Oak barrels have long played an integral role in wine production, likely first coming into use in northern Europe. Today, oak casks are most often used in the spirits trade, but in ancient times they were used to transport all manner of goods, replacing the less durable clay amphora.
Oak was plentiful in northern Europe. European oak was hard yet supple, making it easy for early coopers to shape staves into barrel-type vessels. Rudimentary barrels for wine transport were used in ancient Rome, but it would be much later before the profound influence of oak barrels on wine would be understood and manipulated.
Notice that "oak" is the operative word here. Other woods have been tried for barrel-making, but only a certain species of oak is suitable for use in the wine industry. Though there are hundreds of species of oak, only white oak — more specifically, only three from the botanical genus Quercus — is recommended for barrel-making.
For years, the go-to wine barrel has been of French origin. Winemakers like to tout the advantage of their wines having been aged for varying lengths of time in French oak barrels. Winemakers generally control which French forest provides wood for their barrels. It is thought that specific forests impart specific traits to wine.
Spoiler alert: French wine barrels command prices of $1,200 and up. One way that winemakers reduce barrel costs is to age wines in a combination of new and previously used oak barrels.
Wine barrels in use today go through an extensive toasting process. Winemakers specify the level of toasting desired. A wine placed in a raw barrel would taste like raw wood, but when the interior of the barrel is toasted to a specific level, wine undergoes a magical transformation. The wine takes on hints of vanillin and spice from the wood. More importantly, oak aging smooths and mellows a wine. With harsh, tannic red wines, oak aging is especially important.
While French oak barrels are the go-to wine barrel, American white oak barrels are gaining in popularity and are generally less costly. Before chopping down your Alabama oak trees, know that Southern timber is thought to be too sappy for barrel production. Most oak for American barrels is sourced from Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, Missouri and Arkansas.
The cult cabernet classics from Silver Oak have been aged in American oak since their inception in 1972. To assure quality control of their American oak barrels, the Duncan family, owners of Silver Oak, purchased part ownership of the Missouri-based A&K Cooperage in 2000.
Last week, the Duncan family announced purchase of full ownership of A&K Cooperage. This gives the Silver Oak winemaking team complete control over their American oak barrels. This acquisition comes at a time when there is increased demand for American oak barrels driven by the dramatic interest in oak barrel-aged premium American whiskies. By law, all bourbon must be aged in new American oak barrels.
Small-batch and single-barrel bourbons are the driving force behind this increased whiskey demand. Single-barrel refers to bourbons bottled from a single barrel. Small-batch bourbons are made from small quantities of bourbons taken from numerous barrels until the desired blend is reached.
I thought I had this figured out until I came across a bourbon marked "very small batch." All top bourbon producers now offer these small-batch or very-small-batch artisanal whiskies. They of course are more costly than your standard bourbon.
As to the barrels in which these artisanal bourbons are aged, many are sold to Scottish and Irish whiskey makers who use them to impart color and unique flavors to their whiskies. Recycled bourbon barrels are also used to age pepper mash that will eventually become Tabasco sauce.
Now there is further demand for used bourbon barrels. With the demand for craft beers, some brewers are barrel-aging their beers in used bourbon barrels. Could there be a small-batch, very-small-batch or itty-bitty-batch brew in your future?
Contact Pat Kettles at firstname.lastname@example.org.