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Stumbling into Science: SA / V

August 15, 2012

The other night at Kings County, we had an interesting discussion about their use of smaller 5 gallon barrels for bourbon aging. You see, the aging as a description for the whiskey making process only tells part of the story. If it was just a matter of the distillate hanging around for a few years, distilleries certainly wouldn’t go through all the trouble of using charred oak barrels. But as we’ve talked about before, the true component of “aging” is the exchange between the whiskey and the wood. As the distillate makes its way into contact with and into the crevices of the wood barrels, the flavor extraction, final proofing and coloration all take place. So how does a whiskey distillery know when this process is complete?

So many factors come in to play here. Humidity, temperature, and age of the barrels all will impact what final profile is developed and how long it will take which is why a distillery’s taste tester has one of the most important jobs. But you’ll remember now that I specifically called out the fact that the Kings Co. team was using “smaller 5 gallon barrels”. To at least narrow down the answer to the question, “how long?”, you first need to define arguably the most crucial factor: the surface area to volume ratio.

This makes intuitive sense, right? The more surface area of wood to a smaller volume of whiskey, the quicker the exchange may take place. This is exactly why the Kings Co. team is able to get such a deep flavor exchange in just over a year of “aging”. But the question becomes, is that ideal? Or in other words, could a longer, slower “aging” provide a better tasting whiskey? I have to admit, my palate for whiskey profiling isn’t exactly cut out for that question, nor do I want it to be. But one thing is for sure: when you want speed, surface area is your friend.

And it’s sort of amazing how applicable this is across our booze loving lives. As I’ve been messing around with those fruit and liquor infusions more and more this summer, this surface area to volume ratio has resurfaced. I’ve mainly been using mason jars which of course have a limited space available to them. I could of course fill the jars to the brim with fruit to increase that surface area for extraction but then I’ve lost out on volume leaving me with a highly concentrated few drops of the good stuff.

But there is another way to increase surface area! By cutting up the fruit into small slices or even dices, the overall surface area of the fruit pieces increases drastically without having to simply add more. This was not more evident than with this plum vodka from the weekend. Although I mentioned the flavor was more intense than my peach gin, and attributed that mainly to the ripeness of the fruit, I forgot this basic principle. Those peaches I left relatively large, only halving them before throwing them into the jar. Not so with the plums and the difference was huge.

It’s amazing how much better things become when you accidentally stumble into science!

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