Who doesn’t love oak?
Oak trees are magnificent trees that not only grow to dramatic proportions and add immeasurably to our city’s beautiful canopy, but they also enchant by allowing moss to establish a presence, which adds to our reputation as a strangely weird, unique environment.
To be honest, many aspects of life in New Orleans add to that reputation, but for now let’s stick to the oak discussion, okay?
Oak is also an ingredient in the production of two quite diverse adult beverages. The product of fermentation, wine and the final stage of distillation, whiskey, both make extensive use of oak, not quite in the same way but each important to what we pour into our cocktail glasses or stemware.
We consumers know the wood has been there but why? How much? From where? And who the heck started this whole oak thing in the first place? Did they just need a place to park the new liquid until someone came around to drink the stuff?
For those who have visited historic sites in the ancient world of the Romans and the Greeks, you have seen the amphorae, clay pots that were used to store wines and beers. These were usually buried in the ground to take advantage of the cooler soils several feet into the earth. Yeasts being what they are, a hot amphora is an invitation to, at best, a bad brew and at worst, an exploding pot. Not good.
So what happened to the culture of clay pots? The Egyptians happened, that’s what. They discovered around 2600 B.C. that wooden barrels were easier to transport because of less breakage, and they actually imparted a softening quality to the beverage inside. That even included milk, water and olive oil. By the beginning of the second century B.C. wooden barrels had almost completely replaced clay amphora for the storage and transport of liquids.
One of the other major advantages in storing alcoholic beverages in wooden barrels is that the product that eventually emerged was aromatically and tastefully superior to the raw juice which never spent time in wood. The wood-touched liquid was softer, rounder, more complex, and more pleasurable. And while, over the past three hundred years, we have better defined the recipe for how to use wood in aging procedures, we have never improved on the basic truth, or even found a reasonable substitute, from 4,000 years ago that most wines and spirits improve after coming into contact with wood.
Even today, for aging and/or storage, some winemakers are eager to use a cheaper alternative, like stainless steel or ceramic, which can be properly cleaned and used over and over again, but they continue to employ some form of oak, like wood chips or oak strips placed into the new wine, during the aging process to achieve the same interesting results as they could expect from using oak barrels.
To be sure, oak is a natural product. Some oak trees from certain places are better than others for the purpose of influencing young wines and spirits. French oak is highly regarded, particularly from the forests of Tronçais or Limousin, both located in the very heart of France. American oak is also a desired product but ironically usually not for American wines. The Spanish love American oak as do winemakers in Chile and Argentina. American oak is also demanded by law for whisky distillers in Kentucky. Another good spot to look for oak is Hungary.
Each of these areas provides wood for skilled barrel makers, and depending on the grain of the oak and the sugar content of the resins, each of these areas brings something a bit different to the aging process of alcoholic beverages.
Usually the barrels are charred, that is a fire is built inside the almost fully-constructed barrel and the resins are caramelized so that in the interaction of the liquid with the inside of the barrel, a certain level of smoky and sugared components come into play. The level of charring in a barrel is defined by the purchaser, the winemaker or the Master Distiller, at the time they are requisitioning barrels.
Are new barrels expensive? Many winemakers are shelling out more than $1,100 per French wine barrel and a medium-size winery will be purchasing as many as 200 or so in any given year. A usual plan is to use each barrel for about three years then rotate them out of the winemaking program. At the end of three years, a barrel will have given up, on the average, more than 90% of its oak components.
In Kentucky, as noted, all barrels must be made of American oak, white, to be specific, and they must be new. Bourbon itself has no color, and so the tawny tints that most bourbons exhibit come from the barrels, which have, like wine barrels, been charred with fire.
One of the key components of oak barrels is their ability to allow a certain exchange of air to take place between the liquid within and the atmosphere outside. This is important for the development of the product, but it is also important for this exchange to take place slowly and in a controlled fashion. New barrels are manufactured in such a way that the staves do not exactly meet. When those barrels are cleaned and flushed with water after shipping, the staves swell and seal the seams. Still there is space in these seams for air to touch the wine or spirit.
In the movement of the barrels around the winery, or as used to happen aboard a sailing ship being tossed on the waves, the liquid moves around and every drop comes into contact with the interior charred wood of the barrel stays and the round sections at either end. Winemakers and distillers can custom order different charring levels of the barrel’s interior therefore accomplishing the precise style of finished product they desire and their fruit or grain can benefit from. Sometimes different charring levels are ordered for the stays and another level is ordered for the end pieces.
Lately we have seen even more research into this aspect of making adult beverages. A distiller, Buffalo Trace Distillery, experimented with using smaller barrels in three different sizes, 5, 10 and 15 gallon. After six years, they announced the project was a failure and abandoned the effort.
Some producers of Chardonnay wines are now releasing their wines in an unoaked condition. Consumers seem to be in mild revolt against the influence of too much oak presence.
The consumer consensus seems to be that oak is important, but “don’t hit me up the side of the head with it.” South Louisiana’s proclivity to rearrange the English language sometimes is precisely what one wants to communicate.
On a different note…
I will be a celebrity bartender from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Nov. 13, at Dijon Restaurant (1379 Annunciation) in the Lower Garden District. There will be special drinks and special pricing on wine, all to raise money for the SPCA. Good cause and good beverages.