What Is Whisk(e)y?

Whisk(e)y Law, Part Two: Aging


In this article – and for the rest of this series – we’re going to learn about whiskey laws from the biggest whiskey producing countries in the world. The countries in question are the United States, Canada, Scotland, and Ireland. As we look at them there are two important things to keep in mind. One, Japan is also a big whiskey producer, but since they have little to no regulation on whiskey they don’t fall into the scope of this series. Two, there are always exceptions. Now that we know who and what we’re talking about, let’s tackle world whiskey laws on aging.

Depending on who you ask, anywhere from fifty to ninety percent of a whiskey’s flavor comes from the barrel it’s aged in. Knowing the legal requirements for how long a whiskey has to age for and what kind of wood it’s aging in will tell you a lot about your whiskey.

Before we go further, last week I promised to give you a tip to help you remember what whiskey laws go with what country. This tip will make thing easier. When it comes to laws on aging, instead of trying to remember a set of laws for each of the four countries, we can actually simplify it down to two categories.

Category one: The U.S.A.

Category two: Everybody else.

We’ll look at U.S. regulations on aging first, and then everybody else. Everybody else being Canada, Scotland, and Ireland. Keep in mind that each country has laws on the minimum amount of time whiskey must age. There is no direct law about maximum aging time.

The U.S. has the most complex set of laws with three levels of minimum age requirements. There are also two barrel categories, new oak and used oak, that affect labeling laws. The vast majority of American whiskeys use charred new oak barrels, so for the rest of this discussion let’s assume this is the case.

The first age level is simply “Whiskey.” There is no minimum number of years a whiskey has to age to be called whiskey. According to U.S. law, whiskey only has to age long enough to have the “characteristics generally attributed to whisky.” That means as long as there’s some color to the whiskey, you can call it whiskey. Some distilleries are accomplishing this type of aging in a matter of weeks by greatly increasing the amount of oak the whiskey touches.

The second age level is called “Straight Whiskey.” There’s a two-year minimum age requirement for a whiskey to be called straight whiskey, but there’s a catch. If the whiskey is under four years old, then the label must state how old the whiskey is. If the whiskey is over four years old, then no age statement is required. So if you see a straight whiskey and there’s no age statement, then it’s at least four years old.

The third age level is called “Bottled in Bond Whiskey.” A whiskey must be at least four years old – along with a whole host of other requirements – to be bonded whiskey. There you go. You now have a broad understanding of U.S. whiskey aging laws.

Canada, Scotland, and Ireland keep their aging requirements much more simple. These three countries require that the whiskey age in a new or used cask for a minimum of three years. That’s it. Though I will add, typically these countries favor used barrels.

Let’s recap.

  • United States: Typically aged in charred new oak for a minimum of zero, two, or four years.
  • Everybody else: Aged for a minimum of three years, typically in used barrels.

How does knowing these laws help you know what your whiskey will taste like?

If we generalize, based on world whiskey laws we can say that whiskeys from the U.S. tend to have more astringent, tannic, oaky, wood forward flavors. Whiskeys from Canada, Scotland, and Ireland tend to be rounder, less dry, and are more grain forward.

Speaking of grains, the next article in this series will address whiskey laws pertaining to the grains used in making whiskey.

If you have any questions about what we’ve covered so far, leave them in the comments below or use our Contact Us form. I’d be happy to help.

— Zac Smith