Challenging the Drinking Age
Can you craft a quality bourbon or whiskey in months?
By Cheryl HarrisonPublished October 25, 2012
Some whiskey or bourbon fans argue that the minimum drinking age should be 20, 10, 5, or even 3 years – of aging the spirit, not of the consumer.
Ryan Lang, head distiller and co-owner of Middle West Spirits, disagrees. He explained that time may not be the most important consideration when creating a whiskey or bourbon.
The type of distillate, the kind of barrel (American Oak? Canadian Oak? Scottish Oak?), and the climate where it will age (mild temperatures of Scotland? greatly varying temperatures of Ohio?) impact how long the spirit will need to sit in barrels.
Still, Middle West released their OYO whiskey after just under a year of aging as more of a test than as a fully matured liquor.
“It was all about getting product out there and giving it a shot to see what people thought,” said Lang. “If we waited another two years, let’s say, what if the product was going down the wrong path, and we didn’t catch it, and the market feedback was pretty bad?”
Lang says that the whiskey has gotten better with age; the batch currently on store shelves (which recently medaled) aged a full year longer than the first bottles sold last autumn. But Middle West plans to stop the clock on aging the whiskey soon, as Lang says the delicate wheat flavors would become overpowered, and unpleasant, with too much time in oak.
When Watershed Distillery launched in 2010, they were immediately distilling and setting aside bourbon, aware the spirit would need time to mature.
“Being a huge bourbon fan, I was a little skeptical because we weren’t going to have six years, like Maker’s Mark, to age the bourbon, or four years, like a lot of other distilleries,” said Greg Lehman, owner and distiller of Watershed.
Watershed will release their first bourbon this November, having aged it for just under two years – if it were to be called “straight bourbon” it would have been required to age for at least two years, among other details.
“We use a little bit smaller barrel, so [the bourbon] picks up flavor a little faster from the barrel, because there’s less surface area,” said Lehman.
Lehman himself was surprised to discover that the barrels in the batch that have aged the longest are not his favorite. Still, Watershed will only release about 40 cases of the bourbon this year, setting the rest aside to continue aging and releasing most of it in two years.
“Slowly we’ll get [the bourbon] older and older until we feel it’s right at the sweet spot where it’s not getting any better with age,” said Lehman.
Kelly Sauber, owner of Dancing Tree Distillery in southeast Ohio, is working on two whiskeys of his own, but his will be aging for 5-10 or more years before hitting shelves.
“I have arrived at no set date for my whiskey, for the whiskey is in charge, not me,” said Sauber. “I choose not to force a product to market. I will not put a product on the market because I need to enhance my cash flow. If my whiskey is not ready, you will not get to taste it.”
Since both Middle West Spirits and Watershed Distillery both recently underwent expansions, each will have more space to set aside barrels, increasing the amount of time they are able to age their products. Middle West has four additional, undisclosed whiskeys currently aging, to be released sometime in the future.
“It’s just a matter of time,” said Lang.