The use of wooden barrels was first made famous by the Romans, who used oak barrels to transport wine. Barrels of oak has since then been in continuous use due to their many unique properties like high density, strength, toughness, and rot resistance. Used wooden barrels have been preferred by spirit makers to ferment and age different spirits globally, but American White Oak Barrels are the ones in most demand.
Apart from the strength, durability, liquid tightness, and suitability to coopering, essential chemicals such as tyloses, hemicellulose, lignin, vanillin, tannins, lactones, etc., make white oak barrels an ideal choice for ageing spirits. Considering oak’s profound effects on the taste of various spirits, you need to understand it's the minor details that make oak barrels the first choice of any brewer on the planet. Their contribution to the texture, aroma, and flavours of the spirits stored inside them are so awe-inspiring that even Google is bored of telling people where to buy wooden barrels. Let me tell you everything you have ever wanted to know about barrels of oak and their use in making premium quality alcoholic beverages. The spirits stored inside oak barrels experience three broadly classified effects on them:
AS A FILTER - The activated carbon present in charred White Oak Barrels filters out undesirable impurities, making it easier for the stored alcohol to seep into the wood cracks.
AS AN ADDITIVE - Various sugars, oils, and other chemicals present in oak barrels seep into the spirits, and add to the finished beverage’s texture, flavour, and aroma.
AS AN ENHANCER - The American White Oak Barrel also interacts with the alcohol to impart natural finishing tones by slowly converting chemicals like tannins into acetals and acetic acid into fruity esters. Moreover, various chemical constituents of the American White Oak Barrel Wood influence maturing spirits in different ways:
HEMICELLULOSE - Consisting of simple sugars that break down when heated, they provide body to the spirits by adding wood sugars for toasty and caramelized aromas, flavours, and color.
LIGNIN - A binding agent that holds the wood cellulose together, they yield vanillin when heated to add sweet, smoky, and spice aroma to the spirits.
TANNINS - Naturally occurring preservative compounds with a slightly puckery astringent taste, they help maturation by enabling oxidation and creating delicate fragrances by forming acetals in the stored spirits.
LACTONES - Resulting from lipids in the American White Aak Barrels, they increase dramatically during toasting or charring and impart a solid woody and coconutty taste profile to the spirit.
CELLULOSE - An essential component of the plant cell wall, it has virtually no effects on spirits stored for under seven years. After six or seven years, it starts breaking down into glucose sugar.
The American White Oak Barrel
Quercus Alba, also known as the American White Oak, dominates the barrel industry thanks to the mandated use of new charred White Oak Barrels for alcohol ageing. Spirits aged in charred American White Oak Barrels mature more quickly than those aged in non-charred or toasted barrels. The charred layer of the American White Oak Barrel wood also functions as a charcoal filter, absorbing the sulfur compounds and serving as a passage for alcohol through the pores.
American White Oak Barrels tend to be stronger in flavour, often described as cherry-cream soda, vanilla, or coconut, and whose oils result in spirits with a slightly thicker, creamy texture. The American White Oak species also contains more sweetness, more spice, and more tannins. The sugar flavours are typically more stewed or cooked, reminiscent of fig raisin pudding and campfire smores. There’s an additional weight given to the alcohol due to the more prominent presence of toasted sugar. Lastly and strangely, sometimes American White Oak Barrels can often impart a dill weed smell depending on the toasting level and ageing time. It is hard to believe that either dill or coconut, dramatically different smells, can be the hallmark aroma of White Oak Barrels.
Life Cycle of the American White Oak Barrels
Over 600 species of oak are found globally, and the United States alone has over 90 of them. From the forests to the distilleries and your home, the life cycle of White Oak Barrels is a rather fulfilling journey of never-ending usefulness.
The Harvest Word around the cooperages is that an oak tree needs to be at least 75 years old to be mature enough for making good Oak Barrels. Many other criteria like straight trunks, mature fibers, closed pores, etc., also need to be considered before harvesting. The American White Oak Barrels are made from the high-quality timber of the locally found Quercus Alba species.
The Seasoning Once the wood has been harvested, coopers start seasoning long pieces of oakwood called staves by air-drying them for a couple of years. Seasoned staves are then toasted to make them pliant and soften the woody flavours.
Barrel Building Coopers bend the wooden staves to make new Oak Barrels. Rumours suggest that a skilled cooper can assemble an utterly leak-proof barrel in just a few minutes without using any glue or fasteners!
Fermentation & Ageing Now that the White Oak Barrels are ready, they can be used to ferment or age a wide range of spirits such as wine, whiskey, bourbon, rum, tequila, sherry, and much more. Newly-made charred American White Oak Barrel is mandated to be used as Bourbon Barrels in the United States.
Continuous Re-use It is well known that used wooden barrels are not thrown away; they are repeatedly refilled with different spirits to impart subtle flavours into the alcohol; the older the Oak Barrel, the more subtle its flavours. Oak Whiskey Barrels are often reused by Scottish whisky distillers to age their premium scotch.
Upcycling Prospects Once damaged, these old and used wooden barrels can be used in several ways to add unique rustic decor elements to any establishment, even your home. Just cutting wooden barrels in half will give you two beautiful chic planters for your garden. Now that you know so much about the American White Oak Barrel, I hope it will no longer be a problem to figure out where to buy wooden barrels and whether those used wooden barrels are genuine White Oak Barrels, or not.
Author Bio: Rachel Moore works as a Marketing Manager at Rocky Mountain Barrel Company. Rocky Mountain Barrel Company provides used wooden barrels for spirits, like bourbon barrels, whiskey barrels, rum barrels, and wine barrels. Rachel Moore loves her combination of nature, wine, and nerdy friends who appreciate her homemade wines.
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To find out more about how Whisky Cask Ownership can work for you, contact The Masters today!