Why can’t we just drink whisky straight off the still?
Why wait a whole three years—or, more commonly, eight or more—to drink our favourite tipple?
The answer has something to do with the magical effects of a seemingly simple factor: wooden barrels.
After whisky is produced and cut down to a barreling strength of 60-70% from the still run, it’s sealed away in oak barrels for years to allow these treasures to work their wonders, mellowing out the spirit, reducing its alcohol content and transforming its flavour from something straightforward and a bit harsh to complex and deliciously memorable.
But how can a wood barrel do all that?
Well, it’s complicated—and we still don’t understand all the secrets that underpin barrel aging. But we know more than a bit about the process.
Whisky is aged in oak barrels.
The oak can be from a European, American, or Japanese oak tree, and the barrels themselves can be new or aged, but whisky is aged in oak and that’s that.
This is for a few reasons.
First, oak is a sturdy wood, capable of holding up to hundreds of kilos of liquid without breaking. It’s easy to work with and can be bent with the proper application of heat to form the right shape for making a barrel. And it’s full of interesting chemical compounds that enhance the flavour of alcohol, without being full of the nasty pitch and sap found in other woods like pine.
The different oak species yield some different results—European oak has more tannins, which gives a more astringent or puckery flavour to the final whisky; American oak has more compounds that lend vanilla or coconut notes; and Japanese oak gives more floral or spicy character in the end.
The choice of whether to barely heat the wood, toast it, or char it also affects the final whisky.
If the wood is left mostly unburned, the final flavour is brighter. A light to medium toast, which is often done in Europe, rounds out the flavour and adds a more golden tone to the whisky.
If the barrel is charred, as is popular in America, especially for bourbon, a whole new flavour profile is created. The layer of charcoal formed by charring the inside of the barrel acts a bit like a water purification filter, filtering out impurities as the whisky ages. It also imparts a deeper final colour and bolder flavour.
Making whisky barrels is no easy process. It can take decades for someone to become a master cooper, or barrel-maker. The right trees have to be cut into the right size boards, which are then carefully shaped to fit together tightly, without any tolerance for leaks.
The cooper heats the wooden staves to bend them to the right degree, then planes them down so they fit like they grew together.
There are no nails or screws or glue used to assemble a proper barrel; rather, the wood staves fit together perfectly and are held in place simply by two metal hoops and pressure.
Because distillers want the whisky to interact with the wood, there’s no varnish or sealant used anywhere on the barrel.
The size of the barrel plays an important part in the transformation of whisky from raw young spirit to nuanced delicacy. Although you can use either a huge barrel or a very small one, it’ll change the qualities of the final spirit, because of how much of the liquid will be in direct contact with the wood.
Typically, whisky is aged in 200–225-litre barrels, called American Standard Barrels (ASBs) or hogsheads, respectively. Some craft distillers age in smaller barrels called quarter-casks, which hold 50 litres. Smaller Barrels can impart more flavor, but it’s often at the cost of a high age statement.
The ASB is considered the perfect size for aging whisky, because it’s not so large as to be unmanageable but can still hold a good amount of liquid—and, more importantly, because it seems to put just the right amount of spirit in contact with the wood to get great flavour changes in “only” a few years’ time.
Those flavour changes are where the magic of oak really comes into play.
Oak is loaded with all kinds of chemical compounds, from lignin to cellulose to tannins to vanillins.
Most of these, like cellulose, don’t do much other than provide structural support.
Some, though, are the reason for the magical transformation of whisky from hot, heady ‘white lightning’ off the still into caramel-coloured liquid gold.
Changes in the weather force the alcohol in the barrel to seep into the wood in differing amounts—hot and cold spells suck the whisky into the wood’s pores and force it back out again, enabling it to pick up more and more of the chemicals from the oak.
This process is faster in a place with lots of dramatic temperature changes, like Kentucky, India or Australia, and slower in temperate locations like Ireland and Scotland.
No matter what, part of the original volume of the alcohol will always be lost to evaporation—the lost amount is poetically referred to as the ‘angel’s share’.
As the whisky interacts with the oak, it leeches out certain chemicals. Over time, more and more character builds, creating the distinctive flavour profiles that we cherish in different whiskys.
Wood sugars add body and colour to the final spirit.
Vanillin adds vanilla flavours, as well as some fruity notes.
Lactones give caramel, buttery, or coconut notes. Lactones are much more prominent after toasting or charring, and so charred barrels, especially made of American oak, have the most coconut or buttery qualities.
Tannins create the mouth-puckering, astringent taste found in many fine whiskys, akin to the flavour of black tea.
Other compounds, plus the effects of charring the wood, can yield spicy, smoky, or even fruity tastes in the final spirit.
The longer whisky is aged in a barrel, the more unique characteristics of the wood it will take on—that’s due to the long ‘steeping’ process and the continual interaction of the wood with the solvent spirit.
Oftentimes, whisky is aged in used barrels—ones that once held bourbon, wine, sherry, port, or even rum.
This adds yet another layer of complexity to the final product, as the wood has already picked up some of the characters of the first spirit aged in the barrel just like that spirit picked up some of the character of the wood.
By aging whisky in a used barrel, the master distiller is looking to gain some of the complexity of that first spirit—fruity roundness from port, say, or caramel notes from rum.
By mixing and matching levels of char, size of the barrel, aging times, and previous uses, distillers can come up with an endless variety of whisky flavours—enough to keep you sampling forever!