The Casks of Kentucky Pt. I

We love good wood, especially because it contributes so much to the flavour of our whisky. 

Our distillers have spent a lot of time and energy optimising the new-make flowing from our whisky stills, keen to create great character and complexity. So, when it comes to finally committing this special spirit to oak, we want to ensure we’re using the best. 

Our policy is to know the provenance of every cask in our warehouse, guaranteeing us quality and consistency at all times. So last week, our learning journey led us over the Atlantic to the State of Kentucky, home of Bourbon Whiskey and the source of some of the world’s best barrels.
  

Head distiller Kenny Maclean and MD Simon Erlanger spent a week touring the Bluegrass State visiting coopers and distillers in the company of our flavour guru Gordon Steele. 

It all begins with white oak or Quercus Alba, one of the preeminent hardwoods of North America. It’s also the wood from which all bourbon barrels must be made. Once felled, sawn, dried (by air and kiln), the new oak is delivered to the cooperage. 

The team had been introduced to independent cooperage Kelvin in Louisville and decided to pay them a visit. They watched in awe as simple planks were carefully crafted into staves, all different sizes but made to fit seamlessly together without need for screws, adhesive or anything which would come between wood and whiskey. And absolutely not a knot in sight!

 

With heat providing an initial ‘toasting’, making stiff staves pliable enough to bend into shape, the emerging, bowed barrel becoming bound together by strong metal hoops. Charring is then done over an open fire to bring out flavours like caramel, vanilla, spices and tannins with varying degrees of char applied, ranging from #1 to #4, the latter’s scaled texture inspiring its nickname, ‘The Alligator’.

Finally, an oak lid (the head) and base are built, applied snugly and sealed tight, before the bung hole is augured and a carved bung applied. The finished cask is then prepared for despatch onwards to the first stop on its journey, a busy Bourbon Whiskey distillery. 

All the many and varied elements of this cask creation will impact on the flavour of the bourbon which will fill it first. But once all this bourbon is emptied, it becomes our turn to enjoy the magic of its wonderful wood. Join us next week for part two of the journey and find out more…​​

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