Cocktails and Spirits with Paul Clarke: Barrels and Booze

"While maturing in oak casks over the course of several years, these spirits come into their own."

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[Flickr: foxypar4]

I've been thinking a lot about the passage of time lately, and it's not just because another year is drawing to a close. In the world of spirits, age and the maturation process are major factors in the character of spirits such as whiskies, brandies, and rum, and longer-aged and creatively matured spirits are becoming a more common sight on liquor store shelves.

In last Sunday's San Francisco Chronicle, I wrote about several whiskies that have been aged in intriguing ways, and in today's New York Times, Eric Asimov leads a tasting panel through a selection of aged rums, taking a close look at the length of time these spirits have been matured.

What these spirits have in common is that they typically come off the still as hot, brash and assertive creatures, somewhat difficult and sometimes frightening at such a young age, like liquid teenagers behind the wheel of an Escalade.

But while maturing in oak casks over the course of several years, these spirits come into their own as the wood shaves off the rough edges, and as they absorb certain characteristics from the wood—typically flavors and aromas such as vanilla, caramel and chocolate, along with a notable amber hue—even most white rums are aged in wood to tame them; their color is filtered out before bottling.

For the Chronicle, I explored whiskies that take barrel aging in creative directions—spirits such as The Dalmore 15-year-old, which spends a decade and a half in wood from three types of sherry casks, as well as cask-finished spirits such as The Balvenie 17-year-old Madeira Cask, which is first aged in used bourbon barrels before being finished in casks that originally held the distinctive fortified wine.

Used sherry butts and port pipes are becoming popular to cask-finish whiskies, and some of the more interesting spirits on the market are finished in barrels that once held other types of wine, such as a Murray McDavid 1999 Laphroaig, which was finished in barrels that once held Chateau Margeaux, or as Asimov writes in the Times, a Guyanese rum (also from Murray McDavid) that's enhanced by a finish in casks that once held Ch√Ęteau d'Yquem.

While the aging process contributes a great deal to the character of these spirits, the practice has its downsides: over-aging can leave a spirit dry, astringent, and dull, and some of the spirit's more intriguing characteristics can be stripped out by producers who stick too close to an older-is-better philosophy.

And while creative aging and finishing can impart unique flavors to a spirit, in some instances the process smacks of gimmickry, contributing little to the character of the spirit in the bottle.

That said, some aged spirits hit the point just right and go into the bottle with exceptional character. Have any cask-finished or creatively aged whiskies caught your attention? Or are there rums, brandies or other spirits that you think are perfect hits on the barrel-aging mark?

About the author: Paul Clarke blogs about cocktails at The Cocktail Chronicles and writes regularly on spirits and cocktails for Imbibe magazine. He lives in Seattle, where he works as a writer and magazine editor.

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