Do you know what beer's made of? You better know – I've been telling you every damn week: malt, hops, water and yeast. Those are the basics that make it beer. Well, not quite. We're missing an important ingredient.
Mark Thompson, head brewer at Starr Hill Brewing
in Charlottesville, Virginia, and one of the most award-winning brewers in America, says that "the fifth ingredient...is love." Mark's a great guy and a genius brewer – he makes beers you can drink, not bazooka-strength lip-rippers – but ... love?
Hey, we love love as much as anyone, especially if it's free love.
But the true missing ingredient in beer, whiskey, bourbon or any other spirit is time.
Time in the kettle, time in the fermenter, time in the lager tanks, time in the barrel and the warehouse.
What do you get without enough time? Green, nasty gut-boil, moonshine-smelling rubbing liniment and a shimmering glass of bug poison. Sounds yummy.
But too much time is just as bad: sharp, stanky beer; hot, woody bourbon (I just wanted to say "hot woody"); weak, dried-out Scotch.
Time doesn't do anything on its own; it can't – it doesn't have any hands, let alone opposable thumbs. (In other words, time and our sub-hominid readers have a lot in common.) There are different processes that are going on, and they need time to run their proper course. If they don't get the time to work, my drink suffers.
And if my drink suffers, somebody's getting hurt.
Beer needs to age. Fermentation can take a while in lagers, which are fermented at chilly temperatures, because cold reactions run slower. But the real time in brewing is after fermentation, the part of aging that German brewers call rüh, which simply means "rest."
Hey, who doesn't appreciate the benefits of a slow, quiet slumber?
Rest, beer, rest. They just let the beer rest in the tank, kind of getting used to itself, like the Chief Angry Troll
wearing the same underwear and blue West Virginia football hoodie for weeks on end. The sulfur compounds created in fermentation dissipate, flavors meld together and the beer gets smooth as glass. German and Czech brewers will age a lager as long as 12 weeks, and you can definitely taste the difference. It's the kind of difference that puts a big grin on your face.
Don't think that lager brewers have an exclusive on aging. Ales need a good rest, too, though usually a shorter one. However, Ballantine made an India Pale Ale (back when it was a big independent brewery) that they aged for a year. Then, at about nine months, the tanks would be sampled, and if the beer was good enough, they'd designate it as Ballantine Burton Ale ... and it would age for another nine years.
That's the biggest brass brewer balls this country has ever seen; aging large amounts of beer for 10 years is insane – but in the same good way that the famous Schlenkerla brewery
of Bavaria is insane for hand-smoking every kernel of its malt with flaming beechwood logs. But Ballantine didn't even sell the Burton Ale. Instead, they personally labeled it and gave
it to people they thought a lot of, their best customers, people like President Truman and John Wayne
. That's the balls.
Aging whiskey is necessary if you don't want to have moonshine (of course, if you do want moonshine, we won't stop you). The stuff that comes off the whiskey stills is a clear liquid called "new make" or "white dog."
White dog comes off final distillation between 120 and 158 proof at a bourbon distillery. (My friends at Buffalo Trace started a new tradition this fall: "Dog Days," a once-a-year chance to come to the distillery and taste white dog from the first runs
of the new distilling season. Brilliant.) Even on the high end, it's got plenty of flavor compared to the snappy novocaine crispness of vodka ... but so does Jell-o.
So you take that cornbread-sweet zip-zip elixir and stuff it in a barrel, put it in the warehouse and add plenty of time, at least four years. The char and the wood and the caramelized sugars simultaneously filter and flavor the booze; it's cleaning and maturing. The charred wood and caramelized sugar are also what gives bourbon its color. When it's done, it's something that's a lot less brash, a lot less rough and worth a lot more money. Kinda makes you want to stick your teenage son in a barrel for a few years, doesn't it?
If you don't add enough time, well ... things aren't so good. It's like not adding enough corn. Back in the bad old days after Repeal, "aged whiskey" didn't mean much. Bourbons made a big deal out of it when they were over a year old. These young whiskeys were thin, sharp and funky with what we in the liquor industry call "fusel" alcohols. It makes it easy to understand why bourbon and a LOT of Coke became the most popular way to drink it.
While we're talking about young bourbon, let's get some misconceptions about aging whiskey out of the way. Some single-malt scotch drinkers seem to think that their chosen snort is inherently better than bourbon because it's older. It's rare to find a single-malt under 10 years old, and you'll see 15- and 20-year-olds pretty frequently. Bourbon tends to run under 10. Guess bourbon just ain't as good.
It's kind of like the difference between ales and lagers. Bourbon ages faster, and it's not because it's made of corn, either. It's because Kentucky summers are hot enough to pop the corn in the fields, and the summers in Scotland are just hot enough to thaw leftover haggis. Hotter summers mean hotter warehouses, so the wood-aging in the barrel goes a lot faster. Some time is, um, just more "timey" than others when it comes to aging booze.
I just tasted a bunch of rye whiskeys the other day – 15 of them – that drove that point home. There were some young ones that were light, spicy, sweet and uncomplicated, and some older ones that were rich and complex, with a great wood flavor in the finish. But there were a couple that were over the hill: woody, bitter, hot and astringent. Somebody put too much time into them.
Time is an important ingredient in some of the best booze. (It's important in wine, too, but you'll have to read someone else's blathering about that: Don't do the time if you can't drink the wine, I always say.) If your beer doesn't have enough time, or your whiskey's got too much of it ... it's time for a new drink.