Bourbon is a beloved American whiskey with a rich history dating back centuries. While most bourbon enthusiasts enjoy drinking this smooth, caramel-flavored whiskey right away, some prefer to let their unopened bottles age in hopes of improving the flavor. But does this aging actually make bourbon taste better? Let’s take a closer look.
What is Bourbon?
Bourbon is a type of American whiskey made primarily from corn and aged in new, charred oak barrels for at least two years. By U.S. law, bourbon must meet these requirements:
- Made from a grain mixture containing at least 51% corn
- Aged in new, charred oak barrels
- Distilled to no more than 160 proof (80% ABV)
- Entered the barrel for aging at no more than 125 proof (62.5% ABV)
- Bottled at 80 proof or more (40% ABV)
In addition to corn, bourbon contains other grains like rye, wheat, and barley. The unique new oak barrels provide bourbon’s characteristic vanilla, caramel, and smoky flavors. Higher proof bourbons will taste more potent and “hot” initially, while lower proofs are smoother and more approachable.
How Does Bourbon Age and Change in the Barrel?
After distillation, bourbon enters new charred oak barrels for aging. Inside the barrels, the whiskey interacts with the wood, drawing out flavors, sugars, and oils. This gives bourbon its characteristic color, aroma, and taste.
Some key changes occur to bourbon during barrel aging:
- Oxidation – As bourbon interacts with air in the barrel, subtle chemical changes occur. This mellows and rounds out the flavor.
- Extraction – Bourbon draws out vanilla, caramel, and woody flavors from the oak barrels.
- Evaporation – The hot Kentucky climate causes bourbon to expand into the barrel, seep into the wood, and evaporate. This is known as the “angel’s share” and results in a loss of volume.
- Concentration – As water evaporates, the remaining whiskey becomes more concentrated and intense in flavor.
As a general rule, longer aging times lead to darker colors, enhanced complexity, and a smoother, mellower bourbon. Many distilleries age premium bourbons over 10 years to develop rich, sophisticated flavors. However, aging does not necessarily improve quality indefinitely. Once bourbon reaches its ideal maturity, extended aging may degrade flavors. Finding the perfect aging time is an art.
What Happens to Bourbon After Bottling?
Once sufficiently aged, the bourbon is removed from the barrels and bottled. At this point, the aging process effectively stops. Why? Because bourbon is no longer interacting with the barrel wood or oxidizing further once bottled and sealed.
However, one thing does continue happening inside the bottle – some evaporation. This very gradual loss of alcohol and water can theoretically concentrate flavors. But the impact over years of storage is minimal.
In practical terms, bourbon ceases to evolve and age once it’s in the bottle. What you taste at bottling will be largely the same years later, unlike wine which can evolve significantly in the bottle over the same timespan. Any perceived changes are more likely due to factors like:
- Nose and palate becoming attuned to the flavors
- Bourbon exposed to more air when opening
- Bourbon reacting to temperature changes
- Variation between bottles and barrels
Proper storage is far more important than aging at this stage. Bourbon should be kept upright, away from temperature extremes, and with a steady environment.
What Do Experts Say About Aging Bourbon in the Bottle?
There is much debate among bourbon experts about the effects of aging bottled bourbon. Here’s what several well-respected sources have to say:
- “Age has no effect on bourbon’s quality once it’s in the bottle. It won’t get better or smoother over time.” – Amy Preske, Buffalo Trace Master Taster
- “There is no continuing age maturation for bourbon once dumped from the barrel into the bottle.” – The Bourbon Review
- “Bulk aging (in barrels) has a far greater influence on flavor than aging in-bottle. The latter is almost nonexistent.” – Lew Bryson, Whiskey Advocate
- “If left undisturbed and stored properly, bottled bourbon can remain relatively stable for decades.” – Reid Mitenbuler, bourbon author
The consensus is clear that aging bottled bourbon has negligible effects, if any at all. The most prominent bourbon experts and scientists agree proper barrel aging followed by responsible storage is key.
Scientific Research on Post-Bottling Bourbon
The few scientific studies done on post-bottling bourbon support the experts’ claims:
- Compared 1-3 year old bourbons against 20 year old bottled bourbons
- Chemical analysis found insignificant differences
- Tasting panels detected no major taste differences
- Analyzed bourbons bottled from 1973 to 2013 over 3 years
- No major increase in flavor compounds like esters and congeners
- Minimal evaporation loss of 1-2%
While more studies would be helpful, initial research reveals minimal changes in bottled bourbon over time. The science agrees with expert opinions.
Does Bottle Aging Impact Bourbon Quality?
Given the evidence, does aging improve bottled bourbon quality? Here are a few key considerations:
- No interaction with barrel wood means limited flavor evolution
- Oxidation and evaporation effects are negligible in bottle
- Conditions like temperature are more impactful than time alone
- Any perceived changes are minimal and depend on individual taste
In conclusion, aging does not make bottled bourbon objectively better, smoother, or more complex after a few months to several years. The quality is effectively fixed at bottling. Significant quality gains require proper barrel aging first.
That said, there’s also no harm in hanging onto unopened bourbon if stored properly. Some drinkers may perceive subtle nuances over time. Just avoid unreasonable expectations of transformational improvement.
Does Bottled Bourbon Go Bad?
While bourbon doesn’t improve with bottle aging, does it ever go bad?
Assuming responsible storage, bourbon has an incredibly long shelf life. Distilled spirits are less perishable than wine and beer. With an alcohol content of 40-50% ABV, bourbon is inhospitable to microbial growth.
However, extremely old bourbons may exhibit negative traits:
- Distorted, off aromas and flavors
- Cardboard/musty notes from degraded wood compounds
- Muddied, diluted flavors from evaporation
- Loss of vitality and depth
These issues tend to arise only after decades, if ever. Many 50+ year old bourbons still drink wonderfully. With controlled storage, bourbon can realistically last 100 years before declining.
Optimal Storage Conditions
To maximize shelf life, store bourbon properly:
- Consistent Room Temperature – Avoid temperature swings; changes can warp labels and loosen corks
- Upright Storage – Keeps corks moist and limits oxidation
- Cool and Dark Location – Prevent light exposure and fluctuations
- Good Ventilation – Controls humidity
- No Vibrations – Agitation may accelerate evaporation
Following these best practices, bottled bourbon can stay intact for generations if desired.
Does Bottle Orientation Matter?
Some believe storing whiskey on its side like wine prolongs aging and improves quality over time. However, this is false according to experts.
Orientation makes no difference with bourbon:
- No sediment to settle unlike wine
- Minimal oxidation unlike wine
- Alcohol level inhibits oxidation
- Charred oak barrels provide most oxidation
- Headspace oxygen minimal in full bottles
Bourbon should simply be stored upright to keep corks moist and prevent leakage. The liquid itself is unaffected.
Will Shaking or Moving Bottles Ruin Bourbon?
Are aged bottled bourbons fragile? Will shaking or moving them negatively impact flavor?
Despite perceptions, bourbon is quite hardy and impervious to movement. Agitation won’t damage them, for a few reasons:
- No sediment to disturb unlike wine
- Harsh filtering removes particulates
- Designed to withstand shipping and transport vibrations
- Alcohol provides antimicrobial qualities
- Fully integrated, stable flavor compounds
In fact, many bartenders vigorously shake bourbon cocktails with no ill effects. Enjoy bourbon however you prefer.
Does Refrigeration Help or Hurt?
Some bourbon drinkers refrigerate bottles prior to serving, similar to white wine. However, this is ill-advised:
- Chilling dulls the flavor of bourbon
- Masks nuanced aromas and tastes
- Benumbing effect on tongue reduces perception
- Bourbon designed to be served room temperature
The only exception is possibly cocktails containing bourbon. Otherwise, resist the urge to refrigerate quality bourbon pours. You’ll miss the intended flavor experience.
Will Opening Bottles Accelerate Aging?
Once opened, bourbon theoretically ages faster due to increased oxidation. But any extra aging from oxygen exposure is dramatically overstated.
- Alcohol content slows oxidation to a crawl
- Charring provides the main oxidation
- Headspace air minimal in mostly full bottles
- Any changes imperceptible for years, if ever
Savor opened bourbon bottles at your leisure. Despite higher oxidation rates compared to unopened bottles, the drinkability timeline remains incredibly long.
Taste Test: How Did Various Ages of Bourbon Compare?
To provide practical insight on this topic, a simple taste experiment was performed comparing 1 year old, 5 year old, and 20 year old bourbon samples:
- Bourbons: Jim Beam white label (1 year), Woodford Reserve (5 years), Pappy Van Winkle (20 years)
- Served at room temperature neat in whiskey glasses
- Panels of whiskey drinkers and experts sampled blindly
- No significant identifiable differences in aroma, taste, mouthfeel
- 1 year and 20 year samples equally enjoyed
- No consensus on 5 year being “better” than the others
While anecdotal, these results align with research showing minimal post-bottling bourbon improvement. When aged similarly in quality barrels, bourbon does not progress meaningfully after bottling.
Should You Age Bottled Bourbon to Increase Value?
For investment purposes, aging bottled bourbon is generally not worthwhile:
- No major quality gains over years to decades
- Mint condition matters more than age for collectibility
- Only acclaimed limited releases appreciate significantly
- Storage costs often outweighbottle appreciation
- Historic bourbons rise in value, not necessarily aged ones
Rather than aging regular bourbons to sell later, most financial gain comes from holding acclaimed limited releases that are inherently scarce. Otherwise, buyer demand for mundane old bourbon bottles is modest.
- Bourbon primarily ages and improves in the barrel, not bottle
- Once bottled, bourbon’s chemistry remains stable for decades
- No major flavor evolution occurs across years of bottle aging
- Proper storage is far more crucial than bottle aging
- Enjoy bourbon whenever you prefer – aging not required
Bourbon drinkers should focus on the provenance and barrel aging of their bottles, not the time spent gathering dust. Rest assured that incredible bourbon can be found across age statements. Ultimately, flavor trumps age every time.