Whisky Magazine Issue 25
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While oak ageing is an historic tradition, wood management is a far more recent discipline. The benefits of oak ageing have long been appreciated, rather than understood, but it's only since the 1970s /80s that technical knowledge has supplanted anecdotal theories. With the continual advance of analytical techniques revealing the extent of oak's influence during maturation, the growing focus on malts, as well as longer maturation terms, wood management has become key.
The archetypal ‘maturation mandate' is to reach a balance between the beneficial characteristics gained from the oak, while also retaining and developing the individual ‘distillery character' embodied in new make spirit. As oak ageing can account for up to 60 to 70% of a malt's eventual flavour, or around 40% in the case of heavy peating, it's a variable balancing act.
Because different malts have varying ageing potential, longer maturation does not guarantee a finer malt. It's a case of variations on a theme: yielding different expressions at different ages, as the oak influence intensifies. Moreover, the appeal of a malt may be a case of ‘less is more,' or ‘more is more'. The ‘right age' depends on your own palate.
“Younger whiskies can have great enthusiasm, then after about 10 years you start to get a real mellowing out and balance; for me the balance is complete within 15 to 20 years,” says Jim McEwan, Bruichladdich's malt maestro. “At 20 years the oak starts to really exert its i...