How barrels work and how to care for them
Published on 22-07-2013
Oak barrels are more than just expensive liquid-tight containers that give oak flavour to spirits and wines. They soak-up and breathe, flex, filter oxygen out of the air, aid wine and spirit maturation and allows spirits to develop unique character. They flavour and colour our spirits and allow the most volatile (and mostly unwanted) components of our distillates to "disappear".
A brand new (first fill) french oak wine barrel easily costs more than R20 000.00. Luckily, these are unsuited for aging distilled spirits. As barrels get used (first fill, second fill, third fill etc) they get infused with the wine, sherry, port or eventually brandy, that matures in them. Sherry/Port oak barrels are most suited to mature and age spirits.
How Oak Barrels work:
The Oak wood in a Distillique barrels has been specially selected for its a fine, porous micro-structure which, in the tree, helps supply the nutrients that allow it to grow. This micro-porosity capillaries, like blotting paper, suck the liquid components of spirits (mainly water and ethanol) through the barrel wall and out to the barrel surface where they evaporate. This evaporation is enough to force a vacuum within a stoppered, tight barrel. French Oak is generally more porous than American Oak.
As the porosity of oak runs "both ways", the vacuum inside allows outside air (20% Oxygen) to be sucked into the barrel until an equilibrium is reached between the rate of evaporative loss and the rate of incoming air. At equilibrium, the barrel vacuum stabilizes at about -0.12 atmosphere in a "tight" barrel. However, differences between individual barrels causes barrels to behave differently and each barrel finds its' own equilibrium.
As the air enters the barrel through the force of the vacuum, the "oak flavour" (mainly phenolics) is drawn from the oak into the alcohol with the air. These infused compounds, also need extended maturation time to develop character and complexity.
By law, brandy should be aged at least 3 years in oak barrels not larger than 360 litres, before it may be called brandy. This period is considered a minimum to allow the characteristic flavour and colouring of brandy to develop. Small quantities of caramel may be added to enhance the colouring without affecting the taste. However, smaller barrels age (infuse) spirits much faster than larger barrels. You may find that on small barrels a few weeks are perhaps mor ethan enough. If your spirits have "over-wodded", just add neutral spirits to reduce the woodiness.
A solera is a series of barrels (called butts in the solera), each holding a slightly older spirit than the previous one beside it. When brandy is racked (drawn off) from the last butt (no more than a third of the volume is removed) it is replenished with brandy drawn from the previous butt in line all the way down the solera line to the first butt, where newly distilled brandy is added.
This system of racking the brandy through a series of butts, blends together a variety of vintages (some soleras have over 30 stages) and results in a speeding up of the maturation process, and greater consistency in the character of the brandy over time.
Home distiller's soleras
A series of 4,5litre, 9litre or 25litre barrels are quite suitable for the home distiller to age brandy and develop your own solera for consistency. Aging in these smaller barrels happens faster as the alcohol gets exposed to more oak interaction than in larger barrels.
For the home distiller, a solera can consists of only one barrel, being topped up regularly with "fresh" brandy, or may consists of as many butts as you have space for. As a rule of thumb, the more butts in a solera, the better the consistency, aging and character development of the brandy.
Distillique barrels are all handmade by master craftsmen in the age old tradition of cooperages. The oak is selected from french oak barrels used for red wine, sherry or port production and imparts a pleasant, lush, slightly sweet and fruity note to the character of home distilled brandy.
Our barrels range from 1.6L to 50L and barrels up to 360L are available on order for brandy or whisky maturation..
How to care for your barrels
As the proud owner of a hand made oak barrel, like all things beautiful, your barrel needs a little care and attention from time to time.
By following the next few guidelines, you barrel will become a valued family heirloom.
The oak from which your barrel is made, may have shrunk slightly while being empty and transported to you.
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