Nothing escapes Father Time—not even booze. Whiskey, wine, and beer all change with age, but the way each changes depends on if the aging is done before or after bottling.
Typically, the process of aging beer, wine, or a spirit before bottling is referred to as “maturation.” It usually involves the liquid spending time in a wooden barrel. Although the wood’s specific effects vary by type of alcohol, what comes out generally has more vanilla, toasty, and oaky flavors. Unfortunately, very little peer-reviewed research has been done on the effects of barrel aging on spirits or beer. Though more work has been done on wine, there are still a lot of unknown factors.
The other type of aging is called “cellaring.” When you cellar a bottle, you’re storing it to age and drink later, typically in a couple months or a year. As with barrel aging, cellaring affects each product differently. Storage is a big factor—exposure to temperature, light, and oxygen can lead to negative changes.
As with all aging, the exact results can be difficult to predict. Here’s what we know about each type of alcohol.
Out of the three, whiskey's aging process is the most straightforward. In almost every country, whiskey must be aged in barrels. Though the exact regulations vary, maturation provides all of the color and a lot of the flavor for the spirit. However, when it’s bottled, it doesn’t change much unless it’s improperly stored.
Keep in mind, it’s easy to improperly store your whiskey. If possible, it should be kept away from light and heat sources, and should be moved to a smaller bottle once about 1/3 or 1/2 of it is gone. All of these factors create a bump in oxidation, which, according to a study done by Bacardi, causes whiskey to “[lose] creamy fatty acids [and gain] fruity but then rancid and nail polish remover flavors."
Luckily, these changes take a significant amount of time to occur, unlike wine or beer, where the changes happen much more quickly.
Most beer is not barrel-aged. However, like wine, most beer is intended to be drunk immediately. With that said, every brewery (and every beer geek) has their own philosophy about cellaring. Until recently, some experts touted the benefits of aging hoppy beers, but the flavor compounds from the hops are very delicate and degrade over time.
Maltier, more complex beers that are higher in alcohol content are thought to be the best to withstand cellaring, but there are no set rules when it comes to aging. If you’re curious, experiment: buy a six-pack, drink one (or two), and store the rest in a cool, dark place. After a couple months, try it again. If you like it more, you can leave the rest to keep mellowing and discover the perfect age. And if you like it less, you can always drink it all then. (But remember to do so responsibly.)
Wine is probably the best-studied category of aged booze (refer to this U.S. Forest Service guide [PDF]). Before it’s released, most fine wines are aged to help smooth out the rough, “green” aspects by being allowed to settle over time. Though some wine is aged in neutral containers like stainless steel or cement-lined vats, it’s often aged in smaller oak barrels to change parts of the taste profile.
Once it’s bottled, most wine that’s produced is ready to drink, and should be drunk within about a year. With proper aging both in barrel and bottle, “the wine becomes mellower and smoother, and acquires a richer mouth feel,” according to a paper by Dr. Murli Dharmadhikari, director of the Midwest Grape & Wine Industry Institute. But aging affects every type of wine differently, and should be approached as such. Ask for help at your local wine shop (or restaurant), as a sommelier will know the ins and outs of the specific wines available.