How Oak Barrels Enhance Whiskey Flavor
If people from way back 2000 years ago (or earlier even) hadn’t relied on wooden barrels as the best method to store large volumes of spirits, distillers of today would not have considered infusing their whiskey with oak dimensions.
To put it simply, it’s a happy accident of sorts that wood is now used for whiskey flavor enhancement, thanks to the more complex texture it lends to the drink, as compared to whiskey held in a less reactive container. So what is it about oak – the only wood used to store fine whiskey, by the way – that makes it perfect for the job? Two things:
When it comes to whiskey, an oak barrel makes for controlled oxidation. This step-by-step process also helps control astringency and improve stability. Aside from its characteristic fruitiness, the whiskey is allowed to develop a more complex and robust aroma. This is the outcome of letting just a particular amount of oxygen to get into the drink.
Oak-Specific Flavors and Notes
Inside oak are certain kinds of complex chemicals that affect the flavor and texture of the whiskey in their own characteristic ways. This is experienced, for example, through hints of mint or notes of tea or tobacco, and the sheer overall complexity provided by the tannin, which blends with tannin that originates from the grain being made into whiskey.
All of these compounds bring delightful refinements in the final whiskey. Among several others, they include furfural-containing products of carbohydrate degradation, hydrolyzable tannins that are crucial to the whiskey’s astringency, and oak lactones responsible for the woody scent. The final texture and flavors of the whiskey have much to do with the chosen oak barrel’s chemical makeup, and also with the type of oak used and how it was built.
Also, American oak offers flavors that are remarkably different from French Oak. The results are different when staves are air-dried and if they are dried with kiln heat. Even how the staves are bent causes important variables in the manufacturing process. Each whiskey maker around the world will have their own opinion as to how barrels should be made in order to give whiskey the best flavor. However, everyone agrees is that barrel making is a complicated craft where .amateurs do not thrive.
The good news is, you don’t have to make your own oak barrel as you can find many reputable makers online today. But as always, you need to do a bit of working finding the right maker for you. You can do this on the web as well, focusing on customer reviews. However, read only from well-known independent consumer websites for genuine testimonials, instead of marketing websites that feature misleading reviews.