by Dylan Thaemert | October 8, 2014 12:32 pm
Quercus Alba, white American Oak, is booze’s best friend. All brown liquors spend some amount of time resting in wood barrels, and the results are fascinating and varied. If properly accomplished it’s a journey from harsh, raw, grainy jet fuel to rich, smooth, complex flavors. Bourbon, Scotch, and now increasingly beer, all find homes in casks of different types in search of a perfect maturation. Each has different protocols for how aging takes place and the results are very much tied to type and quality of wood. In this edition of One Bourbon, One Scotch and One Beer, we’ll look at the aging process in the current spirits industry and we’ll highlight one shining example of each to illustrate the various and wonderful effects of cask maturation.
The rules for bourbon and American whiskey are stringent, and fairly cut and dry. For a whiskey to be called bourbon it must be aged in a new white oak barrel with a charred interior for a minimum of two years. These barrels are one use only for bourbon. They are sometimes used to house American whiskey for a second time, but in this case, the product cannot bear the distinction “straight,” which is a key word on bourbon labels when looking to ensure the quality of what’s in the bottle. Generally, after one use, these barrels are disassembled and sold to the Scotch whisky industry to age their spirit (more on that shortly) with others putting their used whiskey barrels up for sale. So, what flavors do new charred white oak barrels impart? When white oak and fire are introduced, the chemical compound in vanillin is created. So, vanilla, cocoa, cinnamon, caramel, toffee, leather. Once a barrel has been used once, it can be used for maturing whiskey, but these sweeter, dessert-type flavors will be notably muted.
This brings us to the concepts of “small batch” and “single barrel.” Since bourbon makers don’t do a whole lot of cask experimentation, or have the ability to release a high volume of ultra-aged (over 12 year) bourbon, these distinctions allow them to release a more premium product alongside their baseline offerings. The term “small batch” is pure marketing fluff and has no legal definition. There are no size requirements for a “batch” of bourbon to be considered “small”; therefore a massive company can slap the word small batch on any product they want, regardless of its provenance. “Single barrel” on the other hand, is basically exactly what it says it is. The contents of said bottle are drawn from one single barrel, as opposed to the standard procedure where many barrels of the same recipe are vatted together to match the desired flavor profile. This results in variations in flavors on the standard offering, and the ability for the master distiller to hand select barrels of the highest quality for the single barrel bottling.
Maturation of Scotch almost always starts with a used bourbon barrel from the states. Some distilleries will proudly say which type of casks they use (Laphroaig uses Maker’s Mark, Kilchoman uses Buffalo Trace) but generally, this is not important or widely known information. What is important is how active each particular cask is and how much time the spirit spends in said cask. There is no limit to how many times a cask can be used to mature scotch. Here’s where the “more age = better quality” equation gets a wrench thrown into its breakfast. If a whisky has been sitting in a “dead” cask, or one which has been used over and over and will impart very little wood influence, for any number of years, it will be beaten out in quality every time by a whisky which has been aging in a fresh or “first fill” cask for a significantly shorter amount of time. Such is the importance of the chemical compounds present in the wood as well as the previous contents.
Barrel aging beer is a newer, more craft-oriented phenomenon. Since the bourbon industry can only use a barrel once, there becomes enough surplus for all kinds of people to get their hands on used bourbon barrels, including many American craft brewers. These are used to age a beer that has already been finished, imparting boozy, oaky flavors. Nowadays, private investors are more into cask whisky investment as you get to make a good amount of profit from those rare spirits.
Scotch whisky makers have gotten much more creative over the years with the types of casks they use. Originally, sherry (a sweet fortified wine from Spain) casks were the predominant method for aging, but as they became rarer and more expensive, distilleries started turning to other types of wine casks to age or “finish” their spirit. Finishing is when a whisky endures a primary maturation in ex-bourbon casks and then a secondary, usually shorter maturation in a different type of cask. Although ex-bourbon and sherry are still the most common, there are whiskies on the shelves right now that have been aged or finished in Sauternes, Chardonnay, Shiraz, Port, Gaja Barolo, Calvados, Tokaji, and other types of casks. These casks impart various fruity and spicy flavors determined by their previous contents. If one of these casks is shipped intact (i.e. not broken down into individual staves) it is more likely to be a particularly active cask, with the potential for residual liquid to be hanging around from its previous occupant.
Evan Williams has one of the most successful and long-standing examples of a single barrel of Kentucky Straight Bourbon. They’ve been releasing a new vintage every year for nearly the past 20 years. The label proudly displays the year the whisky was put in oak so it’s immediately clear which year’s release you are drinking. I am drinking the 2004, a 10 year old bourbon released in 2014, barrel number 754. Bottled at a perfect drinking strength of 86.6 proof, it is best enjoyed neat. Each barrel is hand selected by the master distiller from the most prime spots in Heaven Hill’s rickhouses.
If you happen to see some floaties in a bottle of whiskey like this, don’t be alarmed. This is not some Goldshlager-y gimmick, and is completely natural residue from the barrel. The texture of this bourbon is buttery and round. The nose promises a sweet desserty treat and the palate delivers on this promise. Maple sugar, candied nuts, orange oil, oak, toffee, vanilla, mint and spice are all present. Sweet, balanced and for about $30 it’s hard to find a better bourbon for the money.
Glenmorangie Quinta Ruban is one of the most successful of the massive Highland distillery’s extra matured range. These whiskies are their standard ten year old base spirit aged for two extra years in various wine casks. The Quinta Ruban was aged for two extra years in Ruby port pipes. The result is a variation on their standard light, fruity, creamy malt. The port influence is apparent in some extra fruit and spice. Fig Newtons, clove, and blackberry jam add a bit more depth to Glenmorangie’s light and refined spirit.
Deschutes Black Butte Porter is one of the most delicious and best-selling porters out there. This year, the Bend, Oregon brewery released a special, barrel-aged edition of this beer called Black Butte XXVI. Clocking in at a whopping 10.2% alcohol by volume, 50% of this beer was aged for six months in ex-bourbon barrels with cocoa nibs, pomegranate molasses, and Oregon cranberries. The result is delicious. It’s their flagship beer turned up to 11 with flavors of dark chocolate covered craisins and almost dark rum-like booziness. The finish is slightly tart and tangy, and surprisingly easy drinking. Though it’s not cheap (about $16 for 750ml) it’s well worth picking up one or two for the cold nights ahead.
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