There's A Good Reason Why We Use Oak For Aging Our Whiskeys

November 06, 2018

There's A Good Reason Why We Use Oak For Aging Our Whiskeys

What goes best with your Whiskey?

Is it a company of colleagues? A profound conversation with an old friend? How about smoked salmon or dark chocolate or Roquefort consumed while deep in solitary meditation? Or is it a pleasing night with your paramour perhaps?

There are a thousand and one things that go perfect with Whiskey, but have you ever thought of wood, or more specifically, oak? Much like Laurel and Hardy or Bonnie and Hyde, that impeccable drink on your glass cannot happen without oak. There is no way to emphasize this. It is estimated that close to 75% of the spirit’s final taste is contributed by the oak barrel in which it is aged from. The wood removes the more unpleasant flavors from the whiskey and brings out the better aromas.

 

Better aromas mean better experience

Better aromas mean better experience.
Photo: Terricks Noah/ Pexels

 

Without it, your drink is a mere amalgamation of turpentine, rubbing alcohol, and 87 octane.

So what exactly does oak really do to whiskey?

 

It Got To Do What It Oak To Do

Behind fire’s benefits to almost everything, the discovery of oak’s effects to whiskey has to be mankind’s greatest achievements (What are we going to guzzle for our nightcaps? Mango juice?). This technology is nothing new, and we have been doing this since Roman times.

Normally, the oak barrel would be charred (in the United States) or toasted (in Europe) before being considered ready to store alcohol. This creates a layer of charcoal that seeps out the drink’s raw flavors. During the aging process, the molecules that are responsible for these unwanted flavors are pulled to the barrels’ walls via a process called adsorption (which is different from absorption). All the flavors you don’t want in your drink are stuck and accumulated on the side of the barrel, forming a thin layer.

 

The inside of a barrel showing the red sugar layer created by the charring process.

The inside of a barrel showing the red sugar layer created by the charring process.
Photo: BourbonNerd/ Wikimedia Commons

 

While the wood removes undesirable aromas from the drink, it adds better flavors to it also via three main compounds. First is lignin, which provides vanillin, the compound responsible for the vanilla aroma. Second is the lactones, which brings out the hint of butter and coconut flavor. And lastly, the tannins, which is responsible for the whiskey’s dry and wood spice flavor.

The tiny differences in this aging process give rise to a wide variety of flavors between Scotch, Bourbon, Rye, and so on. For example, Bourbon is normally aged in new barrels, giving it a cleaner, smoother taste. Barrels used to age Bourbon will go on then to age Scotch whisky, who would benefit from the leftover flavors, giving the drink a richer, more full-bodied taste.

 

Malted barley, an essential ingredient is making whiskeys.

Malted barley, an essential ingredient is making whiskeys.
Photo: ArnOlson/ Wikimedia Commons

 

But why do we use oak specifically, and not the cheaper alternatives like pine, chestnuts, or even cherry? Heck, they already sound Christmas to us. They should be good on our drinks.

 

Different Oaks, Different Strokes

Historically, various types of wood have been used to age spirits, with differing results.

Pine cannot work, as it has a more relaxed cell structure. The wood would deteriorate and spill over the prolonged period of direct contact with the alcohol. Chestnuts were used in the past. But its porous quality means it is hard to work with. And we don’t know where to start with cherry’s problems. It’s just too out there.

Oak, on the other hand, has a more rigid cell structure. It can hold up over the prolonged periods of contact with alcohol. Whiskey alone is being aged for as long as thirty years, and oak has been very good on doing the job.

 

Oak trees are very resistant to insect and fungal attack because of their high tannin content.

Oak trees are very resistant to insect and fungal attack because of their high tannin content.
Photo: Colin/Wikimedia Commons

 

However, not all oaks are created equal. Different types of oaks bring in different effects on the spirit. The Sessile European oak for one, possess high levels of tannins which means spicier notes and darker undertones.

The Japanese Mizunara Oak, on the other hand, has higher moisture levels and gives an aroma similar to vanilla and dried fruits. Tannins are released more slowly with the American Oak, which has been the standard for oak construction in the US. Aging spirits for a longer time in this particular oak is better, as it avoids the “over-woodiness” of the drink.

 

Not Just For Storage

Whiskeys, tequilas, wine, and other spirits are stored in oak barrels not only because they don’t have anything better to put it in, or because they look good in those old-school wooden casks (but we do admit that they look darn good). Transpiring inside those wooden drums are complex chemical reactions happening on different levels, making the drink richer, more flavorful, better for your palate.

 

The older the whiskey, the darker it becomes due to wood exposure.

The older the whiskey, the darker it becomes due to wood exposure.
Photo: Michael Mroczek/Wikimedia Commons

 

By storing your choice of drink in an oak barrel at home, you are giving the spirit the respect it deserves, compounding the flavor the longer it is stored. Be like Errol Flynn. Have your whiskey very old. Because delayed gratification is the best form of gratification.





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