Did you ever wonder where bourbon gets the beautiful vanilla and caramel flavor that you love? If you ask whiskey enthusiasts, it comes from being aged in white oak. Although many people mistakenly believe that bourbon must be aged in white oak, the stipulation and rule which makes whiskey official is that it be in “charred new oak containers.” So why all the enthusiasm for white oak? The white oak barrels have many positives to them, such as filtering qualities, taste, color enhancement, and stability.
Importance of Oak in Whiskey-Making
The process of maturing whiskey in oak barrels has been passed down for centuries. “Oak became a barrel of choice as far back as the Roman empire,” says Chris Morris, master distiller at Brown-Forman, producer of Woodford Reserve and Jack Daniel’s whiskeys. Oak is valuable for many reasons, including its strength and ability to hold the whiskey. It also has the properties needed to alter the taste, aroma, and color of the whiskey because of its char. White oak goes through a very dedicated and specific process on its way to becoming a whiskey barrel. The white oak must be dried before it can be toasted and then ultimately charred, or burned.
White Oak acts as a Filter
One important fact about whiskey making is that the barrel needs to be made of charred oak, and in order to be considered legitimate, it needs to be entirely charred. Although some distilleries play with partial chars, in the United States the full-depth barrel charring is required. The charred oak serves as a filter for the sulfur compounds, which helps the whiskey to acquire its distinctive taste. The char also allows the whiskey to pass through the pores of the wood, allowing it to retain a depth of flavor. White Oak is so important that distilleries in Kentucky alone filled some 1.7 million charred, new oak barrels last year. Although bourbon does not have to be made in white oak, the experts definitely flock to fulfill the requirement that the barrel is made of “charred new oak containers.”
White Oak Creates the Taste
Aging whiskey in white oak charred barrels definitely affects the taste and coloring. A strong smooth whiskey is created by aging it in white oak barrels, and there are hints of caramel, vanilla, and coconut flavor that bring a delicious finish. Also, there is a much deeper color that is created when whiskey is aged in white oak barrels.
If distilleries want to temper the flavor a bit, they can also add oak chips, which can increase the lignin and vanillin, which alter the whiskey aging process. Oak tannins, much like in the production of wine, combine with oxygen to speed the maturation of the whiskey, as well. White oak affects the timing, and therefore the taste of the whiskey.
Where is the White Oak Found?
Since white oak is so integral to the creation of whiskey, it is important to harvest it sustainably and to be able to get the quality white oak needed to create the barrels. So where can one find it? American white oak is more cost-effective than the European variety, and it grows in much of the northern United States and Canada. “The prime white oak-producing areas range from the state of Missouri all the way over to Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia,” says Eric Sprague, vice president of forest restoration for conservation group American Forests. He goes on to describe the region he is talking about: “The Ozarks to the Appalachians, we call it.” Although it seems like there is a vast array of white oak and it covers a wide area of the United States and Canada because whiskey needs to be aged in NEW barrels, keeping up a sustainable system is imperative. The good news is that once the new charred barrel is used to age whiskey, it can be reused for wine or other types of alcohol, which is a nice form of recycling.
The Future of White Oak
Because of its great demand, and the delicate flavors that are created by white oak, more and more distilleries are turning to white oak barrels. There are many crop and weather conditions that can affect the growth, however, and with so much demand the supply is bound to run low. Foresters and whiskey companies alike need to make strides to protect and re-plant the white oak forests so that they can continue to be used in the aging process.
In conclusion, next time you sip the delightful mellow taste of caramel and vanilla in your favorite bourbon, know that you likely have white oak to thank. With its charred wood it is the perfect vessel in which to age bourbon, and positively affects the quality and taste of your favorite whiskey.