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Do Barrels REALLY Matter?

Few of us give significant thought to how our whiskey comes from grain to glass, and how many steps it must go through in the process of distillation. We know now that grain selection, distillation methods, and purification do matter, but when it comes down to aging, does the type of wood used in our aging barrels really make a difference?

Some estimates show that almost 70 percent of a whiskey’s flavor comes from the unique type of wood that a spirit is stored in. Unique aspects of the wood affect subtleties such as char, what type of liquid was formerly in contact with it, and how old the wood is itself. While a number of woods are used in the distillation and aging process, such as cherry, cedar, hickory, maple, and redwood, the most common type of wood used is oak.

Types of oak

Several varieties of oak are used to make distinctive and spicy flavors of whiskey. Depending on what a distiller is going for in terms of taste and flavor will dictate the type of wood he chooses.

American white oak is widely used in the whiskey community. Bourbon is initially aged in new charred white oak barrels, while used barrels are then used for whiskey aging. The clean, bright notes of white oak impart delicious vanilla and caramel flavors, and a sweet and spicy blend of deliciousness ensues.

European oak also imparts a rich vanilla flavor, but there is an element of spiciness to spirits. This slow, growing, tight-grain wood is more absorbent than other species and can also impart a bitter component to whiskey.

Sessile oak is not as commonly used in whiskey making, as it is harder to find. Also known as Irish oak, it is more often sourced for the distillation of French cognac and certain wines.

Mongolian oak is also known as Japanese oak. Its exclusive characteristics lend themselves well to a signature Japanese whiskey. Discriminating palettes can decipher notes of vanilla, rye, coconut, Oriental incense, and sandalwood within its spirits.

Storing the barrels

Those who take the craftsmanship of distillation seriously will tell you that even the way that barrels are stored has a significant impact on taste and flavor. Large operations have warehouse facilities known as rickhouses; a rickhouse houses barrels horizontally on racks, stacked three high. There is plenty of room around barrels for air to circulate freely. However, in an environment that is not temperature controlled, batches of spirit are subject to extreme temperature fluctuations that can make a batch on the bottom taste significantly different from a batch on the top shelf.

Pallet aging is done where the barrels are stacked vertically, and they tend to be stored in a much more efficient manner than their rickhouse counterparts. With airflow through and around the barrels being restricted, the product doesn’t age as well, and a greater effort to control temperature is needed to ensure that all the spirit has a similar taste. Temperate climates or those with controlled environments have a greater chance of success with pallet storage.

Dunnage maturation

If you really want to go old-school with distillation, you choose a dunnage for your aging process. A dunnage resembles the single level, earthen floor facility with stone walls, designed for its own climate and humidity control. Loyal fans cite that the whiskey with the purest flavor must have come from the dunnage environment, and that the only way to draw the best from a spirit is through a natural aging process.

Palmetto: Doing distillation and aging the right way!

Palmetto Distillery is truly a passion for brothers Trey and Bryan Boggs; with its roots firmly embedded in deep southern traditions, they started their endeavor with the intent to create the most delicious whiskey and moonshine that money could buy. They have succeeded; time tested aging processes and recipes passed down through generations of bootleggers contribute to the delightful glass you hold in your hand today. Contact us today to place your holiday order; visit www.palmettodistillery.com for more information.