The World of Single Malt Whisk(e)y
Wood and Whisky:
This month, we wrap up a two part series looking at the influence of wood on Single Malt Whisky.
We continue the exploration of the influencing effect wood has on Single Malt Whisky. Read Part 1 HERE.
As mentioned last month, bourbon barrels can be charred to different degrees. Not only does that fire influence provide a charcoal layer which acts as a natural filter, smoothing out the harsh and undesirable qualities in the whisky, but it also crystallizes the sugars in the wood, enhancing the already naturally sweet character of American oak (caramel, vanilla, coconut, etc.).
As bourbon barrels are legally only allowed to be used once, they’re readily available, less expensive than an ex-sherry cask, and now make up the majority of casks being used to age Scotch whisky. Some Scotch companies even own oak forests in America and rent the barrels to bourbon makers before bringing them over to Scotland.
Sherry is aged in a solera system, meaning that they use a series of casks where the sherry inside each vessel is different ages. Sherry to be sold is taken from the oldest casks, which are then topped up with the next oldest sherry, and so on. The barrels are never fully emptied as it’s a continual process of homogenizing the wine. Because of this, casks from an actual solera system would never be taken out of rotation and sold to the whisky industry. Also, consider that in creating sherry, these large wooden vessels are old wood (sometimes over a century old) and do not impart any wood-y characteristics to the sherry.
Where using sherry casks for aging whisky came from were the casks used back in the 16th century for transporting the sherry to various destination countries (sherry is only made in what is known as the “sherry triangle” in Andalusia, Spain). It was common for distilleries to repurpose those transport casks for aging their whisky. However, due to changing Spanish transportation laws in the 1980s, whereby sherry had to be bottled domestically rather than at the destination country, there was a sharp decline in available sherry casks.
Nowadays, a whisky company needs a special relationship with a sherry producer to create bespoke casks for them. These casks will be lightly toasted (compared to charred) and seasoned with young sherry for several months to a few years, before being utilized for whisky maturation - which does want the actual wood influence along with the sherry notes. That seasoning sherry will be turned into vinegar, as it’s not of a quality for drinking. While sherry casks used to dominate the Scotch whisky aging field, they now make up only about 10%.
There are increasing experiments with other types of casks, such as Port, Rum, high end red wines, and even Champagne, although these are often more for finishing a whisky rather than as a long-term aging vessel. But each one will, of course, add their own particular influence to the whisky.
Evaporation and Maturity
Wood is semi-porous, and the weather plays an important part in the aging of spirit. Wood expands and contracts in the heat and cold, and during this, the spirit goes into and out of the wood, which is where it gains its colour and character. It’s also during these temperature fluctuations that spirit aromas are “exhaled” from the cask and the surrounding environment influences (such as heather, ocean brine, forest, etc.) are “inhaled” and proceed to influence the spirit within. In warmer climates where the temperature fluctuates more intensely, the whisky will age faster than whisky matured in a cooler climate.
Evaporation rates will also be higher in warmer climates. In a cool climate, such as Scotland, evaporation is typically 2% per year (the Angel’s Share), whereas in hotter climates, it could be as high as 10%. The amount that is absorbed irretrievably into the wood itself is called the Devil’s Cut.
Knowing what we know now about the influence of temperature on an aging spirit, bear that in mind as you continue your drinking journey: maturity doesn’t always equal age.
And there we have it! Let’s raise a glass to the Celts for bringing us this creation and to the industrious professionals who keep masterfully using it to bring us top notch whisky.