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Spirit Guide: If Bourbon Can ‘Over-Age,’ Why Is 23-Year-Old Pappy Van Winkle Still Delicious?

PappyVanWinkle
Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post via Getty Images

As you might have seen, this week we published a write-up of my trip to Kentucky for a tour of Maker’s Mark and a preview of Marriott’s bourbon program. The trip raised a question, about bourbon, and Pappy Van Winkle, and Scotch, and the answer didn’t really fit into a piece already overstuffed with #WHISKEYFACTS!™

Basically, one major difference between bourbon and scotch is that to be called “bourbon,” the whiskey must be aged in new barrels. This isn’t a requirement for scotch, which is why you can buy “Caribbean cask” scotch aged in rum barrels (I had some Caribbean cask Balvenie 14 the other day, it was delicious) or other types aged in sherry barrels, and plenty aged in other used barrels of a type the label doesn’t bother listing (including plenty the used to hold bourbon). It’s also why age statements tend to be more prominent on scotch bottles than on bourbon, and why older scotch seems somewhat more sought after than older bourbon.

Another reason is climate. Kentucky, where a lot of bourbon is produced, is hotter than Scotland, and has more temperature variation. You’ll hear various equivalencies bandied about, where one year of bourbon aging in Kentucky is supposedly equivalent to anywhere from 1.5 to five years of Scotland aging, but the point is that bourbon, like your mom, tends to take on wood faster.

Maker’s Mark highlighted this point by serving us deliberately “over-aged” bourbon that, rather than mellowing with age as you might expect, just kind of tasted like chewing on wood chips.

Which brings us to my question.

If bourbon is especially susceptible to over aging, why is Pappy Van Winkle, which includes a 23-year-old bourbon among its varieties, the most sought-after bourbon on the market (or more accurately, not on the market)?

For my answer, I went to Dave Sweet, the president of Whisky Live and senior vice president of Whisky magazine. Dave was on the same tour I was, and suffice it to say, the man knows his whiskey. He seemed to be on a first-name basis with most of the master distillers, and could compare production processes in each. I figured if anyone could answer this question for me, he could. Naturally, the answer was both complicated and informative.

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UPROXX: You know the question, hit me with it.

SWEET: It’s not that Pappy’s is special and stands up to 23 years of aging. It’s a combination of the type of whiskey it is, and then nurturing it very carefully, putting it in, I would imagine, a much colder than normal place in the warehouse.

Now, what happens with Scotch is, first of all, Scotch is in a used barrel. So you don’t have as much wood effect. It’s got to age longer just to get that effect. All the tannins, a lot of the stuff has been already been sucked out of the wood by the bourbon. The cellulose is already broken down a certain amount, all the sugars in the oak, and the maple is virtually non-existent. You get that maple candy flavor in bourbon, you get very little maple flavors in Scotch, or far less. Then, it’s a combination of the temperature. It’s not the temperature fluctuations, it’s just that Scotland on average is much, much colder, and has colder winters. Once the barrels cool down, it takes longer to warm back up in spring.

The cold does two things: one, it slows down all the chemical processes entirely, so it takes longer to get the same wood effect. The other thing is that it causes more alcohol to evaporate per gallon of water. When the water evaporates, the whiskey evaporates with it. When it’s hot, you have a much higher water loss.

When it’s cold, the water’s not evaporating as much, so it’s a much slower process overall. That’s why a lot of the old whiskeys, the old Scotches — 30, 40 year-old Scotches — are very low alcohol content, because the alcohol’s evaporating, but the water isn’t. With bourbon, you’re in that hot environment and you’re losing a lot of water. Plus the wood is expanding and is more open to the liquid penetrating. Think of it as the wood expanding and getting a bit more porous, as opposed to being tighter and more dense when it’s cold. So you get more wood effect.

And with the higher alcohol content in the barrel, wouldn’t that also cause it to take on more wood?

There’s other materials in the wood that are only soluble in alcohol, so the higher the alcohol content, yes, you get more of those wood flavors. What Maker’s did was they got real extreme. They probably gave you a 12-year-old bourbon compared against their 8-year-old bourbon. Then they’ve got one that just happened to, maybe they pulled it off the top of the house, where it’s maybe 110, 115 degrees in summer. They got one that the wood just happened to get really, really aggressive on it, and they did for effect. I mean, it’s all marketing.

Right.

Scotches can get over-wooded just as easily. I mean, please don’t quote me on this, I had 50-year-old [REDACTED] that was [as much as a car] a bottle. I traded the rest of mine for my editor’s 30-year-old. He thought it was brilliant, I thought it was like chewing on an old log.

A Pappy being super old (but not over-aged), you figure that when they’re aging it, it’s probably just in a colder rick house?

It’s in a colder environment, it’s a very particular formula that works well for Pappy. Everything takes into effect, the char level on the barrel, the formula, a little bit of everything. Pappy, by the way, there’s a 10-year-old Pappy, too.

Right, I’ve actually had that one. You think the char level of the barrel is less? Does that come into play?

It’s just probably putting the barrels in a colder place, it’s the recipe of the whiskey and the char level, and there are other brands that age old. I’ve had a 27-year-old Parker’s that was absolutely phenomenal. Elijah Craig is an 18-year-old. It is virtually on allocation again. There are a few others.

Jim Rutledge [former master distiller at Four Roses] has been quoted as saying he thinks bourbon reaches its maximum flavor somewhere between 10 and 14 years. Again, it’s in the wood, and yes, it can get woody, yes it can get too thick, so yeah, I would say they’re probably adjusting char level on the Pappy’s, and it’s the recipe, and probably storing it somewhere cooler, probably not the top of the rick house. In fact, I would guarantee it. Your product loss would just be too high. They’re just really, really carefully aging it. It’s being aged very gently, and I’m sure in probably the coldest spots in the rick house that they can find. They’re adjusting char levels just specifically, and not every barrel… Okay, this will be a 22-year-old Pappy, not every barrel makes it that long.

Evan Williams does a blend of the top, middle, and bottom of the rick house. Anything they plan on doing for a long time, they put just on the first two floors, and it’s a noticeable temperature difference, it’s like 30 degrees.

There’s nothing magic about Pappy’s, so why is it in such high demand? It’s just that it’s a rare, once-a-year bottling, and it’s gotten a lot of hype and recognition for what it is.

I believe that answers my question. Why don’t Pappy’s older varieties overage? The short answer is, because they keep it colder and they’re careful with it. The long answer is… all of those words above these ones.

Got booze questions? We’ve got booze answers.

Vince Mancini is a writer, comedian, and podcaster. A graduate of Columbia’s non-fiction MFA program, his work has appeared on FilmDrunk, the UPROXX network, the Portland Mercury, the East Bay Express, and all over his mom’s refrigerator. Fan FilmDrunk on Facebook, find the latest movie reviews here.

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