Why barrels are the secret behind great spirits

Many great wineries have played a crucial role in the development of some of the world's best spirits at a subterranean level. What am I talking about? Barrels. The wooden guardians that have been storing, transporting and – most importantly – flavouring booze for centuries.

When I first entered the arcane world of spirits appreciation, I was so confused and enchanted by this relationship that I travelled to Scotland, Spain, Portugal and the US to trace the lives of the barrels that define whether a spirit is great, good or indifferent.

To make the best whisky in the world, you needed to make the best barrels.

Andrew Young

Overkill? Maybe, but my booze sleuthing will pay dividends the next time you look into your glass and wonder how something so delicious came to be.

The happy accident

The design of the barrel is so ingenious that, until replaced by modern equivalents, it was essential to the preservation and trade of consumables for more than 2000 years. No one knows which lucky chap figured it out first, but by the 17th century merchants and sailors began to notice that alcohol, particularly rum, transported in oak barrels came out much tastier after months and even years of travel. Beforehand, most spirits were consumed in clear, rough and unaged form.

It's now understood that barrel ageing is fundamental to the editing and enhancing of the overall character of whiskies, brandies, rums, tequilas and other aged spirits. So fundamental that it's been estimated that anywhere between 50 to 80 per cent of the total flavour of these products comes from the barrel used to mature them.

Drinkable science

Science has given us a clearer understanding of the vital functions that maturation performs. A well-constructed barrel is perfectly watertight, but the porosity of the oak allows the cask to interact with its surrounding environment. Many undesirable alcohols and flavours are removed through this oxidative process, but flavours are also added as the spirit slowly drinks in the oak plus the residue from the previous liquid inhabitant.

Everything from cocktails to gin gets a run in an oak barrel these days. But as demand for these barrels increases, supply is a problem. Oakwood is the only species with the right characteristics to successfully mature wine and spirits. The tricky part is that certain types of oak like Quercus alba (American white oak) found in the US, and Quercus robur (European oak) found in different parts of Europe, are considered the most suitable species for the job.

To further complicate matters, the oak trees used to make barrels must be at least 70 to 80 years old. Once cut and quartered, the timber should be air-dried for at least 18 months before it can be coopered into barrels.

All of this means one thing for producers: barrels are damn expensive. As a result, many wineries here in Australia and in other parts of the world now use oak barrel alternatives – such as oak chips or oak powder – when maturing certain wines. The cost of using French oak barrels, the preferred species of oak for wine maturation, is simply too great – up to $1500 a cask.

However, when ageing spirits such as whisky, brandy and aged rums, no such alternative exists. This makes it tricky for producers trying to age thousands or even millions of litres of precious new-make spirit every year. Where do you get the barrels? And how do you pay for them?

Uncle Sam to the rescue

In 1964, an act of the United States Congress established stringent regulations around the use of the term bourbon, doing the world's spirit producers a big favour in the process. A major part of these regulations stated that bourbon producers have to mature their whiskey in brand new charred American oak casks, or the product couldn't wear the 'bourbon whiskey' title. Ever since, bourbon producers have cheaply offloaded the millions of casks they burn through each year after getting only one use out of them.

It is now estimated that over 90 per cent of the barrels used to mature rum, Scotch and Irish whiskey are ex-bourbon casks because of their price ($80 - $120) and availability (except cognac and armagnac houses stick to their native oak). The one drawback to this development is that ex-sherry and port casks ($1000 -$1200), once a staple of the whisky landscape in particular, are now seldom used to create the rich, fruity, nutty drams that many in the boozeratti think are the best going round.

Disappointingly, when I visited some of the sherry and port producers I was assured by the folk there that the wines used to season casks for the whisky trade never come anywhere near the actual wines they bottle under their labels. The result is that certain famed brands that market on the authenticity of the "sherry" or "port" casks their whisky is matured in are perhaps getting a bit creative with the truth.

Australia's barrel age

In Australia, the relationship between the wine and spirits industries is a little easier to trace. The barrels that once contained some of Australia's most famed fortified wines have played a large role in the growing reputation Australian distilleries now enjoy.

An appropriate example is the relationship between the Lark Distillery in Tasmania and Andrew Young, master cooper at Seppelstfield winery in the Barossa. Coopering, the making of barrels, has become something of a lost art, but Young draws on almost 40 years of experience to re-cooper and fire new life into old Seppeltsfield barrels that will then go on to mature Lark whisky.

"When I sat down with Bill Lark and Mark Nicholson we agreed that to make the best whisky in the world, you needed to make the best barrels. So that's what I try and do," Young told me.

Another distillery to benefit from the labours of an Australian fortified wine producer is Sullivans Cove. Sullivans Cove's incredible win at the World Whiskies Awards last year got many international enthusiasts talking. What's often left out of the story is the single cask that matured the famous winning malt. The HH0525 cask, one cask among many in Sullivans Cove's French oak range, came from one of Australia's oldest fortified wine producers, McWilliam's.

Russell Cody is the man behind the production and maintenance of some of McWilliam's finest fortified wines. When I recently visited Hanwood Estate, he told me that there are quite a few sympathies between fortified wine and whisky production.

"There's a lot of similarities in what we do, from cask management to the constant monitoring and blending of different stock. You can taste the history and quality of our wines in these barrels and it's great to see that quality in the whiskies that are eventually matured in them," Cody told me.

A few punters have been willing to offer up to $10,000 for a bottle of that quality (it retailed for $150 before the award), so rare have the 516 bottles from HH0525 become.

The moral of the story is that when separating the good from the great, barrels matter.

Do you pay any attention to maturation times or techniques when buying spirits?

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