Monday, May 20, 2024

The Evolution of Whisky Aging and the Impact of Barrels and Aging Vessels

Barrels and Bottles aging at Riachi Winery & Distillery 

Aging whisky in oak is a crucial step that significantly influences its aroma. The porous nature of oak allows the whisky to interact with the wood, resulting in the extraction of compounds from the wood. These compounds, including lignins, tannins, and vanillin, contribute to aroma and flavor development. The aging length and the cask's previous contents (such as bourbon, sherry, or wine) can further influence the aroma profile. During aging, whisky can gain additional aromas like spices, dried fruits, or smoky notes, depending on the cask’s influence.

The American Way vs The British Way

In the U.S., straight whiskies are aged in new charred American oak barrels, a practice driven by both flavor enhancement and historical taxation policies. Distillers initially chose new barrels because the fresh oak imparts richer, more complex flavors to the whiskey. However, the main impetus for codifying this requirement into law came from taxation concerns. An 1889 article from the Pittsburgh Dispatch revealed that the government sought to ban the reuse of barrels because used barrels complicated the tracking of whiskey quantities, potentially leading to lost tax revenue. Despite these concerns, the legal mandate for aging straight whiskies in new charred oak barrels was only established after Prohibition, in the 1930s.

In contrast, Scotch and Irish whiskies traditionally use used barrels out of necessity. During colonial times, Britain’s extensive use of oak for shipbuilding made new oak barrels prohibitively expensive and scarce. This scarcity led cooperages to recondition and reuse barrels. Today, this historical practice has evolved into a defining characteristic of Scotch and Irish whiskey production. The American emphasis on new barrels highlights their role in flavor development, whereas Scotch and Irish distillers focus on the flavors imparted by the barrels' previous contents. Used bourbon barrels are favored for their cost-effectiveness, while the use of wine barrels and the practice of "finishing" whiskies in specific casks, such as sherry casks, illustrate how these industries have adapted to available resources, enhancing and diversifying their flavor profiles.

Lebanese Resourcefulness

Clay Amphorae repurposed for aging Athyr Whisky 

Athyr, a Lebanese single malt whisky, emphasizes the use of clay amphoras with Lebanese oak branches, blending influences from American, Scotch, and Irish whiskey traditions with Lebanon’s own rich distillation heritage. This innovative approach is driven by multiple factors:

American Influence: Similar to the American emphasis on oak for flavor development, Athyr utilizes Lebanese oak (Quercus Libani), known for its distinctive and unique flavor profile.

Scotch and Irish Resourcefulness: Reflecting the Scotch and Irish tradition of repurposing vessels, Athyr incorporates clay amphoras, an adaptation born from necessity and resourcefulness.

Lebanese Traditions: The use of clay amphoras is deeply rooted in Lebanon’s distillation practices, where local spirits like Arak have been aged in clay vessels for centuries. This method imparts subtle earthy flavor notes and mellows the spirit uniquely due to the porous nature of clay.

Lebanese oak presents a unique challenge and opportunity. The distinctive flavor it imparts is highly sought after, but the lack of local cooperages, the last of which closed in the 1980s, complicates barrel production. Moreover, Lebanese forest trees, including Lebanese oak, are protected by law, prohibiting their felling. However, the legal and eco-friendly practice of pruning allows the use of oak branches.

By aging whisky with Lebanese oak branches in clay amphoras, Athyr not only adheres to cultural and environmental norms but also pays homage to Lebanon’s terroir and provenance. This method creates a whisky that is truly representative of Lebanese heritage, combining the rich, earthy tones of clay-aged spirits with the unique flavors of Lebanese oak.

You can find out more on Athyr and Lebanese Whiskies on Riachi Website

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