My first attempt with both oak and bourbon is currently sitting in my carboys, and will for another month and a half, when I'll at least get to taste a little as I bottle. Then the plan is to let it age for close to a year.

In the latter part of last year I had Rahr & Sons Whiskey Warmer, their Winter Warmer recipe aged in oak barrels, and loved what the oak and bourbon did to smooth and add to the flavor. My friends kept a bottle for several months, and recently tried it, reporting that it was nowhere near the glory they recalled. One of my friends works at the brewery and said they had been told that beer was not for aging, but that one released this February, Snowmaggedon, would be.

At the brewery I tasted Snowmaggedon that had also been aged in the same barrels, and it was delicious, however the bottles I acquired, while still very good, had not been aged in the barrels.

I specifically noticed what appear to be oxygen barrier caps on these new bottles, so my question is, does bourbon flavor inevitably fade quickly from beer? Was what my friends noticed more likely due to oxygen slowly getting in to inferior caps?

2 Answers 2


I've wondered the same thing, but I doubt you'll find the answer that you seek on this forum. Here's my best shot at a solid, scientifically-founded answer to your question:

To understand the effects of aging a bourbon beer, you need to know two things: the key flavor and aroma compounds in whiskey, and the effects of age on these specific compounds.

The chemicals that give bourbon it's characteristic taste are numerous and varied. Whiskey is a complex mix of esters, aldehydes, fatty acids, phenols, and alcohols. Probably the most significant flavor compounds are the phenols from the peat, which impart whiskey's characteristic smoky flavor, and vanillin, the phenolic aldehyde that gives bourbon it's distinct sweet vanilla flavor. Esters also are a large contributor to whiskey flavor, as are melanoidins, and various other aromatic aldehydes.

Some compounds decrease with time, as Denny mentioned. Other compounds, though, like aldehydes will actually increase. For instance, phenylacetaldehyde levels can increase by a factor of ten in a beer aged for a few years.

Over time, phenols will readily oxidize. Esters will too, although levels of some esters, like isoamyl acetate, will decrease, while levels of other esters can actually increase. (This is why some beers become more whiskey-like over time - increases of esters that taste like whiskey.) Aldehydes, which have a massive range of flavors from grassy to cinnamon to Maraschino cherry, tend to increase with time.

The consequence of this is that beer, with or without bourbon, undergoes many flavor changes over time. Whiskey itself changes, but it is much less volatile than beer. So if the beer did change over time, it was probably due more to the beer changing than degradation of the bourbon, although there are a lot of commonalities in the chemical reactions. Your question was probably more of a general discussion point, but the topic is vastly complex and deep.

I'm gonna also throw out there the possibility that your buddies' perception and memory might be more of the culprit for the tasting difference - that is, they could have easily remember the beer being better than it actually was, or been slightly drunk and happy to be at a brewery when they tasted it, and overglorified it, etc.

Anyway, here's a link to a review of a paper that is relevant. Maybe you'll find this interesting: http://beersensoryscience.wordpress.com/2010/11/15/chemistry-of-beer-aging/

  • Great info, Brandon!
    – Denny Conn
    Apr 1, 2011 at 0:14

All flavors will fade from beer as it ages, whether bourbon or hops. The solution is either to drink the beer sooner, or flavor it more heavily to account for the eventual fading,

  • I can understand a flavor coming from fresh ingredients, that on their own exhibit rapid degradation fading, but why would bourbon flavor fade from beer, but not from bourbon?
    – Mlusby
    Mar 30, 2011 at 15:34
  • 1
    I would guess because you only use a small amount of bourbon for flavoring and the other ingredients eventually overpower it. I speak from the experience of MANY batches of Bourbon Vanilla Imperial Porter.
    – Denny Conn
    Mar 31, 2011 at 22:48
  • For your Bourbon Vanilla Porter, when do you find the flavor to peak?
    – Mlusby
    Apr 1, 2011 at 1:40

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