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Scotch Whisky’s Obsession With Wood

by Oliver Klimek on April 29, 2013

It all started with Glenmorangie. They may not have been the first distillery to have tried this, but with the launch of their wood finish series in the 1990s the concept of multiple cask maturation of whisky was established in the industry. Competitors were reluctant first, but when it became clear that the new range was more than a short fad, others followed the example.

Notably Edradour and Bruichladdich along with their affiliated independent bottler Murray McDavid were among the first who embraced cask finishing, at times creating the impression that no wine or spirit cask was safe from their experiments which prompted reactions ranging from enthusiam to disgust.

More and more distilleries began to offer cask finishings or multiple maturations. The Balvenie Doublewood has even become the standard entry level bottling of that distillery, and Diageo’s Distillers Editions are strongholds in their product portfolio as well. Today we are hard pressed to name a distillery that has not done such bottlings yet.

While the use of multiple casks for maturation was originally intented to infuse the whisky with flavours of other drinks, the experiments have not stopped here. Focus is more and more on the wood itself rather than on the previous liquid contained in the cask. This industry trend has become so prominent that one could wonder if the spirit itself has become secondary.

The days where “any cask that was not leaking was a good cask”, as one distllery manager put it, are gone for good. Today, distilleries create jobs called “Master of Wood”, Glenmorangie grows the wood for their casks in the Ozark Mountains where oaks supposedly grow particularly slow. And Macallan and Dalmore proudly report about their custom-seasoned sherry casks made for them in Jerez.

Oh yes, since transport sherry casks are no longer available, sherry casks used in the Scotch whisky industry are usually custom-made. The romantic notion of genuinity and cask recycling has nothing to do with the reality where sherry casks are tailored to order in Spain. And the sherry used for “seasoning” the casks may be used for sherry vinegar afterwards. Of course in a way this is a legal cheat, but it gives the distillers greater control of the result. If it were not for that dreaded sulphur… But that is a different story.

The use of fresh or “virgin” oak casks for Scotch whisky – unthinkable of a few decades ago – is something completely normal nowadays. Such casks are used for finishing purposes or even for complete maturation like in the Bunnahabhain Darach Ur. Also smaller cask sizes have been used lately, like the 125 litre quarter casks or even the tiny 40 litre blood tubs. Extreme “Alligator” cask charring has been tried as well.

Looking at currently available bottlings of Sotch whisky, there is a remarakble number that feature “wood” in some way. Laphroaig Quarter Cask, Triple wood, PX Cask; Balvenie Doublewood, Auchentoshan Three Wood, Springwood, Heartwood; Bunnahabhain Darach Ur; Ardbeg Alligator; Glenmorangie Ealanta. The list goes on.

Why has wood become so important today?

Something is very strange here. Many experienced whisky lovers think very highly of bottlings from the past. Old Ardbegs, Bowmores, Macallans, Taliskers and even old standard blends bottled in the 1960s and 1970s are highly sought after, not only because of their rarity, but not the least because of their quality. And this was the time when wood mattered much less than today. In addition to that many of these whiskies were bottled younger than today. The Aberlour 8 yo in the square bottle is one of those classics, or the Macallan 7 year old. It seems that whisky matured quicker back then.

At least part of the answer lies in the barley. The higher the impact of the wood, the lower the relative impact of the spirit. Or to put it the other way around: It the spirit is weaker, you need more wood impact to get a decent whisky.

Today’s barley varieties have a much higher alcohol yield than the ones used decades ago. The alcohol yield is equvialent of the amount of raw starch convertible to sugar in the grain. But if you have more starch, you must have less of the other things that make up a grain of barley: mainly proteins, minerals and fats. The starch gives us the ethanol in the spirit. Its flavour is determined by those other components. Even though the chemistry behind fermentation and distillation is extremely complex it boils down to a simple equation: More alcohol, less flavour.

Six year old whisky in the 1960s was good enough to give standard blends a remarkable quality. Today’s standard blends have the same age but taste rougher and much less mature.

Most modern single malt whisky is now aged 10 years or longer. Or perhaps we should say “used to be”. Because the pendulum ist beginning to swing back again towards shorter maturation times. The number of no age statement bottlings has been steadily increasing in recent years, and many of those feature “modern wood” as explained above.

The astonishing creativity of whisky makers in using different casks for maturation is without a doubt connected to the desire to bottle whisky at a younger age (trying to ‘save’ weak casks with strong finishes is another incentive). But of course wood extraction is not the same as maturation. Some processes inside the cask have nothing to do with wood, and they take time even when you try to speed up things by the clever use of wood. This does not necessarily mean that such wood-driven whiskies are worse than spirit-driven ones. Some of them are actually wonderful. But if this trend goes on, it will be harder and harder to find good spirit-driven whiskies.

{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

Jordan April 29, 2013 at 7:05 pm

What’s interesting is to look at distillers like Kilchoman that manage to achieve depth after only a few years in wood. This tends to suggest that careful selection of malt, fermentation, and distilling can achieve a lot on their own. While I think that’s a more difficult task for unpeated whiskies, it’s an interesting data point in the discussion.

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Christoph April 30, 2013 at 5:59 am

“The starch gives us the ethanol in the spirit. Its flavour is determined by those other components. But if you have more starch, you must have less of the other things that make up a grain of barley: mainly proteins, minerals and fats. ”

I really believe in that as well as a contributing, if not even a major factor.
Unfortunately, the more recent experiments with older barley types such as Bere, should show some of those heavy old-school notes & complexity we all love so much if that were the ne tru main factor.
But it seems Arran & Bruichladdich Bere bottlings show very little of those and are rather ‘modern’ as well. So there must be much more to the flavours of old (coal heating, less industrial/perfect malting w more variance, how the still is run, etc), and Kilchoman shows that for example longer fermentation times (since they are one of the few with 100+hrs) can increase the quality of the spirit and produce pleasant 3-5 year old whiskies even nowadays.
I whole heartedly agree though that the industry should focus much more on the taste through other means than wood, especially since this could enable them to achieving complex whisky at the 5-8 year mark again, which nowadays seems to be impossible (although there is the occasional single cask that stands out).
c.

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Oliver Klimek May 3, 2013 at 10:37 pm

I have tasted the Arran Bere and I was amazed about its maturity at that young age. But I agree that it does not tase like an old-style malt. As you said, many other things have changed as well. I have touched this subject in my latest Malt Maniacs E-pistle as well. But also keep in mind that bere barley was not used for whisky in the mid-20th century.

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Christoph May 4, 2013 at 4:13 am

True, Golden Promise would have been the better example for 60s to 80s period ;), but the declared Golden Promise only distillate bottlings I tried failed to leave a mark with me, whereas Bere actually showed very interesting facets.

I still find it strange though that there’s no active research being done (as far as I heard) by the Industry regarding the ‘heavy’ / complex flavours of old as it should be in their interest as well to have better/more-interesting spirit in favour of being slightly less economical in terms of yield or fermentation times… after all, whisky is meant to be a product mostly concerned about the taste experience and the recent rise in customers-accepted-pricing (if the quality is up there… which is not often the case unfortunately imo…) this should enable slightly less economic production for a better product I would hope.

One other factor playing into this as well might be that some of the influential figures/blenders of the last decades prefer the focused/loud malts as you call it in your e-pistle (as well as some unusual notes, i.e. very tannic/medicinal/salty/earthy seem to be actively eradicated from the flavour landscape over the last 20 years so I tend to believe that these are unwanted… best example would be Islay, where everything nowadays tastes like a smoke room (wood smoke), and the main 5 have become fairly indistinguishable from each other…).
A funny statement I recently saw that made me think about this again was some Paterson banter about the soft, elegant & refined characteristics of modern blends:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PRvWhJ7TDBU
in comparison to “…a good whisky of a past era…. but a heavy style…”
Which gets me riles up how he makes it sound as if the disappearance of the heavy highland style is a good thing; whereas I know what most of the people I know who love whisky would prefer of the 2…
Then again, the new blend might be ‘his’ product and the older isn’t, so this could be a mixture of personal preference as well as politics/self-righteousness. Only he would know though…

Also, regarding ‘complexity’ of old, one argument that wasn’t mentioned in your e-pistle was ‘overdressing’ a vat for OBs of old (the Springbank 21 of the 90s is a prime example where +30yo old casks were added on a regular basis or so the rumours go…) opposed to the Complexity By Design / designer cask vats of today.
However that can’t really be the case either to explain complexity of old as there are a few examples of 5-10yo OBs from the early 70s that are very complex (& beat many +25yo’s from the end 70s/80s distillate bottled over the last decade) since some of those distilleries were just being built a few years before they released their 5-10yo in the 60s/70s. So such overdressing couldn’t have happened due to unavailable stocks in a few cases and proves that 5-10yo could have a multitude of flavours I haven’t encounter past the 70s. And although I think the wood policy has become ‘better’/more consitent, I doubt the ‘better’ casks of today will result in outstanding malts after long maturation as I have a feeling that the foundation is just not there…
I hope to be proven wrong though. ;)
c.

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Andrew May 1, 2013 at 3:12 pm

I have to agree with Jordan. I was blown away at the quality of young Kilchoman. Cant say I was that pleased with the new Macallan gold which replaced the 10.

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Alex May 2, 2013 at 5:03 am

Would a cask with wooden ribs on the inside have an extra maturing effect on the whisky? This would increase the surface area, much like the ribs in a radiator. I have never seen it mentioned, so I wonder if it has been already disproven.

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two-bit cowboy May 2, 2013 at 4:34 pm

Not so much a matter of being proven or otherwise, but likely the Scotch Whisky Association would blow a fuse over the issue, much like they did when John Glaser added wood chips (not precisely the right word) to one of his Compass Box expressions some years ago.

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morlock August 24, 2013 at 11:04 am

Check the Jack Daniels Sinatra product, exclusive to “global travel retail” (duty free shops). Claim is grooves cut into interior surface of staves increases surface area interacting with product. http://www.jackdaniels.com/whiskey/sinatra-select “Deep grooves” = “Sinatra”, get it ? I try so hard to find good booze at an affordable price, but every year the depth of marketing bilge I have to wade through just gets deeper.

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maltster May 3, 2013 at 11:41 am

Excellent Article – due to some of the high performance barley used to maximise Alcohol output simply lack some of the complexity older, less output orientated types of grain had. It´s the same with fruits as traditional types of orchard scattered fruit trees which are normally tall-growing, traditional and mixed varieties bring out smaller and less fruits than modern types but the taste is so much more complex but as @Jordan mentioned there is hope as Kilchoman and some others produce Whisky with quite complex and deep profiles.

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NottheaboveAndrew April 2, 2014 at 9:34 am

In the bourbon world, Buffalo Trace’s Single Oak and Experimental releases (although they may claim otherwise) are attempts to age bourbon to acceptable quality much faster than their current standard methods. Through grain varieties, distillation proof, barreling proof, not to mention making barrels out of every different part of a tree; their willing to try anything and everything in this mass customer survey to find a better way to make bourbon faster, and if it doesn’t succeed or change production methods, at least Sazerac can say they tried.

Surely a Scotch whisky distiller like Glenfiddich or Glenlivet has enough capital and warehouse space to try their own experimental collection, why have they never tried anything like this? I know Bruichladdich and Arran deserve an honourable mention for their efforts, but I’m talking about a scientific examination into every major variable. Barley starch content, fermentation time, yeast varietal, direct firing vs steam coils, distillation time, distillation proof, warehouse location.

I know it will probably never happen, but can’t a man dream?

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john mccheyne October 27, 2014 at 1:07 pm

In a glass of 40% ABV whisky , 60% is water , obviously. 2 compounds with no flavour. So what we are tasting is estimated scientifically to be 0.2% of the volume carrying flavour molecules , arising from the components in the barley , ex starch , and the processes , as Oliver points out.
If we taste the 60s / 70s whisky , what % of flavour are we attributing to the ‘spirit’ as opposed to the ‘wood.’ ? And when we say now that the cask contributes 60-80% of flavour , how much was the contribution back then? Was it even a point of mention ?
Presumably we are talking about minute differences , mainly arising from production up to the point of casking.
The reason I put the questions is that there is a suggestion that everything we hear nowadays is marketing speak. Smoke and mirrors. And it was back then , but not with such intensity or support of ‘technical’ aspects.
Over generations we have the romantic story of the ‘location’ of production and maturity being the main factor. And age of the whisky.
Now we know that a huge proportion of whisky is matured in racked warehouses in Central Scotland . The industry says that age doesn’t matter as much anymore.
The importance of the cask and the cask finishing is the new Holy Grail. ( It may be interesting to watch how sales of whisky change in coming years in the disproportionately busy last quarter. Many people buying whisky as gifts who know nothing about whisky themselves , relied on age statement as a marker of Quality. What will they use as these increasingly become less available ? )
And , whilst this discussion is fascinating amongst a group of whisky expert observers , the ‘cask’ story is what focuses the mind almost universally now, and will continue to do so. That it is so important may be due to the flavour changes ( negatively ) of all the ‘old’ processes discarded for greater volume and efficiency of production.

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