Sunday, February 20, 2011

Barrels Of Fun – Whisky And Its Ageing



Got wood? 

Whisky makers certainly do!

If you’re a fan of whisky (or even whiskey), then you likely know about the importance of barrels in the ageing processes.  But how much do you know about the details of the types of barrels and how they are made in order to store all of that precious eau de vie (or aqua vitae, if you prefer) for which you fork over your hard earned shekels?  Well, if you’re like me (and my condolences if that’s the case), then you probably know very little.  That’s one of the reasons why I recently took a course called Whisky 101 at The Astor Center In New York City – that and the fact that they were offering a tasting of some mighty fine whisk(e)ys on that evening.  Time to get your geek on, whisky lovers! 

Oak wood, when used as a type of barrel in which to age a spirit, can impact the alcohol in different ways:  as an Additive, as a Subtractive and as an Interactive.  They are as follows:


  1. Additive:  As an additive, the impact of oak barrels on whisky can have what is called an organoleptic effect – meaning that it can have an impact on some of your senses … especially those of smell and taste.  In this way, the most desirable elements from the cask are derived – scent, flavor and appearance. 
  2. Subtractive:  As a subtractive, oak barrels are also able to remove the undesirable elements.  These would include the immaturity of the spirit (the age in these casks is what provides its color) as well as the sulphur like quality it can have when its ageing begins. 
  3. Interactive:  Lastly, the oak wood in a barrel can have an interactive impact in the sense that it will add extractive wood elements from the cask in which it is aged and converts them into organoleptic desirable elements, some of which occur via oxidation where acids are removed and tannins are converted to acetols

While there are hundreds of types of oak, only a few are used for making barrels in order to age either wine or whisky.  These types are known as Quercus Alba, Quercus Petraea, Quercus Robur and Quercus Mongolica 

Here’s a brief look at each type …

  1. Quercus Alba.  Quercus Alba is an American white oak used for bourbon, rye and wines made in the United States.  Usually, it’s only used one time – with the exception of bourbon barrels, which, as every good scotch drinker knows, is what’s used to age Scottish whiskey. 
  2. Quercus Petraea.  Quercus Petraea, or Sessile Oak, is a type of French oak that’s often used in Europe in order to age French wines.
  3. Quercus Robur.  Quercus Robur is often called “Pedunculate Oak” and is also used in Europe.  Most frequently, you will see this type of wood used in casks that age European wines, sherry and port. 
  4. Quercus Mongolica.  Quercus Mongolica, on the other hand, is most frequently used to age Japanese whisky.  Sometimes referred to as “mizunata”, it is more used for flavoring, and not quite so much for ageing. 


Well, that’s about it for now, boys and boy-nots.  Do you have any comments or observations about any of these?  If so, please do be sure to leave a comment below …


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