American Still Life
Volume 7.

Woodn't It Be Nice? - Part Two

By F. Paul Pacult
Member Bourbon Hall of Fame

In our last installment we discussed why distillers prefer oak barrels to any other type of aging vessel for the maturation of their whiskey. This time let's talk about the importance of the length of time that a spirit will spend in a barrel and knowing when to draw it out. First, it's best to understand that the grain spirit that is produced in the distillery and then pumped into barrels is neither technically nor legally whiskey until it spends a minimum of two years in those brand new and unused, charred oak barrels. The regulations that define what whiskey is in the United States stipulate that the high-alcohol, transparent liquid only can be called "bourbon whiskey" after it spends a minimum of twenty-four months quietly resting in the oak barrel.

Is that how long all bourbons remain in wood? No. In fact, while two years is the legal minimum, the majority of bourbon distillers leave their whiskeys in the barrel for longer periods. This is because the longer the whiskey spends in the barrel, mingling with the oak and oxygen, the better it can often become. Notice I employ the word "often". What the master distiller, working closely with his warehousemen, must determine is, how long is long enough? One of the pivotal responsibilities of the master distiller is after evaluating "barrel samples" knowing when to say, "Okay, barrel number so and so is ready." What he's looking for is that difficult to define peak of maturation in which all the various components of the whiskey - the alcohol, the grain, the acids and the impact of the wood - are all pulling the sled at the same time, with the same vigor. In other words, the whiskey is at its prime stage of harmony and evolution and, therefore, continued time in the barrel might start to tip that balance.

So, the master distiller, recognizing through the power and prism of his deep experience, decides that it's the proper moment to have the bourbon either become part of a blend that will become a straight bourbon whiskey or, in far rarer instances, be bottled as a single barrel offering. The overwhelming majority of bourbons are married to bourbons taken from other barrels in order to maximize the virtues of each to create a better overall bourbon, one that reflects the house style of the distillery. Case in point are the so-called small batch bourbons developed by master distillers like the late Booker Noe, master distiller emeritus of the James B. Beam Distilling Company. Small batch bourbons are super-premium bourbons that are comprised from a small number of barrels. These bourbons are typically more intense and often richer and more textured than more standard, younger types of bourbon. At this point the master distiller becomes like an orchestra conductor, trying his best to make all the instruments in the orchestra play in harmony. The great ones always hit the right balance.

On that note, I'll bid you adieu until next time. Paul

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