With the 2018 whisky revolution in full swing in Ireland, the United States, Japan and Scotland, Scotch whisky finally allowed its secret to be known.
It didn’t shout it out loud. It whispered it. It leaked through the specialists’ discussions, and spread by digitalization.
The difference, the silent King of Character of whisky distilled in the different distilleries lies in… the wood.
Until now, Scotland had insistently maintained that the identity and difference of its whisky relied solely on three pillars: Barley, Water and Yeast. Thus, is affirmed in all official texts, is branded by the Scotch Whisky Law, is proclaimed by the brand’s ambassadors traveling the world, and thus is taught in the classrooms where distillation is taught.
Why is wood not mentioned in any of them? the reader might ask himself. It’s easy to understand: the wood that molds and differentiates the Scottish brands, is not Scottish.
How does a brand manage to create different options and styles using the same distillery? By introducing changes in the use of the wooden casks in which it carries out the maturation process.
These changes, discernible or subtle, are usually produced for a short, quantified time, because the acquisition of the wood for making the casks is restricted by its availability (they’re used, not new), and by the time necessary for the maturation (transference of the wood aromas to the whisky by contact).
The reader should take notice that we have written “maturation”,not ageing (the latter term is mostly used in sales, and in the area of consumption), because the function of the casks is not to age the whisky. It’s to transform it.
This is achieved in short (6 months) or long (years) finish. The final touch is never longer than 12, 15, or 18 years as the aficionados believe; if it were so, its cost would be enormous, and there wouldn’t be enough casks available with that finishfor more than one distillery. Hence, production starts with a basic period of maturation in selected wooden casks that typify the brand (ex Sherry, Oporto, Rum, etc.) and additionally, a final, costly and secret period.
Scottish law demands that the liquor distilled after three years of aging be kept in oak casks no bigger than 700 liters.
After the Second World War, once the economic difficulties in the provision of raw material slowly began to be defeated, the industry turned the casks into a specialty and a distinction. At the beginning only a handful of distilleries did this. Once its success became evident, the method was perfected, and today it’s an essential part of the budgets, long-term plans, and quality management.
Scottish specialists in distillation and wood make use of only a rare group of trees; there are just 5 types of oak: 2 American, 2 European, and 1 Japanese. Once they’re used for the first time in the production of Bourbon, Sherry, Quality Wines, Port or Cognac, these casks will be acquired by Scottish distilleries.
The difference between one brand and another lies in the internal toasting to which the casks are subject in order to perfect the extraction of the aromas, the duration of the contact between the distilled liquor and the cask, and the combinations of use imagined by the Master Malt. Therein lies the secret.
Alberto Soria, Writer / Journalist specialized in Gastronomy, Wines and Liqueurs / University Professor