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David Holub

Aging alcohol: You’ve got to know when to wait, know when to drink

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Virginia Madsen as Maya in "Sideways"
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Virginia Madsen as Maya in "Sideways"

With all the talk last week of delayed gratification, along with the ladyfriend and I opening the bottle of Dingle (Ireland) Distillery whiskey that we’d been saving for a special occasion (St. Patrick’s Day), I got thinking about aging, and I’m not talking about my crow’s feet or rickety bones the day after doing anything remotely active outside. I’m talking about the aging of alcohol: When to do it and when it won’t do a bit of good.

From what I’ve read on ye olde internete, here’s what I surmise when it comes to the booze most important to me and if it should or even can age once bottled.

Wine. Yes, of course. It’s probably the most famous when it comes to aging. And I take all my wisdom from possibly the best source ever: Maya (Virginia Madsen) from “Sideways,” whose literary soliloquy spoke not only of wine, but to the fears of Paul Giamatti’s Miles, afraid he’d already passed his peak in life, as does anyone who’s over 28.

“I like how wine continues to evolve,” Maya says, “like if I opened a bottle of wine today it would taste different than if I’d opened it on any other day, because a bottle of wine is actually alive. And it’s constantly evolving and gaining complexity. That is, until it peaks, like your ’61. And then it begins its steady, inevitable decline.” It’s the best writing of the movie, and nearly brings me to tears.

Later in the movie, when asked when he’ll finally open the bottle of wine he’s been saving all these years, Miles says he’s waiting for a special occasion. Maya pipes up with her infinite wisdom: “You know, the day you open a ’61 Cheval Blanc ... that’s the special occasion.”

Beer. The answer to which beers to age and when, is this: “A handful of them” and “Sometimes.”

Apparently aging beer in barrels is coming back (check out Robbie Wendeborn’s column in this week’s issue). But that doesn’t speak to beer already bottled. So if you’re thinking of strategically hanging on to a bottle for better taste later, Beer and Brewing Magazine and Bon Appetite advise to start with lambics, gueuzes, and saisons (these are beers that use organisms other than yeasts for flavor). Also, beers with high alcohol content, such as barley wines (English-style especially ... American barley wines are drier and hoppier, more like double IPAs), robust porters, and imperial stouts. In fact, anything “imperial,” or 8 percent ABV, is probably a good bet. Sour and smoke beers also age well, as those agents serve as a preservative.

Anything hoppy? Pretty much nada. IPAs, for instance, are good right now; over time they’ll lose flavor and aroma. So stop reading this now and drink all the IPA you have on hand before it’s too late. Hurry! (This is always my hair-on-fire excuse for draining bottles of IPA: “It’s going bad as we speak!”)

But the big one that started all this: Whiskey. Turns out, aging once bottled matters not. Just mentioning this fact aloud in the office produced a chorus of naysayers. So I checked my sources. According to the Scotch Whisky Association, whisky (and/or whiskey) does not change once in the bottle. If stored out of the sunlight, it will not improve nor deteriorate over time, even when opened. So that 12-year-old bottle will always be a 12-year-old bottle, even in the year 2117.

So what’s the deal with those 40-year-old whiskeys that cost so much for a smidge of a taste? Those are aged in barrels. But once out of the barrel, it be done. Sorry to say. As Dave Pickerell, former master distiller for Maker’s Mark said to Smithsonian Magazine, old whiskies might cost a lot, but for the flavor, go for a more middle-aged whiskey – 6 to 10 years for bourbon, and about 20 years for scotch. Any older, and you’re probably paying for age, not flavor.

It’s like they say: The best time to plant a tree? Today. The same goes for opening that bottle of whiskey. Wine and beer? Pick the best ones and do it right.