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How Long Does Bourbon Have To Be Aged? (2024 Updated)

How Long Does Bourbon Have To Be Aged

Last Updated on April 12, 2024 by Lydia Martin

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

Oak Barrel (How Long Does Bourbon Have To Be Aged)

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

Mini 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. However, is bourbon good for your health?

Bourbons Need To Be Charred In Oak Barrels

Oak & Eden

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.

Read: National Bourbon Day Activities

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?

Pappy Van Winkle 15 years old

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.

Read: The Best Bourbon Tours In Kentucky

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.

Frequently Asked Questions (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. But what’s toasted barrel bourbon?

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. But does bourbon really get better with age?

What’s the minimum aging time for bourbon?

For a whiskey to be legally labeled as bourbon in the United States, it must be aged in new charred oak barrels. However, there is no specific minimum aging time required for bourbon. While some bourbons are released after just a few years of aging, others are aged for a longer duration to develop more complex flavors.

Can bourbon be less than 2 years old?

Technically, yes, bourbon can be aged for less than two years. However, if a bourbon is aged for less than four years, the label must include an age statement to disclose the youngest whiskey in the blend. The majority of bourbons on the market exceed this minimum age requirement, with many aged for several years to achieve desired flavors and characteristics.

What are the 5 requirements for bourbon?

The five requirements for bourbon are:

Mash Bill: Bourbon must have a mash bill (grain recipe) that is at least 51% corn.

Distillation: It must be distilled to no more than 160 proof.

Barrel Aging: Bourbon must be aged in new charred oak barrels.

Entry Proof: The spirit must enter the barrel for aging at no more than 125 proof.

Bottling Proof: Bourbon must be bottled at a minimum of 80 proof.

Adherence to these regulations defines the unique characteristics and production standards of bourbon.

Can you drink 30 year old bourbon?

Yes, you can drink 30-year-old bourbon if it has been properly stored and maintained. The aging process imparts unique flavors and characteristics to the bourbon. However, it’s essential to note that the taste can vary widely, and individual preferences play a significant role. Some people appreciate the complexity and depth of flavor in older bourbons, while others may prefer younger expressions.

Do bourbons get better with age?

The notion that bourbons universally get better with age is not absolute. While aging can impart desirable flavors and complexity, there’s a point at which diminishing returns may occur. Some bourbons peak in flavor after a certain period of aging, and extended aging does not necessarily equate to better quality. Individual preferences vary, and some whiskey enthusiasts may prefer the boldness of younger expressions, while others appreciate the subtleties that longer aging can bring. Ultimately, the “better with age” concept depends on personal taste and the characteristics sought in the bourbon.

Does aging bourbon make it stronger?

Aging bourbon does not make it stronger in terms of alcohol content. The alcohol by volume (ABV) of bourbon remains relatively constant during the aging process. However, aging in new charred oak barrels contributes to changes in flavor, aroma, and color as the bourbon interacts with the wood. The aging process allows the spirit to develop complexity, mellow out harsh characteristics, and extract compounds from the wood, resulting in a smoother and more refined taste.

Why is Jack Daniel’s not bourbon?

Jack Daniel’s is not classified as bourbon due to its unique production process, specifically the Lincoln County Process. This involves filtering the whiskey through sugar maple charcoal before aging it in new charred oak barrels. While Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Whiskey shares similarities with bourbon, such as being made primarily from corn, the additional step of charcoal filtering sets it apart and categorizes it as Tennessee Whiskey rather than bourbon.

Is Jack Daniel’s a bourbon?

No, Jack Daniel’s is not classified as bourbon. It is labeled as Tennessee Whiskey. The distinction lies in the additional step known as the Lincoln County Process, where the whiskey is filtered through sugar maple charcoal before aging it in new charred oak barrels. This process sets Tennessee Whiskey, including Jack Daniel’s, apart from bourbon.

What is the straight bourbon rule?

The “straight” designation for bourbon indicates that the spirit has been aged for a specific period, adhering to certain standards. According to the U.S. Federal Standards of Identity for Distilled Spirits, a straight bourbon must be aged for a minimum of four years. If the bourbon is aged less than four years, it must include an age statement disclosing the youngest whiskey in the blend.

Why is it called bourbon?

Bourbon is named after Bourbon County, Kentucky, where it is believed to have originated. The county was named in honor of the French royal family, and the whiskey produced in the region became known as Bourbon whiskey. Over time, the term “bourbon” became widely used to refer to this style of American whiskey, and it now carries a specific set of production standards and regulations.

Final Thoughts: How Long Does Bourbon Have To Be Aged

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. Bourbon Barrels Not American Oak
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