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Issue 34 - Lets do the char char

Whisky Magazine Issue 34
October 2003


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Lets do the char char

The cask plays a major role in the flavour of whisky. Ian Wisnieski takes a closer look at how they end up sitting in a warehouse for years

Contributing up to 70 per cent of a malt's flavour, the cask is a vital factor, but in the course of its life-time a cask offers varying maturation influences and has, of course, already led an active life before reaching Scotland.

The vast majority of casks used to mature Scotch malt and grain whisky are American oak, typically fashioned from 40-100 year-old trees harvested in Missouri, Kentucky and Tennessee.

The type of soil in which the oak is grown and the manner in which it is dried (kiln drying versus air-drying) are also influential, and provide distillers with further criteria. Glenmorangie, for example, uses oak from the Ozark Mountains in Missouri, where a combination of low rainfall and poor soil fosters slow growth, which in turn promotes the level of vanillin.

Air-drying for two years breaks down the oak tannins reducing astringency, and enabling cask-driven oxidation to occur more effectively. This in turn heightens the maturation potential of what are referred to as ‘designer' casks, yielding more vanilla and other aromatics.

Charring bourbon barrels on the inside is standard practice, but the terminology used to specify the degree of charring isn't, with terms such as ‘light' and ‘heavy' alternating with a scale of one to four.

Moreover, the same term may not have exactly the same meaning at different cooperages.

A number one char is typically referred to as burnt toast, while a number four resembles a certain predator's hide, which explains why i...

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