“Beer before liquor” isn’t the only myth that needs to be debunked. Here are five more commonly held misbeliefs about both clear and dark liquors.

BY KARA NEWMAN

Why do some barrel-aged spirits taste like vanilla? Does a darker color mean a better whiskey? It’s easy to get confused in a world where classic white liquors like vodka or gin can show up on the shelf in an amber hue, while extra añejo rum can be crystal clear.

Wonder no more. We’ve tapped into the experts to answer some frequently asked questions about barrel-aging and spirits.

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Myth No. 1: Aged whiskey tastes like caramel, because there’s caramel in the bottle. / Illustration by Rebecca Bradley

Usually, all that toasty vanilla/caramel and spice you taste is derived from the barrel, not from caramel or other additives.

Centuries ago, people figured out that oak barrels were strong and water-tight enough to ship liquids. That included distilled spirits, says Richard Hobbs, of The Barrel Mill, a cooperage (or barrel maker) in Avon, Minnesota.

“We figured out if we toast or char the oak, we can bring the natural sugars of the oak to the surface,” says Hobbs. “It caramelizes everything.”

Up to 60% of a whiskey’s flavor comes from the barrel wood, he estimates, while the remaining 40% is derived from the underlying ingredients (in whiskey, that’s referred to as the mashbill; the recipe of corn, barley, rye, etc.).

Some exceptions do exist, however. For example, flavored whiskeys add agents and/or sweeteners, though that information should be stated on the label. Also, some producers may add a small amount of caramel to unflavored whiskeys to boost color or flavor. But if you get a reputable bottle, “the oak should be the star,” says Hobbs.

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Myth No. 2: Single-barrel spirits are the holy grail.

Look, some single-barrel spirits are amazing. But don’t underestimate blended spirits, says Karen Hoskin, co-owner/founder of Colorado rum maker Montanya Distillers.

“Every barrel is different,” says Hoskin. “ Some barrels are vigorous and age much faster than the barrel right next to it. We don’t always know what’s going to happen. That’s why blending became a thing.”

By blending barrels together into a larger batch, distillers can create a smoother, more consistent product.

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