The Basics: Barrel AgingOctober 13, 2011
While I have nothing in particular against clear liquors like vodka and gin, they certainly do lack a true depth in character. A glass of whiskey on the other hand…
Because whether it’s in your home or at the bar, a glass of whiskey is more than just a beverage. There is a unique feeling imparted on the partaker that only these few fingers of amber gold can produce. And it all starts with a barrel.
Brown liquor is an awful name. Because to me, one of the greatest nuances between brands and styles of whiskey is the vibrancy that is more than just “brown”. The “amber gold” as I referred to a glass of whiskey earlier comes from an aging process distinct to all whiskeys: barrel aging. To be clear, whiskey is a generic term for distilled liquors that are aged in wood. But as made evident by the many folks around the world that just shuttered at my description, whiskey “types” are highly regulated. Bourbon for example, is solely produced in America, must be made from a mash of at least 51% corn, and aged in new charred oak barrels along with a few other guidelines. So what is so special about this barrel aging?
Wood barrels, particularly oak, have very distinct chemical and physical properties. These properties act in a few beautiful ways. Have you ever wondered why there is such a distinct vanilla flavor to some whiskeys? Vanillin is just one of the many compounds in the wood that infuse into the liquor during aging. In fact, the reason this flavor is so prominent in bourbon is the “charring” of the barrels before use. But imparting flavor and color isn’t the only job well done here. Wood is porous and in this way acts as a “filter” for the aging whiskey. Impurities and un-desirable components can be absorbed or altered by the wood making a perfectly smooth product.
It must be clear now why tasting along the way is so important. Because with whiskey, it’s not about age, it’s about maturity.