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Aged Whiskey: Oak, Fire, and Patience
Whiskeys come by their different flavors in several ways, but aging plays a major part. Taste the maturity in your manhattan with Groupon’s exploration of the aging process.
Like any spirit fresh from the still, whiskey begins life as a clear liquid. The golden color and ambrosial aroma most enthusiasts associate with the liquor only comes with years of barrel aging, and more specifically, years spent in contact with the nearly magical properties of oak. Early coopers, or barrel makers, used oak simply because it made good barrels: its cellular structure makes it ideal for creating a liquid-tight seal. But, in fact, it’s also uniquely suited for subtly flavoring spirits due to its low resin and bounty of delicious organic chemicals.
Traditionally, coopering began by leaving freshly chopped wood outside to season, which helped the wood dry out and lowered the flavor-spoiling tannin content, among other benefits, and then it was held over a small fire to bend it into shape and purge it of moisture. Today’s scientifically informed coopers know that the fire also improves whiskey’s flavor, breaking down the wood’s hemicellulose into simple sugars that caramelize in the heat. That’s why in addition to seasoning and heating the wood, they go a step further by setting the inside of the barrel on fire for a few seconds, which not only boosts the amount of caramelized sugar but also creates a thin charcoal layer that filters whiskey’s harsher flavors. But the barrel doesn’t have to be brand new to be useful. In fact, scotch is overwhelmingly aged in barrels previously used for American bourbon.
Once the whiskey is in the barrel, it’s left to sit in a warehouse for years—at least two for American whiskey and three for its Scotch and Canadian counterparts, although many age for a decade or more. Temperature and humidity play a large role in the aging process, making a barrel in the fickle, seasonal Tennessee weather age nearly four times as fast as one in temperate Scotland. This phenomenon is why many manufacturers move their barrels around the warehouse every few years. During the aging process, distillers constantly sample their whiskeys to determine the perfect time for bottling, and when the oak has imparted all the flavor it can, the whiskey is ready to be tapped, shipped, and savored.