What is the significance of aging Bourbon? There is no official minimum number of years that bourbon has to age. However, the amber color and many of its flavors are directly the results of aging in a charred new white oak barrel. The mash bill along with the selection of yeast impart flavor into the bourbon, but barrel aging will add to the flavor profile dramatically. Different barrel char levels are used by various distilleries to create their ultimate flavor profile.
Storing bourbon and the need for rickhouses.
Throughout Kentucky, you will notice majestic rickhouses used to store and age bourbon. One of the great sensory experiences of touring a rickhouse is the dramatic aroma you encounter. You are breathing the “angels share,” and it smells heavenly. While also referred to as rackhouses, these structures vary from distillery to distillery in their size, construction, and sophistication. Many of the older rickhouses are not climate controlled in any way and are open to the seasonal elements. The changes in temperature and humidity impact what the barrel does to the spirit inside. These environmental changes force the liquid into the wood of the barrel and then draw it back out. Looking at an old used barrel stave, you can see the depth of the penetration. This line is sometimes referred to as the whiskey line.
Whether the rickhouse is made of wood, stone, brick, or metal, there are additional factors that come into play. Many rickhouses are multi-story, and barrels aged on lower floors can be different from barrels aged on upper floors. Many distilleries are keenly aware of unique areas in the rickhouse that repeatedly produce outstanding barrels over time. Many of these select locations can be used for single barrel selections or combined with other barrels to create small batch offerings.
Because of the variations in wood, environment, and storage times, each barrel of bourbon is unique. By definition, no artificial flavors or coloring are introduced into the spirit. The artistry of a master distiller is the ability to mingle various barrels to create a consistent flavor profile. Many different bourbons under the same distillery will have very similar mash bills. It is through changes in barrel char levels, years of maturation, and changes in the storage locations, that can give different bourbons a unique flavor profile.