Drinks

How to "Age" Your Bourbon in 3 Seconds

October 14, 2015

A few weeks ago, I found an email in my inbox. It contained a recipe for "Instant Aged Bourbon" from the pages of Kitchen Hacks, a book by Cook's Illustrated. I was intrigued.

The recipe calls for you to add 1 tablespoon of dry sherry, 1/4 teaspoon of vanilla, and 1/4 teaspoon of liquid smoke to 750 milliliters of budget bourbon. Shake thoroughly. Prepare to be amazed by the smoothness.

Bourbon

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There are quite a few tricks circulating the internet which profess to speed-age your bourbon. One includes taking your booze on a ship. Another harnesses the power of lightning.

This bit of liquid alchemy from Kitchen Hacks calls for 3 ingredients, each of which mimic an aspect of the aging process: The liquid smoke adds earthiness; the vanilla provides vanillin (a flavor compound also found in bourbon barrels); and the sherry provides undertones to make the bourbon taste more aged.

"Would you like to test this?" my editor asked. Would I ever!

More: Another cheap way to transform your bourbon—and use up your food scraps in the process.

apple peel bourbon

I entered the liquor store a bit giddy. The saleswoman was suspicious and stared at my I.D. for far longer than seemed necessary, but then she helped me pick out a 325-milliliter of "the good stuff," which had been aged for nine years. It put me back $19.99.

I didn't need any help buying a bottle of the bottom-shelf bourbon—I knew what I was doing. I chose a brand that I'd had before and thought was pretty smooth. (It didn't state the age on the bottle, but after a bit of sleuthing I found out it was approximately four years). A 750-milliliter bottle of cheap bourbon (one step up from the very-worst stuff; as a post-college adult, I cannot bring myself to purchase liquor in a plastic bottle—even I have my standards) cost $14.99. Both spirits were 50% A.B.V. After a bit of math, I realized that the nicer bourbon was roughly three times as expensive as the cheaper bourbon.

As soon as I got home, I set aside some of the cheap bourbon to use as a control and doctored up the rest: I poured the prescribed doses of dry sherry, vanilla extract, and liquid smoke into the bottle and gave it a firm shake. I then poured a fingerful of each (cheap, doctored cheap, and fancy) into my nicest glasses. Let the first taste test begin.

Whiskey Glass Whiskey Glass

 

1. The Neat Bourbon Test

I like my bourbon like I wish I liked my closet: neat. This might just be because I don't have any of those fancy giant ice cubes that look like they were chipped off of glaciers. Regardless, for the first test, I served the bourbon in its purest, most unadulterated form.

Right off the bat, one thing became clear: No one preferred the control of the unmixed cheap bourbon. Everyone who tasted it immediately grimaced and said "not this one." Well, no surprises there.

The results were not as clear-cut for the other two bourbons. Of the 12 people who volunteered as my testers, 8 preferred the fancy-pants bourbon, while 4 preferred the cheaper bourbon that had been doctored. A few testers said that the fancier bourbon tasted "more like alcohol," and its flavors were more "nuanced" (yes, their pinkies were out when they said that). Those who preferred the cheaper bourbon said that it was "smoother" and "sweeter," probably due to the vanilla. 

History of the Old Fashioned 

 

2. The Old Fashioned Test

A previous roommate had left some awesome cocktail mixers at my house, so I mixed the bourbon with one appropriately titled "Bourbon Barrel-Aged Old Fashioned." If you're making yours from scratch, I recommend this classic formula.

The results of this test were quite similar to the neat bourbon test. The majority preferred the cocktail mixed with the expensive bourbon, but not an overwhelming majority—and most people ended up sipping both a few times, brows knit, before shrugging and saying they liked both. Me too, testers. Me too.

More: Before you mix up an Old Fashioned yourself, learn its history.

Boulevardier

 

Analysis

First, a tiny bit of background on bourbon. Bourbon is a part of the whiskey family (not whisky, which traditionally refers to whiskies made in Scotland and Canada). In order to be classified as bourbon, it must be made with at least 51% corn, though it typically also has rye or wheat and malt. Bourbon distinguishes itself from its whiskey brethren from the way it's aged—in white oak barrels that have been charred on the inside with a torch. 

The aging process is important for two reasons:

  1. First, when distillers burn the inside of their barrels, they actually end up caramelizing the glucose in the wood. Now the inside of the burned wooden barrels is not coated in straight caramel, but still, the subtle sweetness transfers to the whisky as it ages. 

  2. Second, aging filters the spirit. In the summer, the bourbon expands and pushes into the porous oak of the barrel. In the winter, it contracts back out of the wood. This seasonal migration filters out impurities from the bourbon and makes it smoother.

This sounds like an argument for why the whisky aged nine years would obviously be superior. However, according to BDCWire, most of the aging happens during the first two years. After that, the changes that happen inside the barrel are relatively minor.

Cardamon Old Fashioned

 

Conclusion

So, is it worth the trouble to doctor up your cheap bourbon? I say definitely, especially if you're drinking it neat or on the rocks. If the bourbon is going into a cocktail, especially one with a palate-dominating mixer, you might want to skip the mixing step.

Until I have enough disposable income to drop a serious chunk of change at the liquor store, or suddenly develop an incredibly fine-tuned palate for whiskey, I'll be buying my budget bourbon brands—and giving them a little something-something in my own kitchen.

Bourbon, bourbon, we love thee. What's your favorite way to drink this golden liquor? Neat? On the rocks? In a Manhattan? Tell us in the comments!

9 Comments

Jerry T. October 26, 2015
Just because the bourbon is less expensive, doesn't mean its cheap. The fact that is was 100 proof may have mean it was bottled in bond. I would expect the cheaper 80 proof blended bourbons might be very different.
 
Cookie October 18, 2015
The sherry and vanilla sound delicious and simpatico with bourban, so i can't wait to try it. But for those of us who appreciate a fine bourbon just as we appreciate a fine wine, the recommendation to add nasty liquid smoke to already-poor-quality liquor is painful. Liquid smoke is a chemical compound with multiple toxins and carcinogens and shouldn’t be recommended any more than Cheez Whiz for a quiche, at least not here, where we come for tips on fine, healthy food and drinks, and the best ways to prepare them. The better solution is just to make a good old Manhattan or Old Fashioned with less expensive liquor, and enjoy it that way.
 
Hayley F. October 20, 2015
Well, the char on the barrels used to age the bourbon is from fire, as is liquid smoke. Undoubtedly, the flavors of the barrel-aged are different due to the longer period of interaction between alcohol and charred wood, but ultimately the carcinogens are the similar carcinogens regardless of source.
 
Anders Ö. October 18, 2015
I guess that by ”dry sherry” you mean an amontillado or rather an oloroso? A fino sherry would not work well. I suggest you specify which one in the text since it's a HUGE difference in style.
 
Allan S. October 15, 2015
My wife and I only recently discovered that we like bourbon. Our favourites would be (in this order): 1. Wild Turkey Rare Breed, 2. Eagle Rare, 3. Elijah Craig, 4. Makers Mark. I assume that Woodford Reserve is a bourbon, however, it's not one of our favourites. Looks fancy - is priced fancy! - but it's a bit harsh, straight. In an Old Fashioned, it's fine. As for bourbon cocktails ... our favourite would be the Manhattan, and specifically, the 1867 (?) Manhattan as mixed at the Waldorf Astoria in, where else, Manhattan, NY. No, we cannot afford to STAY at the Waldorf, but ... we can 'pretend' by sitting in the lounge, thoroughly enjoying the most amazing drink you ever will have. The key: they make their own bitters! Plus, the Eagle Rare batch the have is exclusive to the Waldorf. So technically, we can never replicate this drink outside the hotel. As for an Old Fashioned ... my favourite is with Makers Mark. And for a Canadian twist: replace the 'simple syrup' (sugar) with maple syrup . . . . . oooooh . . . yum! ;)<br />Allan Shearer (ex-pat Canuck, living in Ireland)
 
Sarah K. October 15, 2015
My favorite bourbon mix came from my poor college days, it works great with the horrible cheap bourbons but also with the more expensive brands. Just mix your favorite honey, I switch between them depending on the season, and a little bit of lemon juice, in with the bourbon. The acidity and sweetness cut out the telltale signs off cheap bourbon.
 
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Catherine L. October 15, 2015
Ooh, very nice! It's sort of like a hot toddy, just not hot!
 
Awads October 15, 2015
i do love me some bourbon, but my palate isn't all that sophisticated. give me buffalo trace in a manhattan (with the good sweet vermouth--dolin!) and i'm beyond happy!
 
Diari October 14, 2015
Let me just say this...I love bourbon. Thank you :)