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Instant Aged Bourbon

By Cook's Illustrated Published May 2012

When we heard that cheap bourbon could be doctored to make it taste more like a fine spirit aged for an extended period in an oak barrel, we had to give it a try.

We bought several bottles of bourbon costing around $15 for 750 milliliters and experimented with spiking each with small amounts of different flavorings. We used a bottle of 12-year-old W.L. Weller bourbon (about $50) as a benchmark.

In the end, three pantry staples proved most effective at mimicking the effects of barrel aging: For 750 milliliters, 3⁄4 teaspoon of vanilla extract provided vanillin (a flavor compound found in oak), 1⁄8 teaspoon of liquid smoke added earthy depth, and 1 tablespoon of dry sherry (which undergoes at least three years of oxidative aging) contributed many of the aromas and flavors associated with well-aged bourbon. Did tasters find our doctored spirits to be as good as the top-shelf stuff? No—but they were pleasantly surprised by the enhanced complexity of the doctored bourbon and unanimously preferred it to the unadulterated low-end samples.