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Issue 112 - The art of wood

Whisky Magazine Issue 112
June 2013

 

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The art of wood

From a big operation to a one man band, we bring the art of the cooper into focus

When you stop to think about it there are lots of things that are iconic about the whisky industry: from the pagodas and often breathtaking locations, to the bottlings and the stills.

But there is one item that without which whisky would simply not be whisky, the cask.

Of course to be called Scotch whisky, the spirit must have been matured in oak casks in Scotland for a minimum of three years. However there are more than just legal reasons for using oak.

While there is a certain amount of magic bestowed on the work of the stills in forming the spirit, it is the complex interaction between wood, spirit and time that gives whisky it's colour and most of its character.

It is oak's complex chemistry that makes it the ideal vessel for maturation.

Its make up includes cellulose, hemicellulose (which helps bring sweetness and colour to the spirit), lignin (which helps produce vanilla like notes and increases complexity) and tannins (which give astringency, fragrance and also delicacy).

Add a certain water tightness to this mix and you have something that moves beyond a mere container.

Oak also helps, through oxidation by allowing air into the cask. This helps to remove undesirable flavours and harshness, increasing the flavour and complexity of the final whisky.

However you have to open the wood up to get at all this good stuff, and this is where the art of the cooper comes in.

Once the cask is made, its inner surface is then either toasted (effectively gently burning the s...

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