Wooden it be lovely

Barrel-making in a Louisville, KY, cooperage. (Dowd photo)
A few years ago I embarked on a journey called “From Forest to Flask.” It was part of an assignment for a UK drinks magazine to track the path of wood that adds the aging nuances to the best Scotch whiskies.

The project took me from the timberlands of the Ozark Mountains to a sawmill in Missouri, a cooperage in Kentucky and a distillery in the Highlands of Scotland. If I had been patient, I could have saved a lot of travel wear-and-tear.

A proud Governor Robert Bentley of Alabama has just announced a new job-creating enterprise in his state. Considering that he does not drink, it’s interesting he is so enthusiastic about it.

The project is the development of a 200-employee cooperage that is targeted to begin turning out American white oak barrels in the spring of 2014 for Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Whiskey, made and bottled just 200 miles away in Lynchburg, TN. By comparison, the distance my magazine assignment covered between the Louisville cooperage and the Scottish distillery was 3,800 miles.

“It doesn’t mean I’m going to partake what’s in the barrels, but we’re glad to make the barrels,” Bentley said upon making the announcement of the project to be located midway between Florence and Decatur in lightly-populated Lawrence County. Brown-Forman, Jack Daniel’s parent company, already has a mill that cuts barrel staves in neighboring Jackson County.

American white oak is, by law, the only type of wood that may be used in bourbon barrels. It also is popular for making barrels that mature Tennessee whiskey, ryes and some blends. Most non-bourbon distillers, as well as some winemakers, like to acquire used white oak bourbon barrels because the process of spirits aging already has taken place and the wood readily exudes grace notes of color and flavor to their maturing liquid.

Most in the industry concur that aging in wood accounts for perhaps 60% of the taste of the finished product and, of course, for all of the beautiful hues of gold, amber and copper that result from the chemical interaction of spirit and wood.

 “I’ve experimented with putting new-make whisky into various woods,” Bill Lumsden of the iconic Scottish brand Glenmorangie told me. “You never know when something pleasing will come out of it.”

Lumsden had the opportunity in the mid- to late-1990s to try swamp, burr, chinkapin and post oaks in prototype barrels that had been air-dried for 18 months.

“There’s a high degree of spiciness in the swamp oak, and the burr oak has a pleasantly oiliness, almost buttery. The others didn’t provide much difference from American white oak.” Most people refer to Lumsden as the master distiller for the highland distillery located in Tain, Ross-shire, Scotland, but several years back his title was broadened to “head of distilling and whisky creation.” That’s a fancy way of saying he is Glenmorangie whisky.

Any complaints from traditionalists about his experimentations?

“Oh, some, but I put it down to jealousy,” Lumsden said with a twinkle.

While the vast bulk of wood used for aging Glenmorangie whiskies is American white oak, German Black Forest oak also is used. With perhaps 90 different types of oaks in the world, wood can continue to be Lumsden’s playground for a long time to come.

By the way, my entire “Forest to Flask” journey is included in my book “Barrels & Drams: The History of Whisk(e)y in Jiggers and Shots” (Sterling Epicure), available in bookstores and through online booksellers.

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