Have you ever given much thought to how whisky is aged? The whisky you buy on the shelf is not freshly distilled. Like other grain alcohols like vodka, whisky is clear when first distilled. It is the aging process that gives it its color and flavor. This process varies from brand to brand, and even from product to product, but it always involves finishing barrels.
How finishing barrels for whisky are made
Finishing barrels are usually constructed of cured wood staves bound together with metal bands (traditionally iron), then finished by toasting the inside to blacken the wood. How much the wood is toasted has as much to do with flavor, color, and evaporation as the type of wood used. The type of wood and how much it is blackened also affect the “Angel’s Share,” or the amount of evaporation that occurs during aging.
Barrels are cured, charred, and cured again before being used for aging whisky. Often used barrels are utilized for finishing whisky to give it even more unique flavors. It could be 2 years between the time a barrel is constructed and when it is ready to be used in finishing whisky.
The history of whisky finishing barrels
Whisky originated in Scotland, where chestnut was the traditional wood used for finishing whisky. The Scots learned over the years that the type of wood used, the age of the barrel, and how the barrel was cured and charred made a difference in the flavor of whisky. It is these differences that allow distillers to have signature flavors.
Today Scotch whisky is enjoyed around the world, not just in Scotland, America, and the UK. Each region has their own specific advantages and disadvantages to how the barrels are used.
Types of wood used to make finishing barrels for whisky
There are several types of wood used to make finishing barrels. With so many indie distillers out there, the types of wood used for barrels is only as endless as those willingly offered by barrel makers. Different regions also use different types of wood that is indigenous to the area, like the Sessile or Irish oak that is Ireland’s national tree.
The type of wood used to make the barrel is an important part of how the whisky is colored and flavored upon uncorking, but it is important to remember that it is not the only factor. Flavor and color are also affected by how much the barrel was charred, how long it was left to age, and what was used to season the barrel.
Chestnut finishing barrels for whisky
Chestnut was the traditional wood used to age whisky in Scotland, but it has not been used routinely for some time. In 1988, the Scotch Whisky Association banned the use of chestnut for finishing whisky. In the end, the move to oak makes sense because chestnut is much more porous. The more porous the wood, the bigger the “Angel’s Share.”
Whisky aged in chestnut finishing barrels will have a light caramel, toffee, or toast taste with vegetal notes and the hint of vanilla that accompanies most whisky aged in charred barrels.
Oak finishing barrels for whisky
There are many different types of oak wood that can be used for finishing barrels. Cheaper barrels are usually made of whatever oak is local to the area. The most sought after barrels are those made of American white oak, European oak, and Mongolian or Japanese oak.
American white oak gives whisky a vanilla, caramel, and coconut flavor. By sharp contrast, European oak barrels impart a bitter, spicy, and woody flavor. Mongolian or Japanese oak have a spicy rye, oriental incense, and sandalwood flavor that you might expect from an oriental tree. You will also get those same tones of vanilla and coconut.
Redwood finishing barrels for whisky
California is home to beautiful, towering redwoods, and as a result it is also home to some of the nation’s most unique whisky. Although redwood isn’t used for finishing barrels often, some brands do use the wood. It gives the whisky a unique blend of flavors – cinnamon, peanuts, fruit, cocoa, caramel, and vanilla, with a slightly herbal quality.
The future of finishing barrels for whisky
Although coopers are not as prevalent as they once were, and some barrels for cheaper whisky are mass manufactured, handmade barrels are still in high demand. In spite of all of our technological and engineering advancements in the last century, the talented cooper crafting, seasoning, charring, and aging a barrel is without substitute.