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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
  • True, I'm just using the term distillation to describe the process from beginning to end. A 'distillery' is a place that distills and ages product. – Canadian Coder Mar 3 at 21:51
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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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Having distilled my own whisky in a small American Oak barrel, previously sherry-filled, with a little charring, I can give some direct experience:

From blind taste tests with representatives from 3 major distilling groups in Scotland, at 3 years, my whisky had the look and feel, and taste, of an 8-10 year old whisky.

The progression from raw spirit was very rapid after year 1, taking on colour very quickly. And from the year 2 check (obviously a very young whisky, although pleasant) to 3 years it fully developed.

To me as a hobbyist, the cost was cheap (cask and duty were the most expensive elements) but for a distillery the profit margins would not be high. The Angel's Share loss is high - I wouldn't want to age mine for 12 years, for example.

Interestingly, Scottish distillers have as an industry moved well away from age specifiers as they can make much higher profit on branded flavours. There are still prestige or premium age whiskies, but that accounts for a much smaller volume. They aren't, aside from some very small distillers, using small barrels. Remember, if they wanted to capitalise on age, this still wouldn't help them as they'd have to report the age correctly.

  • "..but for a distillery the profit margins would not be high. The Angel's Share loss is high - I wouldn't want to agree mine for 12 years..". Not getting your meaning here. Why are profit margins low, and Angel's Share loss high? – Canadian Coder Jan 31 at 20:19
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    Smaller cask, greater surface area, higher Angel's Share, higher cost. – Rory Alsop Feb 1 at 3:14
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I buy a lot of single malts, and I have to say that some of those without age statements on the label are very good, e,g, Tullibardine Sovereign or Talisker Storm. I am not saying they are as good as the likes of Clynelish 14 or Aberlour 12 but they are very good. There is a lot of snobbery about single malts, but personally I prefer Bowmore Legend which has no age statement to Bowmore 12. So in my view, as someone who spends a lot of money on single malts, I think new techniques are making very good whiskies.

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Short answer no as Scotch only comes from Scotland. The ageing is a personal preference and does not garentee quality or taste. A whiskey MUST be aged for 3 years minimum and any barrel can be used (sherry, brandy, wine etc) and that will have an effect on the final taste but you can not 'speed up ' the ageing process.

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