Bourbon Backstory: The Effect of Air on Bourbon

Pushing the boundaries of what we know about bourbon

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By David Hammond

All around the Willett Distillery are rack houses where Willett and other labels of bourbon and rye are stored and aged.

What makes this particular property so valuable to Willett and to all the other labels they age is that their rack houses are located, according to co-owner Britt Kulsveen Chavanne, "in a perfect elevation for even air flow."

Air is important to aging barrels in these and other rack houses. At Buffalo Trace, they're preparing to open an experimental rack house – Warehouse X – into which they've put a relatively large investment ($350,000) into air handling alone.

Buffalo Trace has been performing a number of experiments with bourbon; they have recently developed an "experimental collection" for those who wish to sample the results of this experimentation. Chuck Cowdery, one of the most reliable authorities on the beverage, recently posted on his blog about Buffalo Trace's recent experiments with varying levels of barrel entry proof. The search for bourbon perfection continues.

Buffalo Trace has done some extensive work in testing the effects of barrel wood, charring and aging. They've also tweaked and refined their mash bills (recipes), assessing the consequences of using various grains in addition to the requisite corn.

Warehouse X represents a major step forward in evaluating the effects of the environment upon bourbon.

As most of us know, we hippies tried to kill bourbon (it was our parent's drink, and we had, you know, other options) and the women's movement helped bring it back (in the old days, bourbon was a man's drink; for the ladies, it was more like pink squirrels and grasshoppers – now, women drink whatever the hell they want, and bourbon is one of those drinks they want).

There was a period 1970-1990 when bourbon consumption declined…but now it's coming back, and Buffalo Trace is using modern technology to refine the way this time-honored American whiskey is handled.

Warehouse X will run experiments that examine the effects upon bourbon of light, temperature, humidity and, of course, airflow. The center court of this warehouse is wide open, and it contains a rack where bourbon barrels will age outdoors (though not in direct sunlight; there's a roof).

Incidentally, about air and bourbon, Cowdery mentioned to me that though bourbon is not nearly so susceptible to oxidation as wine, bottled bourbon can suffer from exposure to the air, though he added in a later email that though oxidation is bourbon's "enemy, it takes a long time for a bottle to really deteriorate--years--and only then if the seal is bad or there is a lot of air in the bottle."

Moral of the story: if you have a snort or two of bourbon left in an old bottle, it may be better to drink it sooner rather than later.

Warehouse X at Buffalo Trace is not open yet (when I toured it earlier this month, the finishing touches were being put in place), and even when it's in operation, it will be several years before any of the bourbon is ready to taste. But it's exciting, because efforts like this are pushing the boundaries of what's know about bourbon…and they will, almost inevitably, lead to better stuff. Cheers!


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David Hammond from Oak Park, Illinois  

Posted: March 1st, 2014 1:13 PM

I met Chuck in Louisville, and he is clearly one of the most knowledgeable voices in bourbon. Cool that you know him.

Mike Janowski from Frank Lloyd Wright Village  

Posted: March 1st, 2014 10:44 AM

Hey, nice post! Thanks for reaching out to my friend Chuck, he knows more than many people have forgotten about whiskey! And excellent advice about finishing that almost-empty bottle...after all, the whiskey ain't doin' anyone no good just sitting there!

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