Grains are the recipe and yeast may be the soul, but all the magic of Bourbon happens in the barrel. I rave about big barrel notes in a Bourbon. The bold, earthy and oaky flavours are anything but shy and undoubtedly my preference. I will always applaud other flavour enhancers from the production process, but barrels receive an ovation. Admittedly, the appreciation for barrel notes was guided by personal selfish tastes until I dug in to the complexity of the barrel many years ago, unleashing the delicious and somewhat hidden speak regarding the depth of flavours that white oak brings to Bourbon. Informed and armed, I dare to pair our texturally rich and provocatively plush amber elixir as the barrel notes become the rave.
The craft of the barrel is in our favour
Barrels in and of themselves are truly handcrafted works of art. White oak wood that is 100 per cent bent and shaped by steam, no wood glue or nails here. Nothing artificial. To officially be a Bourbon, the whiskey needs to be aged in new charred white oak barrels. In the 1800s barrels were the UPS cargo of the day shipping down the great rivers to locations that needed quenching. The firing or charring in the early days was truly out of functionality, as barrels were used to transport other cargo like, apples, fish and the like and there was a necessity to ‘char’ the interior of the barrel to alleviate the previous packaged flavours that could affect newly entered whiskey. Fast forward to 1964 when an act of congress formally gave Bourbon its pedigree and own legal definition, barrels needed to be new, charred, white oak barrels and used only one time. I liken this to the new car owner who is rewarded with the ‘new car smell’, excellent engine with low mileage and a bouquet of rich leather with shiny, perfectly polished accoutrements. Bourbon simply gets the best of the barrel before being sold to various other entities for making alternate whiskeys.
Amen to new barrels, but how do you define barrel notes? Wood loves alcohol. With the various grain patterns and white oak pores, the new spirit seeps into the wood. Couple this with the different seasonal temperatures in a warehouse, it forces the wood to expand and contract, pushing the spirit in and out of the wood layers.
Standing in a warehouse is a very tranquil experience, but there is a tremendous amount of activity happening inside the barrel.
Barrels are the most active in the first two-four years, kind of like climbing Mt Everest then slowing down a bit but still active and, finishing with the gorgeous colour and barrel extractions, pending the whim of the master distiller’s direction for maturity. Bottle the Bourbon too early and your Bourbon is a straw-yellow and peeked in colour, boasting a little too much spirit, if you will. Too long in the barrel? In Kentucky we call this ‘long in the tooth’, too astringent with loud oak overtures. Never underestimate how deeply the spirit may soak into the wood. Anyone who has seen a used barrel split into two can witness first-hand the fine ‘reddish line’ (called the red-line) in the side of a stave to denote the depth of the soaked liquid within the oak.
Each stave assembled to form the barrel (on average 28-30) are like large blocks of sugar. White oak wood has what is called vanillin (vanilla) in the wood. By toasting (softening the wood) and charring (blistering to open the pores) we technically caramelise the wood sugars and to what depth of toast and char is where distilleries vary in their formal decision-making process.
However, mother nature humbles us with something we can’t always control, what happens in the privacy of the inside of the barrel over time, as maturation gives us the ability to take out off notes through evaporation and put in the good notes with extraction of tannins and wood sugars.
Barrel flavours on the menu
The art of the master distiller is to determine the prime time in the barrel and dial up or down barrel flavours that play nicely with the new spirit. Don’t be fooled that oak is the only barrel flavour. If a barrel were on a menu before entry of alcohol, there would be six basic flavours, (see diagram attached) sweet (vanilla and caramel), spice (clove), wood (nutty), smoke (earthy/savoury), fruit (dried raisin, or cherry) and floral (rose water). Over time, these flavours transform to create either deeper flavours or evolves into more complex variations of the basic six. So how does one choose food in a pairing of strong barrel notes?
Big and bold barrel proof Bourbons require balanced food flavours and not an overwhelming push of the palate with food. It is about creating harmony. You do not want to excite the barrel flavours too much with food, because they speak for themselves. Kind of a hand in glove palate and not a winter coat worn in a heated room. Keeping this in mind, first dissect the barrel notes of the Bourbon and then find the right combination of food that accentuates the correct balance.
Just wrap yourself around those dramatically rich pairings and the Bourbon raises its level even more on the ‘exciting to drink’ scale. Barrel maturation is where science and mother nature tend to meet, creating a seductive mouthfeel, so engaging you reach for another sip. Barrel strength or single barrel heady notes will always award the stave as the rave.