The interaction between whiskey and oak within whiskey barrels is a fascinating study. It is not something that everybody understands about the process of whiskey production. Whiskey barrel quality is something that is monitored very carefully. The new spirit being produced gains its color and character from the wood it’s exposed to. A mini whiskey barrel is treated the same as a regular sized whiskey barrel, it’s just smaller.
Some mini whiskey barrels were specifically chosen by the Master Blender for aging and maturing their whiskey. They choose it because they see a specific character and continuity to be gained within their whiskey by using these mini whiskey barrels. It takes a full 3 years of aging for any new spirit to be deemed a ‘Scotch Whiskey’.
Actually, most generally the majority of Scotch Whiskeys are aged for much longer periods of time. Some of them can be aged for anywhere from 5 to 15, or even as long as 20 to 25 years. Sometimes even longer. It is this long aging process that gives personality to a spirit. The cool clean air of Scotland seeps through the porous oak mini whiskey barrels, and enhances their contents. It makes for a smoother and more unique blend of whiskey that reflects back on the distiller.
There is always a small percentage of the whiskey within all mini whiskey barrels that manages to escape and evaporate. It makes its way up to the angels. That is where the phrase “The Angels Share’ comes from. So why is oak so coveted among mini whiskey barrels?
One very common question that is heard all the time is “Why would whiskey makers want Oak Whiskey barrels?” Well, the reason is that oak carries special and unique natural chemical elements. Its strength is definitely one of its most admirable traits, and when shaped for a small whiskey barrel, it is superbly stout.
Oak has been labeled as being a ‘pure wood’ as compared to pine or certain rubber trees which bleed resin and pass on strong flavors to aging whiskey. However, it’s not just the oak itself that causes the great transformation of the whiskey. It is partly due to the heating treatments and seasoning, that goes along with the process of coopering, that finally results in pleasant-tasting Oak flavors.
Mini whiskey barrels made out of oak have 3 broad-ranged imprinting effects on spirits, which are an additive effect, a cleansing effect, and an interactive effect –
1. The additive effect enhances the aroma and taste of the spirit. It extracts the desirable elements from the mini whiskey barrels. Things like oak lactone (bourbon character, coconut), vanillin, color, wood sugars, and toastiness are all the result of its additive effect.
2. The cleansing effect removes elements that are undesirable in new spirits, like sulphur compounds and various inconsistencies that come with immaturity.
3. The interactive element extracts positive elements from the wood and interacts with the spirit. It converts them into very desirable attributes.
Here are a few examples of how elements change within this aging process –
Tannins get turned into acetals, and acetic acid gets changed to fruity esthers. There are 5 known constituents of Oak that influence maturing spirits:
- Body – This is achieved with the adding of wood sugars
- Color – Newly made whiskey has no color and is a clear liquid
- Personality – This is a combination of flavor, aroma, and taste
- Lignin – This is a binding agent that holds the wood cellulose together, and when heated it yields #5….vanillin
- Vanillin – Vanillin is most is the main flavor and smell compound in vanilla.
Mini whiskey barrels made from Oak, and their contributions to spirits, have been recognized and heralded by whiskey makers and wine makers alike. All great spirit producers are sold on what oak barrels bring to the process.