When it comes to hyper-aged spirits, is it possible to have too much of a good thing?
That’s the issue I explored for Slate: Past Their Prime: when is a superaged spirit too old to drink?
One of the people I turned to for perspective was Dave Pickerell, master distiller for Hillrock Estate Distillery, and former distilling guru at Whistlepig Rye and Maker’s Mark. He’s an industry legend who knows a tremendous amount about the science and business behind aging whiskey, so he was a natural (and quite insightful) choice.
But apparently, he also has quite a mischievous streak. This is a story he told during our interview, which didn’t make it into the Slate article, but illustrates neatly what happens when whiskey gets too old:
“At Maker’s Mark, they let me play a lot,” Pickerell reminisced. “And we had what we called ‘the oldest barrel.’ We had no intent to sell it, it was a ‘what-if.’ It aged to 18 years and 2 days. [Note: standard-issue Maker’s Mark is about 6 years old, though it doesn't carry an age statement.] The nose was unbelievable – OMG cough syrup, honey, it was so sweet….And so bitter on the palate!
“I used it to play a practical joke on Gaz Regan, who is a proponent of ‘older is better,’ with no exception.” Pickerell lured Regan in by “confiding” that he had a super-aged bourbon, but “shhh- I don’t have enough for everyone!” Later, they snuck away and he gave Regan a pour.
“I practically presented it on a pillow,” Pickerell recalled, to make it appear precious. So unbelievably precious, that Pickerell pretended that he couldn’t even spare a pour for himself — he had no intention of drinking the bitter stuff.
Regan’s reaction? He spat it out. “That’s bloody awful!”