There should be no surprise to know that whenever whiskey lovers or wine geeks gather to discuss what’s in the glass at the moment, inevitably the discussion turns to wood. More specifically, oak. So what is that all about? Wood in a beverage discussion? Is this our inner-termite coming out?
It’s most interesting how crazy-expensive adult beverages, created with completely different manufacturing techniques from wildly different raw products, destined for different times of use, can have something so important in common: barrels made of oak.
Is it the process that demands the use of oak when creating the beverage, or is it the preferences of the end-user? There is no denying the use of oak in the fermentation of most wines, and all the high-end wines and the distillation of classic spirits must all pass through the storage-in-oak stage.
In the interest of clarity and simplicity, let’s divide the question and see how oak is used to create more sophisticated and pleasurable beverages.
Looking back to ancient Mesopotamia and to the Roman Empire, there was a desire to spread the civilization. Staying in one place, even back then, was not a viable option because conquest was sexier than defense.
The Mesopotamians, the original wine geeks, stored wine in palm wood barrels primarily due to the light weight of the wood. Wine is a heavy liquid and carting the wine to the point of consumption was arduous. Keep in mind that wine back in ancient times was the primary daily drinking beverage. Milk from animals did not last without refrigeration and water was almost always polluted. Did you think that humans messing with the environment was a “modern” menace? Nope.
Along come the Romans and their empire expansion programs. They used clay amphora, large vessels, to transport wine often which were heavier than the wine and easily broken or cracked.
Throughout the ancient world there were forests, many of oak and pine. Pine imparted to the wine resins, which completely changed the liquid. Oak, on the other hand, is not a sap-dominated wood and it offered the possibilities for an excellent aging and transportation vessel, swelling and sealing leaks when the liquid was placed into the barrel. Today, we also understand the essential exchange of air, which takes place between the interior and exterior of the barrels. This aspect allows for wine to mature properly and slowly.
There was also the benefit of a more developed taste on the palate along with the portability factor.
Today, more than 2500 years later, we store wine in three types of oak. French oak is the most desired, imparting to the wine a light vanilla character. American oak, preferred by Spanish and South American winemakers, in addition to vanilla also brings a little coconut to the final mix. And Eastern European oak, which is not as complicated or as tight-grained as the previously noted oaks but offers the significant advantage of lower material cost.
All barrels today are actually “toasted” over fire, which seals the internal sap present within the staves and the firing process creates yet more flavor and aromatic dimensions in the wines to be fermented, aged, and stored in the barrels.
Whiskey, and we will be limiting our discussion here to Bourbon and Scotch, also focuses on the same woods that the wine industry uses. But in Whiskey’s case, used barrels, usually shunned by the wine industry after three or five years of constant use, are sought after.
The real exception is American Bourbon production which by law must use barrels constructed of new American White Oak, and then only for one-time use. After that the barrels are sold to other distilleries, such as those in Scotland, or to distilleries that don’t make whiskey. Brandies, sherry and cognacs, along with other long-aging products, are ideal second-use outlets for the Bourbon barrels.
Lately, because of cost, we have seen experimentation with aging in neutral vessels, some made from concrete or ceramic, into which are placed oak staves in a lower quantity than constructing an entire barrel, or oak chips in a pouch placed into the newly fermented or distilled alcohol product.
Which brings us to the answer as to whether oak is a great manufacturing additive or if the end-user, namely you, demands the taste profile created by the oak. The definitive answer is both. The wine or spirit is a better expression with oak influence, and you, the consumer, appreciates what oak brings to the party.
Even with the rise of unoaked Chardonnay wine, which is the winemakers’ recent response to the consumer complaint that there was too much oak used in the fermentation and storage stages, that particular style of wine sells less than 4% of all the Chardonnay on the market.
In reality, a mere drop of wine in the barrel of what consumers want to drink to slake their thirst for interesting and multi-faceted beverages.
Read Happy Hour here on www.myneworleans.com every Wednesday, and listen to The Dine, Wine and Spirits Show, hosted by Tim, every weekday, 3:00 – 5:00 p.m. on WGSO 990AM and streamed as well as stored (podcast), at www.wgso.com. Also, check out Last Call, Tim’s photo-feature every month in New Orleans Magazine.