Fine Whiskey and Aging

The British Bourbon Society recently posted a tweet that resonated with us, on the merits of Old Tub bourbon. Old Tub is a Beam brand, of which Jim Beam bourbon is best known. Beam today is owned by the Japanese multinational beverage and food company, Suntory Holdings.

The tweet noted an appealing youthful quality in the bourbon including its nose. Bourbon, like most whisky, so often is prized for long years in oak barrels. At times there seems almost an obsession with long aging: 10, 12, 15, and many more years old.

The tweet upheld the merits of a good younger whisky. Old Tub is a bonded bourbon, hence 50% ABV, at least four years old, but probably not too much older.

For further product and corporate background on Old Tub, I can’t improve on this Whiskey Wash post (Cameron Hoick).

My interest here is to uphold the validity of a good younger whiskey. Having studied whiskey history in-depth, I know just from the name Old Tub that an allusion is made to the character of old-time whiskey. Whiskey in the 1800s was often mashed and fermented in a series of small wood tubs. In the post A Maven of Intelligent Blending  I discussed some of those features.

Today, sour mashing means only the practice of adding backset, or the residue of distillation, to a mash to replace part of the water. In the 19th century there were numerous variations on sweet and sour mashing and fermentation. From my post:

Preyer’s [1901] explanation of sweet mash and sour mashing is broadly similar to others I’ve discussed, but with a gloss on back-yeasting. He states that at the beginning of a distilling season a mash is left to ferment naturally in small tubs which he says (correctly) is sour mash. Once a fermentation is secured, the yeast, or barm, is used to seed the next one and so on. He calls that a sweet mash, which is correct as well because yeast is being added by the distiller.

Clearly some distillers operated in this way but some distillers never yeasted back and relied for all their fermentations on purely natural (spontaneous) fermentation as I’ve showed in the past.

Then too, sometimes you would start with a sweet mash and move to sour, in that once enough backset was produced, you would mash with that and add no further yeast. This was the system C.K. Gallagher laid down as I’ve also explained recently.

Beam bourbon today is, according to its website, mashed in a 10,000 gal. cooker. It is fermented with a proprietary jug yeast in large domed, metal tanks, as in most larger distilleries. Calling one of its whiskeys small tub is meant, I should think, to suggest an old fashioned character. This derives from the bonded status including four years of age, the 50% ABV (vs. the norms of 40% or 43%), and the fact of not being chill-filtered.

Distillers worldwide chill-filter spirits to maintain their clarity under various handling and storage conditions. It is felt superfluous though with extra-strong spirits, particular some bourbon and single malt whisky.

In any case today consumers are rightly not obsessed with crystal clarity, as the success of cloudy beer types shows. Compounds not removed by chill-filtering add to the traditional character.

The relatively young age, though, is another factor. The aging of American whiskey, as I’ve discussed in many posts, developed over time in the 19th century. While there was always some old whiskey in the market, even early in the 1800s, much of it by many accounts was sold young: 1, 2, 3 years of age.

The longer a whiskey is in the barrel, the more colour and sweet wood gums are imparted by the charred interior. At the same time, the assertive, “distillery” character of new whiskey is modified by a complex process of oxidation. The wood pores allow entry of oxygen. A multi-years’ breathing matures the whiskey.

When I was active in the consumer group 10-15 years ago, long-aged whiskey was readily available: 10, 12, even 15 and more years. And it didn’t cost that much more than standard 6-8 year old whiskey.

With the success of bourbon and straight rye since then, the supply of such old whiskey has dried up or available stocks are rare and pricy. Fair enough, that’s how the market works.

Yet, I noticed when buying a lot of that old whiskey that often the barrel tones covered over everything else. And the distillery character was reduced due to the long oxidation process mentioned.

The whiskey taste, originally, is what made whiskey, whiskey. The malts of the U.K., or Ireland, are no different.* To efface substantially that feature in whiskey is to diminish the product, in my opinion.

People will have different preferences on age. A 12-year-old Scottish malt is often ideal because aging differs there and the barrel type too. (Bearing in mind that age statements are a minimum, a vatting of whiskies 12 years of age and older usually perfects the batch).

But for Kentucky whiskey, I think six to eight years of aging is usually right, with some whiskey reaching a good balance at about four years. It seems Old Tub may have that sweet spot.

I look forward to trying it, when I can next visit the U.S. – but who knows when that will be?


*Irish single pot still too, of course.


Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.