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How Long Does Bourbon Have To Be Aged? (2022 Updated)

Making bourbon is like a magical production process transforming fermented mash into something worth coveting. But how long does bourbon have to be aged?

This guide will help you understand this well-loved liquor.

All About Aging Bourbons

All About Aging Bourbons

One of the legal requirements for aging bourbons is that the new oak barrels are charred on the inside. The standard for the aging process is a minimum of two years. The longer it is matured, the more complex its character becomes. 

However, if it sits in the barrel for more than 15 years, it is more likely to pick up sour or bitter notes from the barrel. 

Fun Facts

Fun Facts

Bourbons Don’t Have An Age Requirement

Bourbon must use at least 51% corn mash. It has no age requirement, but it can only be called bourbon if it’s aged for at least two years in new and charred barrels and distilled in the United States. Used barrels are not accepted.

They Can Be Aged In Any Oak Barrel

They Can Be Aged In Any Oak Barrel

While it’s a requirement to store bourbon in a charred new oak container, that oak barrel does not need to be American. It doesn’t even need to be in the shape of a barrel [1]

It should be distilled to no more than 160 proof (80% alcohol) and put into any new, charred oak barrel for aging to be called a bourbon. It doesn’t have to be French oak or American oak bourbon barrels. 

Bourbons Don’t Go Bad (Apparently)

Bourbons don’t go bad. The longer it’s in the barrels, the more complex it becomes. It becomes smoother and richer with age. Bourbons can last for many years as long as they are stored properly. Do not expose them to light or heat.

Bourbons Need To Be Charred In Oak Barrels

Bourbons Need To Be Charred In Oak Barrels

The interior of the barrels is charred to prime the wood, which can affect the alcohol’s flavor. It catalyzes the chemical changes essential in making whiskey. As the bourbon ages, the charred wood acts as a filter that removes or changes congeners in the distillate. 

Congeners, compounds found in alcohol other than ethanol, impact the whiskey’s taste, aroma, and color. Charred oak barrels eliminate bad congeners, while distillation also removes some.

Does It Improve With Age?

Yes, bourbon improves with age in the barrel, but the aging stops once it’s in the bottle. Bourbon bottles with age statements of four years will always remain as four-year-olds. On the other hand, as the alcohol ages in the barrel, it becomes smoother and develops a more complex flavor profile.

However, there’s a sweet spot in getting the right balance between flavors and creating the perfect bourbon. Overdoing the aging of the bourbon can lead to too much oak character resulting in the loss of the grains’ flavor.

Is There A Limit In Aging Bourbon?

Is There A Limit In Aging Bourbon?

Yes, there’s a limit you need to follow to age bourbon. Under federal standards, it states that bourbon shouldn’t be matured for more than 25 years.  

Older bourbons with more than 15 years of age statement are usually bitter and lose their complex taste. Bourbon aged for two years is called Straight Bourbon. In contrast, a bottled-in-bond bourbon should have at least four years of the aging process.

Can You Drink A 50-Year-Old Bourbon?

Yes, you can drink a 50-year-old bourbon because the bourbon has an indefinite shelf life. You can drink a 50-year-old bourbon as long as the bottle hasn’t been opened and is sealed. If the alcohol is still at the halfway point, it can last two years. 

When the whiskey bottle is filled with more air, the bourbon will oxidize faster, resulting in a flavor change.

FAQs

What are the requirements to be a bourbon?

Bourbon should be made with a mash bill of at least 51% corn. It must be distilled to no more than 160 proof (80% alcohol by volume.) Bourbon must be aged in charred oak barrels. It should be produced in the United States to be called a bourbon. This makes bourbon unique among all other whiskeys.  

What bourbon is aged the longest?

The Final Reserve James Thompson & Brother Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey is considered by many to be the oldest bourbon. It is matured for 45 years at 115 proof.

Key Takeaways

Most whiskey drinkers wonder if there is a limit to the age of bourbon whiskey. Generally, bourbons have a minimum process of aging of two years. In addition, if the liquor is matured for less than four years, it must include an age statement on its label.

Bourbon is made of at least 51% corn. The rest of the mash bill can come from wheat, rye, malted barley, or other grains. The liquor can be made anywhere in the U.S but is strongly associated with Kentucky, where most bourbons are made. The brands Jim Beam and Elijah Craig whiskey are a few of the many bourbons found in the liquor store.

Reference:

  1. https://vinepair.com/articles/bourbon-barrels-not-american-oak/

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