Last two weeks, I visited Hungary, Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Poland. The goal? To learn more about barrel making. And to see if we can bring something new to the market place. Why? Because there’s demand for good barrels. And because we have a great network of iStill Distilleries all over the world that all seem to have one goal in mind (apart from making a good living) and that’s to help the craft further by making ever better drinks.
Now, if 50 to 65% of the taste of a whiskey comes from the barrel … doesn’t that barrel deserve more attention? I feel it does, so here we go. Not sure where this will end up yet. But I do know I learned a lot, so let’s start there. With what I learned.
Wine Makers versus Whiskey Makers
“What intrigues me,” says the first Master Cooper I met, “is that wine makers know so much more about the barrels they want to use for their products than whiskey makers do!” Now, that’s an eye opener, isn’t it? I know it was for me!
Pretty much all Master Coopers I met confirmed this: people that produce wine are anal about the barrels they buy and use. Who was the cooper, what wood was it made from, what region did that wood come from, how was it dried, for how long was it dried, how old the tree was … and so on. Contrairy, whiskey makers seem to be interested in getting their hands on barrels. Instead of “my wine needs to age in the best barrel to get me the best final product”, the paradigm in whiskey making seems to be more like this: “I need barrels, because my product needs to barrel age before I can call it whiskey”. Good barrels for sure. Maybe American White Oak because the goal is a Bourbon. Maybe a Sherry Cask, because that’s the final touch the Master Distiller wants to add to his spirit. But no distiller I ever met talked passionately about how the barrel was coopered or on where the tree grew that provided the wood for it. Wine makers talk about it all the time, distillers don’t.
Why this baffles me? Because only 10 to 20% of the taste of wine comes from the wood, whereas 50 to 65% of the taste of whiskey comes from the barrel. Given that huge difference, why don’t whiskey makers get all passionate about wood, about their cooper, about the wood they use? Is it a lack of knowledge? For sure it can’t be a lack of interest. If there’s one place where a distillery can make a difference in quality, tastewise, when making whiskey, it is by choosing the right barrels …
Species of wood
Basic understanding has it that oak is the best source for barrels. Cherry, chestnut, hickory, even apple can add specific notes, but fundatmentally, as agreed upon by all Master Coopers I met, you need oak for ageing. But what variety? In general there are two choices: American White Oak (AWO) or European Oak (EUO). The big difference? AWO grows faster, has less tanins and more vanilins. EUO grows slower, has more tanins and (slightly) less vanilins. What that means taste wise? Simpy put (because there’s more to come) vanilins give sweetness, where tanins give character. That’s why AWO gives a smooth, sweet, vanilin taste to your whiskey, where EUO ageing results in a less sweet yet more characterful product. Some Master Coopers that worked with both species claimed AWO to be easier to work than EUO, but with the trade-off that EUO gives a much deeper, multi-dimensional taste. “Depending on terroir!” they added.
“Terroir” is French and means so much as “location” or “terrain”. Terroir is a notion that derives from wine making. It explains why one winery, situated next to another one, is capable of making better wines. “Terroir” is the explanation: their property has more sun, better soil, better drainage, better microclimate, etc.
Terroir, I learned, has a massive impact on the oak trees used for barrel making. Terroir is pretty much everything. Here’s why. Imagine a grapevine growing at a certain location. The vine sucks in water. With the help of that water, and the minerals present in that water, it grows grapes. The grapes are used for the wine. How terroir has an impact on the wine? That vine had access to a specific sort of water with a specific mineral balance and taste. That shines through in the final product.
Does the same hold through for oak? Yes it does! Where a grapevine sucks in water for like a year, prior to releasing its goodies (the grapes), oak trees grow for a hundred years and more. How much water a one hundred year old oak tree uses? Ready to be flabbergasted? Here we go: 300 to 400 liters … per day!
If terroir has an impact on grapes and wines, just imagine what it can do for that oak tree, your barrel, and your whiskey!
Highland Oak versus Lowland Oak
Luckily, I learned that the question of terroir can be addressed quite easily. No need for elaborate chemical analyses, no need to give special minerals to the trees while they grow.
Basically put, European Oak (EUO) that grows on high, mountainous places is better than the trees that grow in lowland conditions. Why? For two reasons. The first one has to do with the (higher) mineral content of the water in mountainous regions. Oaks that grow on mountain sides drink better tasting water. Now, if you remember that each tree drinks around 300 to 400 liters a day, you can easily understand that this makes a big difference. 350 liters per day at 200 days per year equals 70,000 liters per year. An oak tree, over a one hundred year life span, consumes around 350,000,000 liters of water in total!
The second reason why highland oak is better has to do with its growing circumstances. Where lowland oak meets easy to grow in soil and has plenty of sunshine, highland oak has to work hard to survive and grow. Hardship builds character, and that character shines through in your barrel, and, finally, in your whiskey.
What forest should the oak trees for my barrels come from?
There are four oak forests in Europe that are considered to deliver the best oak for EUO barrel making. Three of them are situated in France: Limousin, Troncais, and Voges. Of these the oak from the Voges is considered best, because it is the most mountainous region from which the French harvest their oak trees. The fourth and best EUO forest? The Zemplén region of Hungary.
Abstract so far
Barrels are responsible for 50 to 65% of the taste of your whiskey. Barrels are made from oak. Not all oak is created equal. If you want sweetness and vanila, choose American White Oak. If you want character and complexity, you need European Oak. Which barrels you need, if character and complexity is your goal? The ones made from EUO from Hungary’s Zemplén region. But there’s more. We didn’t dive into the role of the Master Cooper yet. And what age should the trees be, that are used by these Master Coopers? How should they be treated? What size barrel do you need, and what are the advantages and disadvantages of charring and toasting? Stay with me. I will post more about that tomorrow!