The Barrel, The Char, And The Whiskey
Updated: Nov 4, 2021
Have you ever kissed someone after they had a sip of whiskey? Those caramel flavors linger on your lips and tongue, enticing you to either kiss them again or get your own glass? Ever wonder where those fantastic flavors come from?
Well, I did; and since I drink whiskey and probably too much of it, I thought it was time to learn the science behind my favorite drink.
I often drink my whiskey over ice. That’s how I like it. Some would argue that the ice waters it down. Listen, if the whiskey is in the glass long enough to get watered down, you shouldn’t be drinking whiskey.
And while I enjoy this smooth liquor like one may enjoy a man's body, the work that goes into making it taste so unbelievably delicious is no ordinary feat.
Many arguments are going on now on just what makes a bourbon or a whiskey. I’m not surprised. The importance of whiskey goes back to the beginning of time. Well, almost. Back in the day, whiskey was used as a currency. Workers were paid in whiskey rations, and people paid their tithes to church in whiskey rations. Man, now that would be my kind of church.
Just so you know, bourbon is whiskey. All bourbon is whiskey, but not all whiskey is bourbon. Bourbon must be made with 51% corn. Bourbon is distilled from fermented grain mash – varieties of grain mash include wheat, rye, barley, and corn.
It can’t have any flavor or color additives. Just the mash. It must also be between 80 and 160 proof. If these guidelines are not followed, it cannot call itself a bourbon.
The whiskey (bourbon) must be aged in new white oak barrels. (Never been used before barrels.) An American oak can be cut down after 70 years.
Once the barrels are shaped, they are charred. The longer the wood is charred, the richer the flavors of the whiskey. The charring causes the wood to break down, thus resulting in the formation of sugars which then caramelize and the Lignin to partially convert into Vanillin.
The charring does a couple of other things as well. It forms a thin layer of carbon. This layer keeps the oiliness from the corn from seeping into the whiskey. Charring also makes the elements from the barrel more accessible during the aging process.
These barrels can be used again. Just not in the United States. By law, a barrel can only be used once. Scotland imports most of their barrels from the US. They “rejuvenate” the wood allowing the barrels to be used for another 30 – 40 years. However, the more a barrel is used, the less it will flavor the whiskey.
The size of the barrel makes a difference during the aging (maturation) process as well. (Damn if size doesn’t matter.) The whiskey matures at a faster rate in small casks.
The whiskey is clear when it enters the barrels. Whether a small or large cask is used, this entire process is where the whiskey gets its coloring and flavors. Obviously, the longer you let the whiskey age, the more the flavors from the wood seep into the liquor.
The barrels are stored in multi-level warehouses called RICKHOUSES. These structures are rarely climate controlled. During the shifts in outside temperatures and conditions, the wood expands and contracts. This imparts the different flavors into the whiskey.
Subsequently, the hotter the temperature, the more pores in the wood open. Barrels stored at the top of the rickhouse have slightly different flavors than those closer to the ground.
Now, unlike wines, once the whiskey is bottled, it ceases to age. Aging only occurs in the barrel. It will take some time for the whiskey to lose its flavor. It won’t degrade as quickly as an open bottle of wine. However, over time, the whiskey will lose some of its richness. Once you open that bottle, drink it.
I have heard some say that whiskey burns. That’s why they don’t like to drink it straight. They prefer the mixed whiskey drinks. Let me explain that burn. Your tongue, that incredible muscle that imparts so much pleasure, can also trick you into thinking you are experiencing pain. As in when you drink whiskey. Particularly for the first time.
Your tongue has two times more pain receptors than taste buds. The ethanol in the whiskey is what “burns.” Those pain receptors are telling your brain the body is experiencing pain. Because of that, you miss out on the flavor.
However, all is not lost. There is one simple thing you can do to help you enjoy whiskey...DRINK MORE WHISKEY.
So, the next time you mosey up to a bar, order a glass of whiskey.
Some of my favorite whiskeys (American & others): Jack Daniels, Glenlivet, Old Forrester, Bulleit, Crown Royal, and Elijah Craig.
If you enjoyed this post, grab a glass of whiskey and snap a picture and email it to me at firstname.lastname@example.org, and I will post it on my website. Then go kiss someone. Nothing like the taste of whiskey on a pair of lips.
And yes, I drank several glasses of whiskey while writing this post.