Skip to main content

Yes, bourbon can be aged too long – here’s how to pick the best-aged bourbon

Why bourbon over 15 years old might be too old

whiskey glass
Ambitious Studio / Rick Barrett / Unsplash

We all know the general bourbon rules and regulations. To be called a bourbon, it must be made with a mash bill of at least 51% corn, aged in new charred oak barrels, made in the US (not just Kentucky), distilled to a maximum of 160-proof, barreled, at a maximum of 125-proof, and bottled at a minimum of 80-proof and a maximum of 150-proof. But none of these rules explain how long a bourbon must be aged.

Technically, there are no rules about how long a bourbon must be aged. However, the whiskey must mature for at least two years to be called a straight bourbon. On top of that, bottled-in-bond bourbon spent at least four years aging in a federally bonded warehouse.

This brings us to one big question: how long is too short, and more importantly, how long is too much when it comes to maturation? Yes, bourbon can be aged too long.

Whiskey glass
Thomas Park/Unsplash

How to pick the best-aged bourbon

There’s a sweet spot when it comes to bourbon, and it’s likely not as old as you think. You can find decent, fairly nuanced in the 2-4 year range. They’ll likely be inexpensive and have some notes of vanilla, sweet corn, oak, and other flavors. They won’t be as advanced and rich as a longer-aged whiskey, though. The sweet spot is between 8 and 12 years (fifteen maximum). Any less and bourbon hasn’t had long enough to mingle with the charred wood to create a complex palate.

Any more time and the wood can influence the flavor in negative ways. It can add bitterness, sourness, and unfavorable woody flavors. If a bourbon spends too long maturing, the nuanced, complex notes that the wood has imparted can be muddled and sometimes even lost completely. This is why distillers often open the barrel and sample it to ensure it’s aging properly. When it has reached its pinnacle of aroma and flavor, the distillers stop the aging process.

Whiskey barrels
August Phlieger/Unsplash

How do distillers stop the aging process?

The best way to stop the aging process when a whiskey is ready is to remove it from the barrels or casks and bottle it. That’s the simplest way to stop it from aging longer, as its entrance into the bottle means it’s done aging. Since it’s inert, if stored properly (away from direct sunlight, in a controlled environment like a basement), its flavor and aroma won’t change at all while in the bottle. But there is another way to stop the aging process immediately without bottling the bourbon right away.

Bourbon
Ryan Parker/Unsplash

Stainless steel is key

When a distiller decides that the bourbon has finished its aging process but isn’t ready to bottle it, the distiller can dump and siphon the bourbon before transferring it to stainless steel barrels or tanks. The reason is that stainless steel tanks don’t affect the flavor or aroma of the whiskey because they are completely neutral vessels. It’s a common practice at many distilleries, including Buffalo Trace. This is because transferring whiskey to stainless steel tanks immediately stops the aging process. Not only does it not change to matured aroma and flavor, but it’s also been known to help mellow and smooth out some of the flavors because of the oxidation process in the barrels or tanks.

Many distilleries use this technique to store long-aged, limited-supply whiskeys until they are ready to be released (or if they only plan to release a little at a time). This way, the whiskey doesn’t decline in flavor and aroma while it’s waiting to be bottled. If distillers didn’t do this, they would constantly need to bottle and release every bottle the moment it was matured. This could leave them with the possibility of no surplus whiskey in case of emergency or other reasons.

Whiskey barrels
Katherine Conrad/Unsplash

Choosing the right bottle for you

If you ask bartenders, distillers, and experts, many will tell you that 8-12 years is the best age when it comes to bourbon. This is long enough for the whiskey to gain aromas and flavors from the charred oak, including pipe tobacco, fresh leather, cinnamon, caramel, vanilla, gentle spices, and rich oaky wood. While there are longer-matured whiskeys with complex, rich, balanced flavor profiles, any longer than 12-15 years and you’re risking foul aromas and flavors creeping into the mix. Bitter, woody, and other abrasive aromas and flavors can ruin a great whiskey if they’re allowed to mingle with the rest of the flavors. Next time you stroll through the aisles of your local liquor store or visit your favorite online retailer, spend more time looking at the 10-year-old bourbons than the young and particularly old bottles.

Editors' Recommendations

Christopher Osburn
Christopher Osburn is a food and drinks writer located in the Finger Lakes Region of New York. He's been writing professional
Our 4 favorite mezcals for sipping
Four great sipping mezcals
Mezcal

If you’re even the most basic drinker, you probably know a little bit about tequila. This agave-based spirit is popular for sipping neat, on the rocks, or mixed into a variety of cocktails, including the classic Margarita, Paloma, and Ranch Water. But mezcal, on the other hand, might be a bit of a mystery.

When thinking about mezcal, a good idea is to think of it like this: all tequila is mezcal, but not all mezcal is tequila. That is to say that mezcal is the umbrella term used for all agave-based Mexican spirits. Tequila is simply a type of mezcal. It’s made with a specific set of rules. It must be made only with Blue Weber agave in Jalisco (where the town of Tequila is located) and a handful of other states.

Read more
Our 6 favorite rum brands and bottles in 2024
Buy these rum bottles in 2024
Rum drink

When it comes to spirits perfect for sipping neat, on the rocks, or mixed into a cocktail, many drinkers tend to look at whiskey immediately. But if your second choice isn’t rum, you’re missing out. White rum is a fantastic base for daiquiris, mojitos, and other drinks; spiced rum is excellent for tropical-centric Tiki-style drinks and for giving your drink a little extra spice, and dark, aged rum is perfect for slow sipping neat or on the rocks.

For the uninitiated, rum is a spirit made by fermenting and distilling sugarcane juice or molasses. It’s then either bottled immediately (or lightly aged) and sold as white rum, has spices added to create spiced rum or is aged in charred oak barrels like your favorite single malt scotch whisky, bourbon, or rye whiskey. We sipped on and mixed with a lot of rum in 2023, and we’ll do the same this year.

Read more
These are bartenders’ favorite value single malt Scotch whiskies (all under $100)
Bartenders tell us the best value single malt scotch whiskies
Scotch

If you don’t know much about single malt Scotch whisky (only the US and Ireland use the ‘e’ in whiskey), you might have some preconceived notions about its price. Like with any whisk(e)y, there are many uncomfortably expensive bottles of single malt whisky. There are also countless flavorful, reasonably-priced bottles. That’s what we’re most interested in today.

When we talk about value, we specifically talk about complex, rich, sippable single malt whiskies priced under $100. And these under $100 (and often much less) gems aren’t from lesser-known brands. They’re award-winning expressions from some of the most respected distilleries in Scotland.

Read more