There’s really nothing better than relaxing with a glass of whiskey.
After all, barrel aged whiskey is truly something special, especially when the process is done right.
If you’re new to the world of wine barrel-aged whisky, you’re in for a treat. That’s because the finest whiskies are made overnight. In fact, it takes years to create the delicious flavors and intoxicating aromas found in the best whiskies in the world.
This article takes a look at the process of using wine aged whiskey barrels to distill whiskey, from start to finish. You’ll quickly discover that it’s a fascinating process that requires the skills of some of the most devoted whiskey drinkers on the planet. Keep reading to get the inside scoop.
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Understanding the Barrels
When it comes to discussing whiskey, it’s nearly impossible to overstate the importance of the barrels. After all, the average whiskey will spend years held in barrels during the aging process. Believe it or not, the type of barrel used will have a significant impact on the quality of the final product.
Let’s take a quick look at what you should know about the different types of barrels used to create barrel aged whiskey.
The traditional option for Scotch and Irish whisky is known as “European oak”. In recent years, French oak and Spanish oak barrels have become increasingly popular, although this is mostly for cask finishing.
American oak is relatively new when it comes to the whiskey scene. But although they’ve mostly become popular following the end of WWII, American oak barrels now account for 90% of the barrels used to age whisky. Why are they so popular? This is primarily due to the fact that American oak trees mature very quickly, they grow tall, and they pack a high concentration of vanillins. American oaks also feature sturdy trunks, making them easy to shape into whisky barrels.
The third option is Japanese oak. Whiskey produced in Japan is a small but growing segment of the market aged in barrels made from Japanese oak, also known as mizunara oak. This species of tree features a huge concentration of vanillins that helps create a unique flavor but is also prone to leaking and is easily damaged.
Because of the problems with Japanese oak, Japanese whisky is typically age in French oak or American oak and then transferred to Japanese oak barrels later in the aging process.
It’s important to keep in mind that the type of barrel used by a distiller doesn’t have nearly as much impact on the whiskey classification as the grain bill does. The primary exception to this is bourbon, which must be aged in first-use oak barrels that have been charred on the inside.
Understanding The Grains
Now let’s take a look at the grain used to distill whiskey. After all, this is where discussions of the distilling process get really serious.
First up is malted barley. This type of grain is typically used in a small percentage of whiskey. It contributes slightly roasted flavor notes along with a dry finish.
The next type of grain is rye. It’s spicy and aggressive, containing notes of cinnamon and black pepper that get more intense over the course of the aging process.
Corn is pretty sweet at the beginning of the aging process. Then the sweetness begins to mellow significantly the longer it ages in the barrel.
What about wheat? This grain is mostly known to have a soft and light flavor, which makes for a subtler flavor. The benefit of using wheat is that it gives the other grains the chance to really shine.
Understanding the Regions
Many people make the mistake of believing that every type of whiskey is the same. But in reality, this couldn’t be further from the truth.
In fact, the specific region where whiskey is produced not only impacts flavor but also the name that it carries. The primary types of whisky include bourbon, Scotch, and Irish whiskey. Let’s take a closer look at each.
To be called bourbon whiskey, the whiskey must be produced in the United States. In addition to being restricted to the United States, bourbon is also almost exclusively made in Kentucky.
Bourbon whiskey represents America’s primary contribution to the world of whiskey and is a billion-dollar industry in the states alone. By law, it must be made in the US with at least 51% corn mash, aged in first-use barrels, and must be between 80 – 160 proof.
Straight bourbon must be aged for a minimum of two years and cannot contain any added colors, flavors, or additional spirits.
Scotch whiskey, as the name implies, is made in Scotland. It’s produced using malted barley and other whole grains, water, yeast, and caramel coloring. It must age for a minimum of three years in oak casks and must be bottled at no less than 80 proof.
Keep in mind that Scotch must be made in Scotland using only Scottish materials, and the age of the Scotch must be printed on the bottle.
The Scotch flavor profile is typically a bit more challenging than the average bourbon, and the more you drink the more your palate will develop a taste and appreciation for it.
For a whiskey to be categorized as Irish whiskey, it must be made and aged in Ireland for three years. That being said, the rules for the production of Irish whiskey differ slightly from the rules for bourbon or Scotch. In fact, those are the only two rules.
It’s actually interesting to consider the fact that whiskey likely originated in Ireland, given that the word whiskey actually comes from a Gaelic word meaning “water of life”. Most whiskey lovers would probably agree that this is a very apt description.
The Complete Guide to Using Wine Aged Whiskey Barrels For Distillation
It’s hard to breast the perfect drink at the end of the day. Fortunately, this guide to the elements of cask finishing will help you enjoy your next glass of whiskey even more.
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