Oak Barrels: Giving Whiskey Its Character
If you are a true enthusiast you can subscribe to a whiskey of the month club. How long and under what conditions the wood is seasoned has an effect on the final taste of the whiskey that will be matured within.
It might be surprising to learn that one of the most important parts of whiskey making is the barrel that’s used to mature the spirit. It’s during this maturation that the barrel itself imparts a huge effect on the final product, giving the whiskey color and character over the course of years.
Oak barrels are used almost exclusively in the making of whiskey, a decision that’s more based on science than tradition. (Although one could argue that it involves a bit of both!) Oak has a host of unique physical and chemical characteristics that make it perfectly-suited for the “cask task.” Oak is strong – a requirement for wood that’s being shaped into a barrel. More importantly, oak doesn’t possess any of the resin channels that are found in pine or rubber trees. By using a pure wood, there’s no risk of sap or resin flavors being passed on to the whiskey as it ages.
Much of the barrel’s contribution doesn’t come from the wood itself, but rather how the wood is transformed during the process of coopering the material into a proper cask. The wood is dried before it’s made into a barrel during a very important step called “seasoning.”
The oak staves are then shaped into a barrel using heat to make the wood pliable enough to form. Metal rings are hammered in place to form the cask’s final shape, and the wood’s natural tendency towards being straight is what holds it all together.
Finally, the inside of the cask is set on fire to char the surface of the wood. This has a huge effect on the final flavor of the whiskey for several reasons. One of the most critical is that charring caramelizes the sugars found within the wood, making it possible for those flavors to be passed on to the whiskey once it’s inside.
As a side note, Scotch whiskey is almost exclusively aged in used barrels (usually, in barrels that served to mature bourbon in the United States.)
7 Things You Should Know About Scotch Whisky
Plenty of people have ordered whiskey without a second thought, usually winding up with a shot of Jack Daniels or a mixture of spirits and coke in front of them. But what about Scotch whisky? Many Americans seem daunted by the idea of ordering this very special spirit, but there’s no reason to worry. Enjoying a snifter of Scotch is easy…and once you know a bit more about this historic whiskey, you’ll be eager to try!
Scotch is pretty straightforward.
“Scotch whisky” isn’t a style of spirit, it’s very simply a point of origin. If it’s Scotch, it came from Scotland.
Scotch comes from a variety of regions.
Though all Scotch comes from Scotland, there are quite a few different regions within the country where it can be sourced. Somewhat like with wine, different regions have emerged with their own flavors and styles. You might want to start off with lowland whiskies. Because they’re the only variety that are triple-distilled (the rest are double), they are more delicate and light-bodied.
It’s spelled differently for a reason.
Well, maybe not. It’s just a matter of tradition that Scotch whisky is spelled without the extra “E.”
Scotch doesn’t age in the bottle.
Scotch is aged in oak barrels – in fact, in order to legally be called Scotch whisky, it must be aged in an oak barrel for at least 3 years. Once it’s bottled, the aging process stops.
Single-cask and single-malt…also straightforward.
Single-cask whisky simply comes from one cask rather than a marriage of several (which is normal.) Single-malt whisky was made at one distillary using 100% malted barley.
The age is important.
Single malt Scotch will usually bare a statement of age on the bottle. However long it says, be it 12 years or 30 years, is how long the whisky was aged in an oak barrel. Is older whisky better? Not necessarily, but an age statement at least serves as a guarantee that you’re not getting a bottle full – or partially full – of young whisky.
Scotch is aged in recycled barrels (usually.)
Most of the barrels used to age Scotch whisky were previously used to age bourbon in the United States. Almost all Scotch is aged in some manner of used barrel, regardless. This isn’t a move towards being “green,” rather a process that imparts extra flavor on the Scotch.