We have all seen that image in movies or on TV – that array of rocks glasses strategically placed around a beautiful decanter full of honey colored liquid. The “too cool for a bottle” character walks over, pulls the top off and pours himself a glass. This subtle act automatically lets the viewer know that we are watching a savvy person in a position of power.
That is the image that a whiskey decanter invokes, which is one of the reasons why so many spirit lovers choose to trade in the labeled bottles for a crystal one the moment they enter the house. Yet the question of whether or not this is necessary is up for debate.
There is a scientific reason why wine connoisseurs will pour a perfectly good blend out of the bottle it came in and into a fancy decanter. This process helps to remove any sediment while allowing oxidation. Oxidation will “open up” the flavors of wine, hopefully for the better. The extra exposure to the oxygen in the air changes the flavor of wine over time.
This is due to two factors found in wine; tannins and alcohol. Wine is rampant in tannins that derive from the grapes, while there are only trace amounts found in whiskey from the barrel it was aged in. The absence of tannins, whose flavors can change dramatically over time, allow whiskey to maintain its flavor even after it has been removed from the barrel.
The higher alcohol content in whiskey – a minimum of 40% – also makes it more resistant to major change. Very few chemical reactions will occur outside of the human body when there is that much alcohol involved. Since most wines have a considerably lower alcohol content, they become more susceptible to having their composition altered when exposed to oxygen.
The same cannot be said for whiskey. Once whiskey has been removed from its barrels, it is pretty much a finished product. A 20-year-old bottle of scotch will always be a 20-year-old bottle of scotch, even if you keep it in a decanter for another 100 years. Exposure to oxygen has little to no effect on the quality of whiskey, making the entire decanter debate an aesthetic one.
Sunlight and temperature fluctuations can have an impact on the taste and quality of whiskey, but even that is minimal. Sunlight can kick-start any chemical reaction that whiskey has left, a lot faster than exposure to oxygen will. Dramatic sudden temperature changes can also cloud some spirits, but that doesn’t do anything to the taste or smell of the drink.One look at the design differences in decanters should tell you that it is all about the look. Wine decanters don’t have a top, encouraging the liquid to interact with the air. On the other hand, whiskey decanters are typically elaborate in design, with a large crystal top to keep you from spilling any of your spirits. Whether air gets in or not is of little concern, so long as you look like a million bucks while pouring yourself a nightcap.