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Issue 121 - Over a Barrel

Whisky Magazine Issue 121
July 2014


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Over a Barrel

Seáneen Sullivan looks at food producers using the traditional art of barrel ageing to create new flavours

Whisky maturation is a beautiful kind of alchemy. The heady, often fiery new make spirit is placed in an oak cask. Over time a transformation occurs; a conversation between the wood and the liquid. The flavours that were once bound tightly within the trunk of a tree are released, softening the spirit, while any undesirable flavours evident in the new make are removed, transformed by the oak. Wood seems to hold endless intrigue for the whisky aficionado and distiller alike. Experiments abound: quarter casks, sonic maturation, ocean ageing, finishing, rejuvenation: all means of extracting flavour from the wood and transferring it to the whisky.

Yet, distillers are not alone in prizing wood influence. There is a rich tradition of foods aged in wood. Historically everything from sauerkraut, fish, meat, vegetables and even eggs were aged in barrels. Many traditional regional dishes include wood aged produce. A few years ago in a fit of bravado I agreed to try Surströmming. It comprised herring fermented in wooden barrels, a traditional Swedish delicacy that boasted a putrid aroma and rancid flavour reminiscent of rotten eggs and well aged garbage. The original motivation for the use of barrels in ageing food was likely practical rather than flavour driven. Barrels helped regulate temperature and keep out vermin, as well as being a convenient means of transportation. However a growing number of modern food producers are discovering oak as a means of adding flavour and mouthfeel t...

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