If wooden barrels hadn’t been used as the only practical method of storing large amounts of liquor since about 2000 years ago (maybe even earlier), modern distillers would not have thought of adding the flavor and oak dimensions to their whiskey.
In short, it’s great that wood is used to enhance the flavor of whiskey, giving it a more interesting texture than if the beverage was stored in anything completely nonreactive. So what is it about oak – the only wood used to store fine whiskey, by the way – that makes it perfect for the job? There are two particular ways whiskey flavor is enhanced by oak wooden barrels:
In terms of whiskey, an oak barrel controls oxidation. This step-by-step process also helps control astringency and improve stability. It lends the whiskey a richer, more complex aroma on top of its given alcohol scent. This results from letting just the right amount of oxygen added into the liquid.
Flavors and Notes Specific to Oak
Oak has several types of complex chemicals that impact the flavor and texture of any whiskey in a very distinct way. This is experienced, for example, through hints of mint or notes of tea or tobacco, and the sheer overall complexity provided by the tannin, which blends with tannin that originates from the grain being made into whiskey.
All of these compounds bring delightful refinements in the final whiskey. They include volatile vanillin-containing phenols, components that offer a sweet and toasty aroma, and terpenes for the tea or tobacco notes, among several others. The chemical nature of the oak barrel chosen can give various qualities and volumes of flavor and texture, depending on how the barrel was made and what type of oak was used to make it.
It should be known as well that American oak affects whiskey differently from French Oak. The results are different when staves are air-dried and if they are dried with kiln heat. The manufacturing process is changed even by the method of bending the staves. All vintners have their own opinions about the best way to manufacture a barrel to give whiskey the best possible flavor. However, everyone agrees is that barrel making is a complicated craft where .amateurs do not thrive.
The good news is, it is possible to purchase a high-quality oak barrel from a reputable maker right on the Internet. But certainly, a little homework is necessary before deciding where to buy. You can rely on the web for this as well, and do focus on reviews written by customers. But make sure you stick to popular third-party websites for authentic testimonials, instead of marketing websites where reviews are likely to be fake.