the whisky lounge - a journal tracking a whisky maturation project involving a newly-acquired oak cask and a significant amount of patience

Friday, January 11, 2008

Sherry, Bourbon and Oak

I realize I went ahead and wrote about conditioning my new oak cask with sherry without going over the reasons for me doing so. Mea culpa.

Scotch is a delicate thing, believe it or not. Although it can have a very robust, strong taste, it is fundamentally fragile.

For whisky to officially be called "Scotch," whether a blend or a single malt, it must be created under a series of inviolable conditions. One of these is that it must be aged in oak casks for a minimum of three years. But you can't use any old oak cask. Each cask must have been used at least once before to age a different spirit. The reason is the delicate quality of Scotch. It is believed that scotch has so many subtleties of flavour and bouquet that a new, unused oak cask would ruin the complexity and render a far inferior product. For this reason, Scotch producers will source casks from producers of Bourbon, sherry or port, or - less commonly - wine, beer or rum.

The Bourbon connection I find very interesting. I've sampled a very small number of American whiskies, and I tend to dislike them. They've all been too sweet for my palate. But Bourbon is still a whisky, or in this case, a whiskey. The interesting bit is that it is stipulated that for a whiskey to be called "Bourbon" is must be aged in new oak casks. This is of course the exact opposite of what Scotch producers insist upon, and I don't know why there's a difference. Would Scotch aged in new oak taste more like Bourbon and vice versa?

Now here's the rub: as far as I've been able to tell, the oak cask in the Whisky Works kit is new oak - making it in essence Bourbon-ready, but not Scotch-ready. This concerns me given the regulations of Scotch only being matured in second-use casks, but especially considering the whisky that came in the kit is 99% Scotch. This is why I elected to condition it with a different spirit before I pour in the whisky.

In any case, Bourbon casks seem to be the most common Scotch-ageing vessels of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Prior to this, though, it seems that sherry casks were very commonly used. I also understand that the idea of "finishing" a scotch in a cask from a different spirit for the last portion of its maturation is a recent phenomenon.

Since I'm an archaeologist-historian who likes to kick it old school, I thought I'd go with sherry rather than Bourbon to condition my new Whisky Works cask. I wrote to the company, Premium Bottlers, and asked them about it. Their reply was that many people have been thinking along these same lines, and the general trend has been for folks to leave the sherry in the cask for a couple of weeks, then pour it out and put in the whisky.

Tune in in another day or two to find out how the sherry is transforming in the cask.

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