Whiskey, Facts About Alcohol, Aging In Oak Barrels

Oak Barrel Essential For Whiskey

white oak barrels for whiskeyWhiskey is a beverage created through the fermentation of the mash of a grain.  In the USA and the rest of North America, the primary grain used is corn, often combined with malted rye, barley or wheat.  In Ireland, Scotland and Japan, barley, either malted or unmalted is the primary grain.

The first difference to note between whiskey and spirits considered grain neutral, such as vodka, is the distillation proof.  Neutral spirits are distilled to greater than 95% alcohol, (190 proof) while whiskey is required by law to be distilled to less than 95% alcohol (190 proof).  In practice, most whiskey is prepared between 110 and 140 proof.

This percentage is significant, as all pure ethyl alcohol tastes the same, regardless of its source.  In reality, the distinctive flavors of any beverage is not due to the alcohol, but the non-alcohol components, often found in trace amounts.

These particular characteristics in flavor have not always been something considered desirable.  All distilling cultures have looked for ways to make their local alcoholic beverages more palatable.  Some have attempted through the use of better stills or by distilling the alcohol multiple times, have created a very pure and near tasteless spirit that is than flavored using berries, herbs or spices.  For example, gin, a grain neutral spirit is flavored using berries of the juniper and other natural flavors.  Other cultures have worked to make the lower proof spirits taste better.  One of the most inspired of methods is by aging in an oak barrel.  The oak barrel is used by countries that create alcohol from the fruit as well as those using grains, bringing about both whiskey and brandy.  In the United States, charring the inside of an oak barrel and using it only one time has brought about the most pleasant flavored drink of all: bourbon whiskey.

Today, an oak barrel is used in production of most all whiskeys.  Unaged whiskey (green whiskey, white dog or white lightening) is clear like vodka, but offers much more  flavor even before aging in an oak barrel.  Corn whiskey is the only unaged product that can be labeled as whiskey in the USA and Georgia Moon is one of the most well known brands.

The oak barrel is responsible for the color as well as much of the flavor of aged whiskey.  The alcohol dissolves and absorbs sugars and flavors from the wood.  Whiskey generally takes 4-6 years to mature inside the oak barrel.  Twelve years or longer in an oak barrel cause the flavor to be too woody for most individuals.  Once in the bottle, whiskey no longer continues to age.  If the bottle is well filled and sealed, it will still have the same taste in century as it does today.

Tennessee whiskey is similar in production to bourbon with one important difference.  The whiskey is filtered through a 10 foot thick charcoal filter before it is barreled to leach away fusel oils.  The argument continues over whether this improves or ruins the alcohol’s flavor.

While manufacturers of Bourbon and Tennessee whiskey use the oak barrel only once, distillers in other countries continue to reuse the oak barrel until they fall apart.  They sometimes buy old sherry casks, bourbon barrels or other oak barrel that has already been used.  As the oak barrel have already given many of their flavors away to the first aging, whiskeys require a longer time for aging, resulting in more 25 year old Scotch whiskey that bourbon.

American blended whiskey contains little whiskey aged in the oak barrel.  The law requires 20% of the blend to be 100 proof straight whiskeys.  While some brands may contain a little more, the rest is up to the distiller’s taste.

Whiskey is a term from the ancient Gaelic meaning the “water of life.”  Other Indo-European words have a similar translation and meaning.  The name dates back to the Middle Ages when there were no laws regarding the use of an oak barrel.