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Barrel Aging and Maturation - History, Challenges and Crazy Ideas
Recently I came across an interesting metaphor attributed to a Master Distiller: “Barrels are like naughty children. None of them behave as you’d like them to and although you love them all, there will always be a few which will be your favorites.”
Is there a Relation between Marketing Buzz Words and Character?
Marketers play on this with labels boasting ‘Distillers Selection’, ‘Selected Oak’, ‘Masters Collection’, ‘Single Barrel’, etc. All are buzz words used to sell a unique barrel reaction. But how many of these descriptives are picked to truly represent the products unique character?
Experts say around 70% percent of all flavor in a Whisk(e)y or Brandy is a direct influence of the oak maturation. This is a vague average to say the least, with maturation rates that vary according to temperature, new oak VS old oak, cellar locations, oak varieties, stave curing rates and barrel volume to name a few major contributors.
Maturation is like brewing a good cup of tea – there are many types of tea leaves, each infusing at different rates based on size, temperature, time and the overall flavor profile you wish to achieve. But also like tea, spirits can be over-brewed (over matured).
Is there value in Age Statements?
As a consumer of spirits you may have noticed that age statements are coming off bottles of international spirit brands, and despite what the brands will tell you, it’s a global shortage of sufficiently aged stock driving the change, and not a change in quality standards.
For consumers however, age statements on labels definitely remain the definitive go-to gauge for quality and price whether rum, bourbon or scotch, whether accurate or not.
In return for the removal of this guideline, the slogan ‘Maturity not Age’ is now becoming a mantra for all oak aged spirits with the barrel choice or oak finish the new gospel. Mega producers are spending a lot of money to educate their consumers on the benefits and characteristics of these new, “younger” products.
Are there enough Whisky Barrels available?
In addition, some Mega producers are spending literally billions of Rands to increase their Whisk(e)y stocks. The expansion of stockpiles are however inhibited by the availability (or lack of) suitable barrels. The Scotch Whisky industry in particular, has a very high level of dependency on American Whiskey distilleries to supply the vast majority of their ex bourbon barrels. Ironically enough this means that many of them have to turn to a competitor for the cheapest supply of barrels.
If we take a brief look back at the early days of Scotch Whisky maturation, we see that the Sherry Cask finishes we pay so much more for today, used to be the cheaper option, due to a surplus of Sherry Barrels.
But back then requirements for the Scotch Whisky industry was still small, and the British drank sherry like it was gin. Today sherry is struggling, barrels are few and American oak is plentiful. As such a distillery pays roughly 12-14 times the cost for an ex sherry barrel, compared to an ex bourbon barrel.
The Beam-Suntory group (The Macallan, Glenrothes, Famous Grouse, Highland Park, Laphroaig Ranges) are well known to use sherry casks across the majority of their range with Macallan using it as part of their signature style. As such, the company have invested R225 million into the manufacture and supply of sherry butts to sustain their brand demand.
They literally manufacture sherry just for the seasoning of their required barrels. And as there is no longer a big enough market to sell the liquid afterwards, much of it is sold off cheap for fortifying brandies or merely discarded.
At the moment in the US, a series of court cases are raging between Diageo and Brown-Forman brands in regards to an alteration on the definition of a ‘Tennessee Whiskey’.
Can we reuse Old Barrels?
The primary element in debate by the Tennessee General Assembly is to allow distillers to reuse old barrels in the maturation process. The advantage to most distillers is a huge decrease in production costs which, as it stands, currently requires them to use only new American oak barrels. However, should this change in legislation be allowed, it would have a severely negative impact on the Scotch Whisky Industry, as the amount of barrels available to producers in the industry would be severely reduced.
What does the future hold for Barrel Aging?
While the future is hard to predict, Scotch distilleries are already investing in ways to retain financial control in light of such a change.
The Whisky Exchange blog posted a brilliant April fools article this year that caught out many Industry professionals and followers of Trade News. The Blog played on the above issue claiming a leaked letter by a governmental department allowing barrels for reuse across all American whiskies.
They went on to post an image of a northwest London car park used by Diageo to grow oak trees and how creative scotch brand Compass Box were experimenting with thousand liter plastic water containers lined with oak veneer. These suggestions might sound ridiculous, but if you think distilleries the world over have not already given thought to similar crazy solutions, you are definitely mistaken.