My brother-in-law is opening a distillery in Canada, which has got us discussing whisky on the regular. And by the sounds of it it looks like there are certain techniques that can be used these days that 'age' whiskies faster than has classically been done.

So what this has got me wondering is whether the 12 or 18 year old labels of some Scotches are more of a placebo, and a product of popular opinion on how Scotch should be distilled? In other words, the history of Scotch has created a situation where the consumer demands a specific age, when in reality it's not really necessary. And so Scottish distillers use this aging method more for image than necessity.

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    I think there is a distinction between distilling and aging. Distilling methods like pot or column stills may impact taste, but are independent from aging methods which use wooden barrels. I believe Bourbon ages faster than Scotch mostly because it does so at a higher average temperature. – Eric Shain Jan 1 at 15:49

As alluded to by Eric Shain, this is more a matter of the mathematics of aging than anything about the distilling process.

The key trick going on here is that years of aging have been standardized with respect to interactions with the barrel they are aging in. While time is certainly important when it comes to aging whiskey, much more important is contact with the barrel. As shown here, conversions are done based on the internal surface area to volume ratio of the containers used to age the whiskey. A greater surface-area-to-volume ratio means more rapid interaction between the whiskey and the barrel and therefore faster acquisition of the flavors desired from aging (though the different parameters will almost certainly yield at least subtly different results).

It is important to note, however, that this is a trade-off. Yes, you can age whiskey faster using smaller/higher-ratio barrels but you'd need many more to make the same amount of whiskey. So for a smaller producer who wants to match their demand as best they can, using small barrels can be a good way to sell longer aged whiskey more quickly and in more manageable quantities. On the other hand, for a larger producer who expects to have a large demand down the road, full-size barrels are likely a better option.

So ultimately, this is more a matter of the fact that "years" of aging has an implicit "in standard size barrels" as a part of it, we just don't generally think of it that way.

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    According to my brother-in-law he's using some type of special barrel that speeds up the process independent of surface area. Sounds like in his case it can also be a matter of the material you use. – Canadian Coder Jan 2 at 17:19
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    They use barrels with grooves in the staves to increase surface area or oak spirals. Many new distilleries will use small casks to "speed up" the aging process to get something on on the market sooner, but it's way more expensive. – farmersteve Jan 2 at 17:45
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    Smaller barrels and higher temperatures also cause greater losses to the angel's share. Its also worth noting that aging is a pretty complicated process made up of many different chemical reactions that are likely affected differently by temperature, wood contact and oxygen entering through the barrel, so faster aging would produce different results that slower aging. – Jack Jan 2 at 23:12
  • So it sounds like it might be theoretically possible but the answer is closer to no – Canadian Coder Jan 4 at 1:04
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    @CanadianCoder I would say it more-so depends on how you're evaluating it. Are you able to create "12 year" whiskey in less than 2 years? Yes. Is it exactly the same as whiskey that has been aged for the full 12 years in standard barrels? No. Is it good enough for your purposes? Depends on your values, time, money, etc. – thesquaregroot Jan 10 at 20:38

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