The History Of Different Whiskies Distilled And Matured In The Oak Barrel – Part One

Whiskey BarrelsThere are different whiskies produced and matured in the oak barrel by a variety of manufactures . However, North American whiskies are unique because of the way they are brewed and distilled in the oak barrel. Mainly produced from a mash of wheat, corn barley and other portions of all-grain spirits, the whisky is aged for a long period of time in specially manufactured and distilled in the oak barrel.  These wooden barrels are made from different types of woods. However, the common oak barrel used is either new or used depending on the whiskey manufacturer and can be either charred or uncharred depending on which whiskey is being manufactured.

The process of distilling North American Whiskies in the oak barrel
There are different processes of distilling whiskies. The North American whiskies are usually distilled in column stills. This is because there certain requirements that all the whisky manufacturers in the United States need to fulfill for them to be licensed by the government.

  • The whisky has to be manufactured from a grain mash.
  • It has to be distilled at 90% ABV or a little less in the oak barrel.
  • The whiskey can be reduced to 62.5% ABV (125 proof) after which it is matured in oak barrel. An exception is for Corn whiskey, which is not to be matured in wood barrels.
  • The taste and aroma of the whiskey manufactured in the oak barrel should be common for all whiskey brands.
  • The whiskey to be bottled at 40% ABV (80proof) after being matured in the oak barrel.

The various classifications of North American Whiskies matured in the oak barrel
The North American whiskies are normally classified according to three certain characteristics. These includes the type of grain in the mash bill, the length of time it takes to mature and the proof and percentage of alcohol when it is distilled in the oak barrel.

Bourbon Whisky should have a minimum 51% corn, distilled in the oak barrel at not more than 80% ABV (160 proof), be matured for a time length of two years in new charred oak barrel and produced in the United States.  This is contrary to the fact that most straight whiskies are matured for at least four years.  However, there is leverage to any Bourbon whisky prepared in the United States or imported as if the whiskey is matured in the oak barrel for less than four years, the manufacturer is mandated to state the age of the whiskey on the label. Bourbon whiskies are known in two major categories, the Small Batch Bourbons and Single Barrel Bourbon.

Its Taste: The flavor can be described as a mixture of toffee, vanilla essence, pralines and dried fruit. The fact that it is matured in charred oak barrel gives it a distinct spicy oak firmness that improves its flavor making it one of the unique American whiskeys.

Tennessee Whisky on the other hand should contain a minimum 51% corn, distilled in the oak barrel at not more than 80% ABV (160 proof), and matured for a period of not less than two years in new charred oak barrel.  They should also be filtered through a filter bed made from sugar maple charcoal, and it should definitely be produced in Tennessee.
Its Taste: A professional whisky taker will notice the distinct taste of the Tennessee Whisky. This is because there are claims that Tennessee whisky has a common taste to Kentucky whisky. The Tennessee whisky has a smooth clean and long finish. This is attributed to the fact that its filtration process involves being passed through the bed of sugar maple charcoal. Most times, Tennessee whiskies can pass as Bourbon, however, the two states that distill these whiskeys in the oak barrel choose to own their different brands and insist on a difference between the two.

Rye Whisky’s minimum rye grain should be 51%, similar to the other whiskies.  Its distillation process in the oak barrel should be not less than 80% ABV (160 proof) while its maturity period in the oak barrel should not be less than two years. Rye whisky should also be charred in new oak barrel. During its production, it is usually blended into other whiskies to enrich and add into their character and structure. This is why; only small amounts of Rye whisky finds its way into the bottled market and sold exclusively. The unique richness of this whisky has made it a common feature among whisky takers such that Canadians refer to their whisky as ‘Rye’ though a majority of their whisky is made from corn or wheat.

Its Taste: It contains a unique spiced, gritty, hard-edged firmness that distinguishes it from the other whiskies. The whisky such as Bourbon is known for its caramel, creamy taste. Whisky fans know it because of its very dry characteristic and the fact that it consists of walnuts, toasted grain and a taste of black pepper to add onto its assertive nature. This makes it a favorite choice to whisky lovers, as it is matured in the oak barrel.

Blended American whisky should have not less than 20% straight whiskey. This is in addition to the fact that it has a balance of neutral spirit and high-proof light whiskey. Blended American whisky has a general flavor that resembles Bourbon, due to it being matured in the oak barrel; however, it lacks any distinct taste to characterize it.

Corn Whiskey on the other hand is a commercial product that should be produced of not than 80% corn. This differentiates it from the other whiskies as most of them have a minimum of 51% corn. It should also be distilled at 80% ABV (160 proof) in the oak barrel. There are manufacturers who prefer to mature their Corn Whisky in the wooden oak barrel. This means they should ensure the oak barrel is new and uncharred.

Moonshine Whiskey, commonly referred to as the white dog, white lightning or Corn likker, is manufactured from a mixture of corn and sugar. Most times, it is matured in jugs and specifically Mason jars for very little time. As some people would put it, it is aged in the oak barrel for the time it takes the customer to make their purchases and get home.
Canadian Whisky is manufactured from a mixture of corn and wheat as its main components. Other components added to improves its originality include barley, rye and barley malt. Contrary to the American Whiskeys, the Canadian Whisky does not have a minimum percentage when it comes to the grains being used in the mash bill. Canadian Whisky also differs from the likes of Bourbon in terms of how they are aged, and which oak barrel is used. Canadian whisky is matured in an oak barrel. Their maturity period is three years however; most of their brands are aged for is four to six years still in the oak barrel.  Therefore, Canadian whiskies are distilled in the oak barrel from a variety of grains and at different stages. This is with the exception of Glenora, which is usually a malt whisky pot-distilled in Nova Scotia. Most times, the Canadian whiskies are shipped in the oak barrel they are matured in, and bottled in the country they are destined. Their bottling is done at 40% ABV (80 proof) that are not more than four years aged.  The whiskies that have been bottled in Canada contain older components, which result to the whiskies being bottled at 43.4% ABV (86.8 proof), after maturing in the oak barrel.

United States
All North American Whiskies are produced in Kentucky. This is with the exception of the Tennessee and Canadian whiskies. This is because Kentucky has the highest number of distillers in the continent.
All over the country, there are various whisky distillation plants, which deal with the blending and dilution of whisky, are scattered all over the country. These distillers mainly deal in the processing and bottling of whisky that were originally distilled, matured and stored in an oak barrel elsewhere.  Some of these mini-distilleries produce their own blend of whiskey in addition to bottling the already matured Bourbon in the oak barrel from other countries.

The fact about bonded whisky is that it is 100 proof Bourbon produced from a single distillery and usually manufactured within one season. Thereafter, it is matured in the oak barrel for more than four years in a warehouse that is government-supervised. At first, most distilleries did this in order for them to avoid taxes such as the excise tax until their spirit was matured in the oak barrel and ready for the market. This led to many consumers mistaking this gesture and avoiding the “bottled in bond” brands of whisky. Therefore, bonded whisky is not regarded as a mark of quality in the market though they are still sold.

Mash includes a mixture of crushed grain, which includes malt that breaks down the grains into starch due to the enzymes contained in it, and hot water that is drawn from the wort. The distiller is tasked with drawing the liquid extract the wort, and ferments it until it forms simple beer called the wash. After the fermentation process, the wash is distilled in an oak barrel to produce whiskey.

One can come up with a sour form of wash by adding some of the previously fermented wash to a new batch of grain and starting the fermentation process all over again. This will ensure that the fermentation maintains a level of consistency and it produces the sour mash. A sweeter version on this mash can also be produced by the addition of fresh yeast to a new batch and allowing it to ferment, then distilling and maturing it in the oak barrel.
On the other hand, straight whisky is pure as it is not blended. These are whiskies such as Tennessee, Corn, Bourbon and Rye whiskeys. The whiskeys that are produced from a mixture of grain are also called “straight whiskeys or spirits”, but they do not have 51% of the mash bill.