A story three years in the making

The “Cooperage in Spirits” story that became the cover story for the August 2012 issue of Sommelier Journal magazine was nearly three years in the making.

Three years! Some whiskey spends less time in barrels than that.

For me, it all started at the 2010 Tales of the Cocktail, when Mark Brown of Buffalo Trace gave a small group of journalists an early peek at what was about to become the Single Oak Project:  an experiment that painstakingly isolated variables including mash bill, aging time and environment, distillation techniques and barrel types in pursuit of creating “The Holy Grail” of Bourbon.

A total of 1400 experimental barrels were created — many with only seemingly minute differences. The experimental bottlings were slated for release starting in 2011, and many since have been widely lauded.

“We’re considering American, Canadian, Mongolian, and Japanese oak,” in addition to the standard French oak, Brown told us, explaining that some added sweet notes (Canadian), while others added spice (Mongolian).  “We’re looking at different oak grains, and different barrel sizes.”

To drive the point home, we did a comparative tasting of whiskeys aged in fine- and wider-grained barrels. The former showed a more-developed caramel character, while the latter had a hotter feel because more liquid had evaporated through the grain, leaving a more concentrated, higher-proof spirit in the barrel.

It was an eye-opener.

This article afforded me the luxury of diving deep into this admittedly geeky topic — learning why cooperage expert Brad Boswell says “60 to 70 percent of a spirit’s aroma, flavor, and color comes from the barrels.”

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