A magician asks for a volunteer from the crowd. An enthusiastic person raises their hand and proceeds to the stage. The magician then guides them into a large, rectangular box, closes the door and utters a magical phrase. The crowd holds its breath in anticipation. The magician opens the door to reveal – nothing!! The volunteer has disappeared. Cue the music and the audience applause. “Not so fast!” you blurt out. “This is a blurb about whisky barrels”. Yes, it is. While the magician uses his vessel to make people disappear; whisky uses its magic and vessel, in this case the barrel, to make whisky “appear”.
I say (or write) ‘magic’ because while many things go into creating the taste of a particular whisky, the majority of a whisky’s taste comes from its time in the barrel. Depending on the blender or distiller you ask, up to 70% of a whisky’s flavour comes from hanging out in the barrel. That’s some impressive magic. Now, depending on the whisky you are buying, it has to stay in the barrel for a minimum of two to three years. That’s a long show to sit through. Plus, getting a babysitter for that amount of time would be costly. Instead, you get to taste the end result when you buy your bottle of whisky, which is definitely more satisfying.
After the spirit comes out of the still, it legally isn’t whisky. It needs to do a time out in a barrel. But not just any barrel – one made from oak. And this isn’t a “just cuz” choice. The choice of using oak can be traced back to the days of the Roman Empire. And who’s going to argue with an army of spear wielding legionnaires. Anyway, the reasons for using oak are plentiful. Here are a few:
- Oak isn’t prone to leaking. Much to the delight of whisky blenders and comptrollers.
- Oak is extremely durable. While American Straight Whiskies are required by law to be only used once, those same barrels get sold to other whisky producing nations like Scotland, Ireland and Canada, to name a few, to be reused – in many occasions more than once. In fact, it’s not unusual for barrels to have a hundred-year lifespan.
- Whisky gets its natural colour from “chillaxing” in the barrel for a few years. While some countries do allow E150a caramel to be added, many whiskies are bottled “au natural”.
- With over 600 species of oak, each type will add different “flavours” to a whisky. White oak helps bring out vanilla and caramel tones. French oak coaxes out pepper and other spiciness. Oregon oak brings out molasses. Mizunara oak introduces your palate to sandalwood and incense.
Whisky barrels get “toasted” (Not as in “toasted” like some of your houseguests.) or “charred”. That’s a heating process that warms up the staves to downright burning them. This process helps the spirit get into the pores of the wood. This helps filter out unwanted notes and flavours, it helps bring out the flavours that are sought after and, it helps create additional flavours. I wish I could say I was that productive after sitting around on my keister for a couple of years.
We’ve just touched the proverbial “tip” of the whisky iceberg on whisky barrels , or “casks”. And, there’s a cask-full of science that, as a whisky nerd, would love to (d)ramble on about. But, there’s still a part of me, that chalks all this barrel stuff up to mysterious wizardry, “prestos” and “abba cadabras”. After all, who doesn’t still believe in a little bit of magic.