Vanishing Spirits: Aging

The necessary ingredients for scotch whisky’s evaporation patterns are alcohol, surfactants, and polymers; some of those components are absorbed during the spirit’s aging in oak casks. Photographer Ernie Button explored how long it takes for whisky to absorb enough of these chemicals by photographing the stains left by samples aged between 1 and 5 weeks in an oak cask. He found that it takes about 5 weeks for the scotch patterns to begin emerging.

The aging process for scotch and other cask-aged spirits depends on the fluid’s flow through the porous grain of the oak. Evaporation plays a significant role in the process, so the aging process differs based on environmental conditions. For example, distillers in the dry, high-altitude climate of Colorado must use climate-controlled storage, whereas Scottish distillers use a more humid natural climate to their advantage.

Another major factor in the aging process is the charred oak cask itself. Some whiskys, like American bourbon, always use a brand new barrel, whereas scotch is often aged in a previously-used cask. With older casks, absorption of molecules from the wood takes longer, which is why scotch is typically aged for much longer than some other types of whisky. (Image, research, and submission credit: E. Button; see also)

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