The Aging Process: 5 Factors That Make All The Difference

It’s often said that age is only a number, but when it comes to whiskey fans, time in a barrel conveys many messages-some of them mixed, says Heaven Hill Master Distiller, Denny Potter.

“I can’t say it enough: Age does not equal quality,” he says. To prove his point, he leads groups through blind tastings of whiskies, and most commonly, they prefer younger expressions.

Still, with over 1.2 million barrels of whiskey maturing in its 55 warehouses, age is a significant matter. So we’ll let Denny speak for himself about the particulars he focuses on when choosing when it’s time to bottle.

Elevation really matters. If it sits on a hill, it’ll be drier inside and the temperature changes over a year will be more dramatic. That’s a place where you’ll probably see more angels’ share lost. If you have a warehouse located in a valley, possibly even near a creek, that one will stay cooler, maybe even be moist inside. And how clean the airflow is within a warehouse is really significant to the consistency we get from it. Our Deatsville property is a bit elevated, plus its warehouses are that old steeple design not made anymore. Parker Beam really liked them, probably because they continually give us such highly consistent maturation.

We love that variation occurs inside a warehouse from floor to floor because it allows us to produce such a highly diversified range of whiskeys. Pikesville Rye typically comes from the sixth floor or above, Larceny from the fourth floor or above, and on and on. But if you’re looking at Evan Williams Black Label you’re doing a few thousand barrel dump, pulling barrels from huge cross-sections of multiple warehouses on multiple sites. We’ll pull 20 barrels from here, 20 from there, 20 from another, and even do a smaller mock dump in the lab to make sure it’s spot on. Though you’ll get barrels of different ages, it helps us make a product that’s consistent and reproducible.

Hot summers cause more evaporation that will impact flavor and how long we’re able to age our whiskeys. It plays a huge role in how our whiskeys taste. We’re having cold-enough winters that it’s all balancing out. We’re getting the expansion into and contraction out of the barrel that we want.

Barrels play a huge role in flavor because of the charring process that gives whiskey its color, and the caramelized wood sugars that give us that vanilla and sweetness. The longer it’s in there, the more influence the barrel will have on the liquid. But since alcohol is a solvent, it can push deeper into the wood over time, and that will influence flavor a lot. Tannins become an issue the longer it rests. We are also able to be picky with the quality of the barrels themselves because we’ve been working with the same family-owned cooperages for generations.

Obviously, time is important or we wouldn’t age so many of our products for so long. But what is so cool for a company like ours that has so many warehouse sites and brands is that all we know when these barrels are put a way is the mashbill. We don’t know which whiskeys each will become. Our traditional Bourbon mashbill can become Henry McKenna, Elijah Craig, Evan Williams or any other traditional Bourbon we make. We don’t know which specific barrels will become what, but we do know how old all of them are. The magic happens in the selection of the barrels that will be bottled for each brand. Elijah Craig is a great example of the whole spectrum of what we do relative to age. We’re definitely watching for barrels that fit specific profiles for our 18-Year-Old and 23-Year-Old expressions. We can be very precise with such small releases. With Elijah Craig Small Batch, we pull together 200 barrels or less of 8 to 12-Year-Old.

To learn more about the whiskey making process here at Heaven Hill Distillery check out our post on barrel selection, or visit our Facebook page to watch our Facebook live with Master Distiller Denny Potter.


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