Ageing in Action

It’s the time of the year to celebrate the slower things in life. Because when nature takes its course, quality and flavours evolve. Here’s our selection of the best ageing in action.

All of these can influence the final liquid in the bottle, but plenty is down to just waiting.

You could pick out raw materials, such as grapes from the Grande Champagne district in the Cognac region, combined with the exotic, sweet-bitter bigaradia orange to make Grand Marnier.

There’s the water from the sparkling River Spey, rushing through the verdant granite rock of the classic north Scottish region, and into great whiskies like Cardhu and Singleton, or the tradition and expertise that has evolved at the La Primavera distillery where Don Julio Gonzalez was still crafting great tequila aged 87.

Then there’s the less tangible: “Talisker can be said to truly embody the spirit of Skye with its strong, steadfast people and, of course, the sea surrounding this beautiful island,” says Mark Lochhead, distillery manager for the iconic West Coast malt whisky.

All of these can influence the final liquid in the bottle, but plenty is down to just waiting.

“When I walk around I share the joy that is Talisker sleeping and maturing, giving off sweet yet robust notes into the warehouse atmosphere,” says distillery manager Mark.

Time in barrel means different flavours in the drink. That’s not just because the oak casks allow the initial tones inherent to the liquid to evolve, important as that can be. It’s also the oak, which adds its notes of vanilla and honey, sometimes even fruity tones as with the approachable Singleton whisky.

Furthermore, these barrels can vary according to what type has been used. The choice will affect the outcome in the final sample. So Zacapa 23 uses American whisky barrels, while Zacapa XO adds some that have housed Cognac.

The crucial element is that liquid is aged slowly, something that generally comes with cooler temperatures and higher humidity.

Hence the makers of Zacapa rum take sugar cane from the near tropical environs of Guatemala, but age the liquid at 2,300 metres at a stunning facility known as the ‘House above the Clouds’, high up amid the mists and altitude of the Quetzaltenango mountains.

They also use a technique developed by sherry producers in Spain, called the ‘Solera’ system, one that has been passed down through generations. Essentially, sherry of different ages is slowly drip fed into barrels so that the final mix is from a whole spectrum of different years, up to 25 for Zacapa XO.

That’s why age doesn’t have to be an exact science. Whisky is famous for its 10, 18, 25 and 30-year-old variants, as with Talisker for example, and each has a particular character.

But Cardhu has a Special Cask Reserve as well as its 12-year-old, and the master blenders at Johnnie Walker take a deep, resonant base note of rich smoke and honey, adding more tannin (Platinum), sherry (Blue) and spice (Platinum) where needed. The range evolves and changes beautifully without exact dating.

Ageing in barrels is in essence about capturing the flavour, and then evolving it. As Andrew Cant, distillery manager at Cardhu says: “Having got a very delicate liquid we put it into cask, to give a very gentle maturation and allow the distillery character to shine through.”

That’s how those subtle nuances – whether delicious spice, dried fruits or rich honey – can emerge.

And now bartenders want even more. Over the past 18 months a few key figures have been taking the base spirit and barrel-ageing it with different ingredients. According to US bartender Jeffrey Morgenthaler, with cocktail barrel ageing: “The sharp edges of a drink are softened, but in a way that doesn’t make the drink seem flabby or one-note.”

At Orient Express in New York, for example, bartender Sam Ziar is combining gin, Cocchi Americano and Dolin Blanc to make a white Negroni, and then leaving it in oak for a few months.

By looking to the past they’re taking us into the future – as we enter Ageing mark II there should be plenty of new flavours to come.

Are you experimenting with barrel-ageing cocktails? Do you think age has a major impact on flavour?