It’s a long process to go from grains to cask, cask to personalized whiskey decanter, and decanter to your customized whiskey glass. Have you ever wondered how the maturation process affects your whiskey? Why are oak casks used? How does cask freshness affect the process? Does climate have any bearing on the finished whiskey? Here is what you need to know about casks and the whiskey maturation process.
Aging vs. Maturing
Many may use maturing and aging interchangeably, but there is a difference in the whiskey world. Aging is simply whiskey getting old. It’s the literal meaning. Maturing, however, is the whiskey changing and developing over time. Maturing typically happens in a cask, while aging is in a bottle, where it won’t interact or take on flavor.
What Is Finish?
Finishing refers to taking the whiskey from the original cask into a second one. Sometimes it’s then moved to a third cask. Finishing allows the whiskey to take on the flavors of the bourbon or wine, such as port or sherry, that was in the first cask while not sitting in it for too long. The first cask generally determines the overall flavors in the whiskey itself, as they are more evident. Finishing it in a sherry, port, or Madeira cask can often impart a fruity sweetness while bringing out the vanilla spice from the oak wood. Bourbon barrels give more of a caramel smoothness, and charred barrels impart a smoky flavor.
Why Oak Casks?
Oak has no resin channels and is considered pure wood. This means no unwanted aromas transfer from the wood into the distillate. It also means it’s porous and lets the barrel breathe, which is needed for the whiskey to soak into the wood and take on flavor. Because it’s porous, the whiskey interacts with the wood on a molecular level. Specifically, it interacts with degraded lignin, lactones, and tannins. The first two give sweet and creamy flavors with wood tones. Tannins give the whisky dry, spicy notes. The downside is that because the barrel breathes, it releases an “angel’s share” of the liquid into the air through the pores in the wood. You won’t need to “pour one out” of your personalized whiskey decanter for the distillers, as it’s already been done in the barrels.
Casks are often used more than once. A first-fill cask will impart flavor faster and will have a more pronounced influence on the whiskey than a third-fill. The trick is preventing the flavors of a first-fill cask from dominating the spirit, which can result in a dry, woody whiskey. Older casks can be rejuvenated to an extent by removing an old inner charcoal layer and charring the inside again. This releases vanillin and caramel taste back into the wood.
Casks can sometimes be used six times, though generally, most don’t go past four. The magic sweet spot for Scotch is the second fill. The interactive process plays out more. The additive process doesn’t become overbearing and doesn’t upset the balance after a first use. A single malt might be matured in a second-fill cask for 15 to 25 years, producing some of the finest Scotch on the market that can then fill your personalized whiskey decanter.
The American bourbon in your personalized whiskey decanter has only been in a cask made from American oak, or quercus alba, and the oak was a virgin cask. This is a legal requirement to be called bourbon in America. It can still be whiskey if the cask is refilled a second time, but it isn’t bourbon. This means most casks are used only once by American distilleries. They are often sold to Scottish distillers, who are more than happy to buy them and use them for Scotch. They are far more affordable than ex-sherry casks, making them attractive to distillers around the world, as well.
Provenance and History of the Cask
Most casks used for whiskey have already been “seasoned” by maturing another liquid. This is especially true for Scotch. Other common liquids include bourbon, sherry, and port. This soaks into the wood. As previously mentioned, the whiskey also soaks into the wood, and the previous liquid lends flavors and characteristics to it. While, traditionally, virgin oak was shunned for Scotch, it has recently been used as a finishing cask. Distilleries looking for short maturation times to help bring their spirits to the market sooner also use them.
Cask Size Matters
Cask size matters when it comes to the ratio of the surface area of the wood to the volume of the spirit in the container. Smaller casks have a larger ratio of contact surface area to the liquid, so the wood will influence the whiskey faster. Larger casks need more time to mature the whiskey. There are three different common cask sizes: Barrels, which are between 180 and 200 liters; hogsheads, which are 250 liters; and butts, which are 500 liters.
How Climate Affects Maturation
From Tennessee to Scotland, Australia to Japan, climate can greatly affect the maturation process of whiskey. It’s not easy for distilleries to control the climate, but instead they must deal with the climate where they build or inherit a warehouse. Scotland has a consistently cool and damp climate, which impacts whiskey differently than Kentucky, where it’s dry and hot. India, which is starting to break into the wider world of whiskey, has hot and humid conditions. Cool climates let whiskey age longer, much like a low-and-slow roast, while hotter climates are much faster. Warmer climates also create sweeter whiskey compared to colder climates. Because of how whiskey evaporates in hotter climates, it’s also higher proof.
The climates within a distillery’s warehouse can have an impact. A distillery might rotate casks through the warehouse. They move them vertically by changing where the cask is on the rack. This utilizes the warmer temperatures at the top of the warehouse. This, as mentioned, can influence how sweet the whiskey is, and what proof it is, all by putting the barrel higher on the rack.
About Crystal Imagery
Eric Schuchart started the hobby of making personalized engraved glasses for his friends and family in 2001. The glasses were met with rave reviews. In 2013, Schuchart decided to turn the passion project into a full-time job, so Sherri Blum, a noted interior designer for celebrities, joined him, and Crystal Imagery was born. Now, Crystal Imagery utilizes two etching techniques. The first is a deep etching technique that produces a depth and shadow in the glass that traditional rotary surface etching methods can’t match. The second is a UV laser etching, which offers a clear, crisp etching that cuts the surface, unlike CO2 lasers. Using these two innovative methods, Crystal Imagery offers personalized whiskey glasses, customized beer glasses, flasks, crystal ice buckets, wine glasses, and various other glassware options to drink lovers worldwide.
Get glassware for your whiskey, no matter how it was matured, at https://crystalimagery.com/