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The Effect of Sunlight on Whiskey

Aloha, y’all. Have some bourbon, braddah!

Today we’ll be considering a Kentucky whiskey with a Hawaiian accent. The relative lack of whiskey distilling in Hawaii meant that I was confined mostly to rum during my recent vacation on the islands. However, I did keep an eagle eye out for bourbon bottles as I was visiting grocery and liquor stores.

It was on just such a shopping trip in Kilauea when I spied something that caught my eye: two bottles of E.H. Taylor Small Batch bourbon. While increasingly uncommon to find sitting around on store shelves, it wasn’t the mere existence of this expression that piqued my interest. Rather, it was the difference in color between the two bottles.

One bottle had the standard, cheerful yellow label that adorns all the whiskeys in the Taylor range. The other bottle had a differently colored label: a pale peach-y sort of hue. My eyes widened: what was this? A new limited edition? A Hawaiian-market only rarity? My excitement was momentary; a few seconds of study revealed that this was the standard Small Batch bottle.

So, what explains the difference in the labels? It became clear that one of these bottles was bleached by the bright Hawaiian sunlight, which caused the label to fade significantly. I wondered what impact (if any) this would have on the whiskey in the bottle? It occurred to me that I had the rare chance to engage in a naturally occurring scientific experiment.

Why might this matter? Well, ultraviolet light from the sun is thought to react with organic compounds in the whiskey – causing them to break down – resulting in unpleasant aromas and flavors. These are often described as rubbery or chemical in nature. As a consequence, the Scotch Whisky Association recommends storing bottles out of direct sunlight, particularly if they’re clear glass (such as these bottles of E.H. Taylor).

I put a photo of the bottles on Twitter and was immediately contacted by Matt Kusek, who offered to finance the purchase of both the bottles and to host a head-to-head tasting on Instagram. Never one to pass up whiskey when someone else is footing the bill, I happily acquired both bottles (for $55 each, a premium to normal retail price closer to $45) and schlepped them home in my checked luggage.

John previously engaged in a bit of experimentation with this bourbon, having played around with dilution across four samples. Continuing in that spirit, I’ll be tasting these side-by-side, with an emphasis on trying to notice any changes in the flavor of the bottle left in the sun. As with all bottles of Taylor, these are Bottled-in-Bond and come to us at the legally required 100 proof (50% ABV).

As a type of control, I’ll be starting with the bottle that was not bleached by the sun:

E.H. Taylor Small Batch Bourbon (Hawaiian Shade) – Review

Color: Medium golden.

On the nose: The hallmark E.H. Taylor note of apple presents itself immediately, accented by a touch of woody spice. More deep inhalation reveals cinnamon and a surprisingly exotic note of jasmine incense that I have not tasted before in this expression. Some richer and creamier notes of buttered corn on the cob and egg yolk emerge over time, as well as a faint whiff of mint leaf and the deftest touch of black licorice. Mostly, though, this is centered on the push-and-pull between the fruity and spicy wood notes.

In the mouth: The initial impression is of a burst of green apple candy, which transitions into a blooming heat and a spicy bite of cayenne pepper as the whiskey moves to the middle of the mouth. Turning toward a nutty nuance of peanuts as the finish commences, this turns austere with a drying minerality as it lingers at the back of the palate, with a radiant, tingly heat creeping back up across the roof of the mouth.

Conclusions:

One of the better bottles of E.H. Taylor Small Batch I have tried, I was particularly impressed by the diverse aromas presented, and the continued evolution of the nose over time. In the mouth this was extremely solid; if I could guarantee that every bottle of E.H. Taylor I found would bet greater than or equal to this one, I’d make it a staple of my home bar.

Score: 6/10

Now, for the sun-kissed bottle. As noted above, the specifications on this are identical to the prior bottle, but for the fact that it was clearly exposed to a fair deal of sunlight.

E.H. Taylor Small Batch Bourbon (Hawaiian Sun) – Review

Color: Similar medium-golden, with perhaps a slightly lighter hue.

On the nose: More faint and sedate than the shady bottle, this has some airy confectionary notes and floral aromas of potpourri and lilac. Unlike with the prior bottle, I have to reach very deep to tease out any of the apple elements. That jasmine note recurs again, however, as the main point of commonality. I also get some licorice, this time red Twizzlers. With more sniffing, I sense an off note that brings to mind the words “stale sand,” though I couldn’t possibly describe what that means. In total, this is less forceful and less interesting on the nose than the bottle kept out of the sun, with the added drawback of some awkwardness.

In the mouth: Also noticeably lower in intensity than the precursor, this presents the apple note in watery, dilute form. The whisky falls apart almost completely in the middle of the mouth, with a vaguely tart fruitiness as the sole defining characteristic. The finish is all about a slightly awkward and mildly nauseating aftertaste.

Conclusions:

Up until the end, the variance between these bottles could be believably attributed to batch variation. However, that final, sickening note sealed the deal for me. This bottle is off; the flaws became more pronounced each time I returned to taste this.

Score: Flawed/10

While this tasting might fall well short of the rigorous scientific evidence required to conclusively demonstrate the effect of sunlight on whiskey, I hope it is at least anecdotally interesting. I’m satisfied that, whatever the effect of sunlight on whiskey, it’s not a positive one. Going forward, I’ll be extra careful to keep my bottles in a shady place.

CategoriesAmerican
  1. KC says:

    My dad has a couple of Bruichladdich bottles displayed on the kitchen countertop, as offerings to his Buddha statue, one of which is in a transparent bottle. They have been bathed in the tropical morning sun for more than a year. I shudder to think how they will taste like now.

  2. PBMichiganWolverine says:

    With the sun exposed bottle, you should conduct more experiments. Use a part of it as control , and the other parts to test out to see if it degrades further. So—-maybe one part store in an attic that gets super heated in summer; another part part outside that has varying temperatures, etc. And taste against the good bottle as well as the control.

      1. PBMichiganWolverine says:

        Yeah…Univ of Michigan advanced degree in biochemical engineering, and this is the best I got…testing out whiskey variances… 😉

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