • I'm not sure American whiskey is the most common, actually - would be interesting to see the match up between whiskey, bourbon, port, brandy etc. I know for the whisky I laid down 2 years ago, whiskey wasn't even considered - port and brandy casks were much more accessible. Aside from that, have an upvote for a great answer. – Rory Alsop Apr 7 '16 at 12:37
  • @RoryAlsop I agree it would be interesting to see some statistics on what barrels are used as I assume a port barrel would help produce a darker whisky than one that was aged in a bourbon cask – Jamie Eltringham Apr 7 '16 at 13:14
  • Yup - I have gone for a lightly peated, mild smoked American Oak cask previously used for Port, in order to get a bit of color and depth so we'll see how it comes out in a few more years. – Rory Alsop Apr 7 '16 at 13:42
  • Where is the quote from? – Monica Cellio Apr 8 '16 at 1:21
  • According to this site, about 260,000,000 liters of bourbon were made in 2014. Whereas 831,600,000 liters of Scotch were exported in 2014. Seems Scotch annually outproduces bourbon by about 3-4x. – warren Apr 8 '16 at 17:50
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First, we have to understand why we age whiskey in the first place. It's primarily to extract compounds from the wood of the barrels (and any previous contents) so that they can add flavor and complexity to the final product.

From there, there are several factors that determine how long a typical aging period might be.

  1. If the wood in the barrels is new, or has been previously used. Bourbon, which is typically aged as few as 4 years is aged in casks of new wood, meaning there are more compounds in the wood to be extracted, and they can be extracted more quickly. Scotch, on the other hand, which is often aged from 10-25 years, is aged in previously used barrels, so it takes longer to extract the desired level of flavoring compounds.

  2. How much flavor you want the wood to add to the finished product. A Rye, aged for 10 years, is going to have a lot more oak than you would want in say, an Anejo Tequila, which will often be aged for just a year or two.

  3. The type of wood can have an impact as well. Most whiskeys are aged in American or French oak, but if other woods are used, a tighter grain, or different wood chemistry can mean that you need more time in the barrel to the get the flavors that you want.

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A true Scotch whisky has to be aged at least 5 years to qualify as whisky. Beyond that, the factors that change over time are:

  • colour
  • nose
  • flavour

The whisky takes on these from the wood, and from the previous contents. So for a really well rounded whisky, especially for a full bodies peaty, smoky whisky, that age is essential. That said, there are some amazing young whiskies, and some older whiskies that aren't as nice, so this comes down to taste,

In fact there is a current furore in the industry about No Age Statement whiskies, as various blends are being sold off young, potentially putting the longer term whiskies in jeopardy as volumes will be necessarily reduced in the long term, becuase of a drive for shorter term profits...

  • The alcohol content decreases as the Angel's Share leaves the cask over the years.
  • The angel's share does not necessarily decrease alcohol content, it depends on the ambient humidity. It will always decrease volume obviously. – Jack Nov 6 '18 at 1:27
  • Sadly, the most volatile fractions will always be the first to go, @Jack – Rory Alsop Nov 6 '18 at 18:50
  • wikipedia disagrees (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Barrel#Angels'_share). I've heard this from other more reputable sources as well, but can't find a good one at the moment. Its a somewhat moot point as far as scotch is concerned, as nowhere is Scotland would ever be that dry. – Jack Nov 6 '18 at 22:21
  • AHH - I see what you mean. Yes, you wouldn't store your casks somewhere dry. You always control humidity. – Rory Alsop Nov 7 '18 at 4:50

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