Whisky Magazine Issue 2
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Sixty per cent of the flavour of malt whisky comes from the wood in which it is aged, says Dave Broom-but what does American oak do that European oak doesn't? And what real effects does a fino cask have?
Virtually every malt distiller, these days, sends some whisky to finishing school. This takes the form of giving it a final polish in barrels made of a particular sort of wood. The influence of these different types of wood on a malt's flavour is a recognized fact; but it wasn't always so. For centuries barrels were simply handy things to keep spirit in.
Quite when oak barrels were first used to store whisky isn't known. The spirit that the early Scottish distillers made would have either been drunk as it came off the still, or stored in stone jars. Barrels only appeared when larger-scale production started at the end of the eighteenth century – but the Scottish and Irish expatriates who were the fathers of American whiskey used barrels from the word go, which implies prior knowledge of their use.
In fact, oak and whisky may go back even further than we have previously thought. If you accept the theory that whisky was a Celtic invention,
then you should also accept that barrels would have been used - after all, it was the Celts who were the first coopers.
Whatever its origins, the use of oak casks started in earnest when whisky began to be widely drunk. Distillers and innkeepers needed larger containers to store and transport it – and while Americans used barrels made from new oak, in Scotland casks previously used for wine, sherry, port and rum were pressed into service.
At some point it was noticed that oak changed the character of whisky. In America, whiskey had t...