SPIRITS THROUGH THE AGES
Alcohol is older than history, and for many historians, mankind first began when it was first brewed in the Crecent of western asia, or as we call it…the middle east.
About 7,000 years ago, the fertile land of the Middle East was the first to grow grains, the building blocks of agriculture. Some of these grains were round up and make into bread. While bread would go moldy after a couple days, turning the grains into beer kept the caloric and nutritional value of the grains, and lasted much longer.
No one is quite positive when the birth of alcohol began, but it was around 4000 bc that there was a lot of beer being consumed around the Crecent. Thousands of miles to the east, the rice farmers in China were also making beer. Rice, as the brewers of Budweiser can tell you, makes very nice beer.
Most of this occurred before historical records were kept. Many books and forums on this subject insist that beer making was an accident, but, our ancestors were very smart, and a lot more familiar with the earth’s gifts and were very well versed when it came to fashioning drinkable and edible things from the world around them. In order to create beer from wet grains and water, a brewer (even 6,000 years ago) had to be careful about cleanliness and had to boil the grains and perhaps even add a few flowers (most brewers use hops flowers today) or even some tree bark to the mixture to keep it from spoiling.
And, let's not forget, brewing alcohol was about protecting something life-sustaining from spoilage. Alcohol is a preservative. It inhibits oxygen's slow destruction of many aromas, flavors, nutrients and vitamins in foods and medicines. And people use alcohol topically because it kills pathogens and bacteria. Moreover, it can do the same internally. Spoiled food can kill; but a dose of alcohol can kill the germs in spoiled food before it kills the eater.
Think of Biblical times and you might recall the storied habit of mixing water with wine. It's true. People often consumed wine mixed with water. Wine's central position in the Judeo-Christian traditions is unquestioned. So adding water to wine wasn't a scheme intended to dilute wine's impact, though it did that. Rather, water was dangerous, filled with bacteria and pathogens and as likely to harm as to help. But humans need water to live and until about two centuries ago nobody knew why some water made people sick and some water didn't.
But even 5,000 years ago, our ancestors knew that if you added wine to even the most suspicious water, that water wouldn't make people sick. Try it sometime. Say you're in the wilds (those areas with crowds of things called trees) and only brackish water is available. Mix equal parts of the scary water with wine (with at least 12 percent alcohol levels), wait about a half an hour, and the water becomes safe to drink. Humans living in the cramped and concentrated confines of newly created towns thousands of years ago didn't have much fresh and clean water available. Now you know why people mixed wine with water.
Wine and beer were indispensable to human life, especially when those humans were residents of the new cities and towns that would later become the sites of laws, rules, rulers, writers, musicians, artists, religious leaders and, eventually, historians. Those early historians wrote about alcoholic beverages and today we can read about beers and wines grown not only in the Middle East and in China, but in northern Africa (where the Egyptians invented straws to assist them in drinking their cloudy, viscous beers), in Mexico and Latin America (home of pulque, about which we'll hear later), in Turkey, in western Africa, in Italy, in Greece, in Japan, in India, and of course the British Isles.
Nearly 5,000 years ago, the Orkney Islands in northern Scotland produced beers for religious purposes. The beers used in the rituals of those ancient peoples contained poisonous plants and mushrooms, among other ingredients. Visions were guaranteed, even if the priest drinking the beer might not return from that particular beer crawl.
Beer and wine producers had learned that many different plants, seeds, flowers, trees, even minerals, could increase their drink's stability and longevity. Some of those additives made for religious, mystical and even magical experiences. But eventually all those beers and wines would go bad. Even today, we speak in hushed tones of certain bottles of wine that live twenty, thirty, even one hundred years. But that kind of longevity requires a perfect wine cellar, filled with glass bottles closed with tight cork stoppers. Those are recent inventions.
However, as the alcohol level rises, the longevity and purity increase. At some point, early civilizations discovered how to make high-proof distilled spirit. A distilled spirit is far stouter in alcoholic strength and purer than any wine or beer and, importantly, such concentrated alcohol is impervious to most of nature's challenges, whether from bacteria, pathogens, seasonal climate changes, and even time.
But, like the discovery of beer or wine, there's no way to be certain when and where the initial distillation happened. As mixology historian and cocktail author David Wondrich, BAR's "Historical Oracle," likes to note, getting the history of alcohol straight is pretty difficult since you're trying to collect the facts from people who've been drinking. It might have happened anywhere. But there are tantalizing clues as to distillation's origins.
Why distill? The foremost reason is because you can. In fact, it's surprisingly easy to turn beer or wine into a purer, more powerful distilled spirit. The method is not at all obscure, at its root. If you have boiled a kettle of water for tea or coffee in your life, you have begun the process of distillation. Boiling is the action of turning a liquid into a gas. Water does that at 100° Centigrade/212° Fahrenheit.
Distillation is, by definition, the purposeful application of intense heat to separate alcohol from water, creating alcohol vapor, which is then cooled to turn the vapors back into higher alcohol liquid through condensation.
Here's the key: while alcohol and water form a tight bond (otherwise they'd separate at room temperature), if you apply energy in the form of heat to an alcohol-water mixture, that bond will break. Since alcohol is lighter than water, it has a lower boiling point. So if you have a beer or a wine, the alcohol level is probably at about six to eight percent (if it's a beer) or ten to twelve percent (if it's a wine remember, we're talking about millennia ago, when winemaking still had a ways to go). But bring that beer or wine up to about 78° C/173° F, and the alcohol, with its lower boiling point, will tear itself free from the water molecules to which it is bound and change state from liquid into vapor. Meanwhile, the water will remain in liquid form.
So, now you have vaporized only the alcohol. If you can figure out a way to collect this alcohol vapor before it blows away and cool it to the point that it condenses back to liquid again, you will have successfully separated alcohol from water. Now you can throw away the water and just drink the alcohol. Just remember: HEAT-VAPOR-COOLING-CONDENSATION-LIQUID. Call the gang because it's time to parTAY.
Yet if all distilled spirits are made from wine or beer (and they are), then we have to start by explaining a bit about wine and beer. Both fermented products are the results of the actions of yeasts, invisible critters that (in a grossly simplified manner) chew up sugars and expel alcohol, heat and carbon dioxide, CO2. In beer production, we hang on to that carbon dioxide and the beer has, as a result, bubbles. Unless we're making sparkling wine, we let the carbon dioxide dissipate into the atmosphere when fermenting wine.
As we've cited earlier, beer making required that communities of people grew grain and had enough of it to have some leftovers. Thousands of years ago, folks figured out that if you make a sort of soup out of water and recently sprouted grains, then boil it to remove impurities, the yeasts that live all around us in the air and even on our bodies will do the rest.
Wine is even simpler. Instead of sprouting grains and making soup and boiling it and then waiting for the yeasts to arrive courtesy of the wind, the yeasts usually live right on the grapes. They know what's coming and as soon as the grapes are squished, the natural yeasts can begin the job of converting sweet grape juice into wine. It's such a natural process that it took a mid-nineteenth century New Jersey teetotaller and farmer named Thomas Bramwell Welch years of experimentation before he figured out how to keep grape juice from turning into wine. His company, Welch's, is still doing the same thing a century and a half later.
In all probability, mankind's first alcohol beverage was wine. Any hunter-gatherer who had eaten his or her fill of grapes would have stuck the remaining grapes into a container with a lid so the bugs couldn't get to them. As soon as a few grapes were crushed inside the container, juice would have been let loose and the fermentation process would have begun. Perhaps the primitive winemaker would have been dumbstruck by the sight of the grape container gently shaking and the lid popping as the carbon dioxide escaped from the container. Speaking for ourselves, we suspect eager anticipation would have more likely been the feeling at the time.
Three, four, five days later, something else other than plain grape juice was in that jar. Okay, so it was not Chateau Lafite, but it contained alcohol and, thousands of years ago, it would have been a welcome respite from the daily rigors of the period. Maybe it was the perfect accompaniment to raw bison or grilled ribs of warthog au jus.
Today, winemaking is little changed. The winemaker's work is much the same, only now winemakers agonize over things like the source of the grapes; when to pick the grapes; at what temperature to start the fermentation; what sort of vessel they should choose for the fermentation (Stainless steel? Oak barrels?); the temperature during the fermentation (remember that fermentation creates heat, so most fermenters have glycol cooling jackets to control that heat); when to remove the grape skins from the wine or juice; what sort of container to place the wine into for resting and maturation; where the container should be stored (in a dark, cold cellar or in the sun, as with some fortified wines); and when it should be bottled and sold. The rest is, well, to phrase it kindly, just marketing.
Now, people have long realized that wine and beer have something in them, some special essence, that makes them different from plain water or fruit juice; something that might possibly be extracted and concentrated. Aristotle hinted at this process in 327 B.C., but we have no hard proof that his fellow Greeks employed it on any significant volume level. Nonetheless, he was the one who gave the name of "spirit" to the product of distillation. He thought drinking a distilled beer or wine put "spirits" into the body of the drinker.
But the good news about spirits is that they leave the body. Aristotle knew that. That's exactly why he said those were spirits: temporary visitors to each drinker's mind and body. The human body is adept at processing alcohol. Indeed, the body appears to have been created to process alcohol, in the stomach, in the intestines, and, of course, in the liver. Humans have evolved, it would seem, in the presence of alcohol. How convenient.
THE POT STILL
Every liquor from vodka to Irish whiskey to cognac to tequila to (Heaven help us!) root-beer schnapps begins its life as some kind of wine or beer; in other words, as a fermented beverage. Distillation cannot create alcohol; it merely concentrates it.
For most of history, the stills that did this concentrating were simple devices, consisting of some kind of fireproof pot (a.k.a., kettle) to hold the "wash" (the alcohol-bearing liquid being distilled). Atop the pot was a tight fitting cover designed to capture the alcohol-rich vapor that rises from the wash when it's heated and allow it to cool off enough so that it will condense back into liquid form. This liquid is then drawn off into a separate container, or holding vat.
One pot/kettle/still is, truth be told, pretty much like another. The condensing tops, however, are a different matter. Historically, these vary in form depending on where and when they originated. There are three basic kinds: the Indian, the Middle Eastern and the Chinese. The historical relationship between them is murky, and questions such as which came first and how they influenced each other (if they did at all) still lack definitive answers.
That said, if archaeological evidence, uncovered in the 1960s in a part of the Indian subcontinent that is now Pakistan, is to be believed, the Indian style appears in all likelihood to be the oldest, dating back to between 500 and 300 B.C. Also known as the "elephant's head," it takes the form of a large pottery bulb with an opening in the bottom to fit over the mouth of the pot, and a downward-slanting tube sticking out of one side (hence the name). The vapor passes up into the bulbous head and begins to cool then moves through the tube into another pot, this one most likely cooled by running water, and condenses back into liquid. Archaeologists discovered facilities with large numbers of these set-ups, indicating distillation on a commercial scale was going on in the centuries just before Christ.
The Middle Eastern style is similar to the Indian one, except the head is made large enough for it to remain relatively cool when the pot is heated, so that the vapor will condense on its interior surface and drip down the sides, where it is collected in an internal gutter and drawn off by a tube. First documented among the Greeks living in Egypt at around the first century A.D., it's possible that in late Antiquity it was used to distil wine, but if so it was a closely guarded secret and the evidence for it remains ambiguous.
The Arabs, who adopted it after their conquest of Egypt in the 600s, used distillation not for concentrating alcohol for consumption, but rather for the production of medicines and perfumes. The fact that Mohammed and the Qur'an were explicitly clear on the notion that "the righteous man does not drink wine" or any other kind of alcohol might have had something to do with this.
Nonetheless, prominent Muslim scholars/chemists/physicians of the 900-1100 A.D. era, in particular Geber and Avicenna, did much experimenting with distilling technology and wrote about it frequently in their books and essays, some of which exist to this day.
Finally, there's the Chinese style, which may have been last out of the gate ”it apparently dates to the fifth century A.D. ”but within a century or so it was being used to make spirits in commercial quantities, based both on grapes and grains. In its basic form, the Chinese still-head is merely a wok-shaped bowl that seals to the top of the pot. When it is filled with cold water, the rising vapor will condense on its underside and drip off of the lowest point. In the simplest versions, this is collected in a bowl placed on a stand inside the pot. More sophisticated versions drain the bowl into a tube running out the side of the still.
Very likely it wasn't until the 1100s that distillation of alcohol began in Europe, most probably either among educated Arabs living in Spain (the Islamic Moors occupied Spain from 711 A.D. to 1492 A.D.) or the community of Christian scholar-monks-physicians gathered at the southern Italian port of Salerno. We don't know what kind of still they used ”it was probably the Middle Eastern one. At the time, Europe was in contact with China, too. By the 1300s, we know that they were employing both the Middle Eastern style still and an adaptation of it that brought it closer to the original, Indian style.
This last, an all-copper contraption, where the pot is topped by a bulbous head with a "swan's neck", meaning a curved outflow tube, that is attached to a water-cooled copper coil (an Italian invention) to condense the vapor, spread throughout Europe. Northern Europeans distilled grain-based beers while southern Europeans distilled grape and fruit wines.
By the 1500s, the Italians were using distillation to make herbal liqueurs (for medicinal purposes) and brandies (for woo-hoo purposes), the French to make grape brandy, the Eastern Europeans to make vodka, the Germans schnapps, the Irish and Scots whisk(e)y, and the Germans and Dutch juniper-flavored genever. Indeed, give or take a little tinkering, this is the pot still, most made of copper, used today to make cognac, single-malt Scotch and a host of other spirits.
There is one part of the Western world, however, where the Chinese-style still caught on: in the 1500s, Philippine sailors working on Spanish ships introduced it to Mexico, where it was utilized to distill coconut brandy and mezcal. In parts of Oaxaca, Chinese-style stills remain in use today, ancient clay-and-bamboo affairs that look like an ill-timed stumble would crumble them to dust.
THE CONTINUOUS STILL
Pot stills, or metal kettles, were all anyone required for successful distillation for most of human history. And, in truth, prior to the eighteenth century there wasn't all that much spirit that was being distilled; you've got to have large volumes of beer or wine left over before you'll give it over to the stillman. And while distillation concentrates the alcohol, it leaves behind a lot of the water (and now it's bacteria-free water) as well as some other nutrients and flavors. It's not unusual to start with thirty-five or forty gallons of beer and end up with only a gallon of spirit.
It was not until the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that human labor was being organized for efficiency (the better to make money with, of course). The businessmen driving the Industrial Revolution were bound to look at each and every activity in hopes of increasing output and generating more dollars for the owners. And pot stills, by their very nature, are notoriously inefficient and labor-intensive. For instance, should you want to create nearly pure alcohol, what is today called neutral spirit, it could take a week's worth of repeated distillations in a pot still to reach ninety-five percent alcohol. And each distillation requires that someone get into the pot and clean the burnt scum and debris off the bottom, lest it damage the still and impart nasty, burnt flavors to the spirit.
So several innovative people decided distillation needed to serve the masters of industrial efficiency. Perhaps surprisingly, even with this process, one that happened little more than two centuries ago, historians are not in agreement. Indeed, the question of who should receive credit for inventing the "continuous still," the term we use for this collection of rocket ship-shaped cylindrical stills that are the dominant tool for distillers today, is hotly debated.
Was it Robert Stein, a Scotsman who dreamed up the idea of placing several pot stills one on top of the other? In other words, he designed a cylinder that had many chambers inside. Each chamber was like a little pot, only with perforations in the top and bottoms, except for the very bottom chamber. Fill that one with beer and then apply heat to it and the alcohol wafts into the chamber above it. While some of that escapes into the chamber above that, most of it hits the perforated plate and turns back into a liquid, rolling down to meet hot, steaming alcohol vapor rising back up. So, over and over again, the alcohol is continuously distilled. Hence, the name.
Some accounts claim that Stein never finished his proposed still. He eventually joined forces with an Irish exciseman by the name of Aeneas Coffey, who brought the project to reality; a version called the Coffey still. Indeed, like Stein, Coffey took out a patent on it - in fact, "patent still" became another term for continuous still.
But, like we say, beverage alcohol history can be as murky as a glass full of dregs. About the same time, the 1820, a Frenchman named Jean-Edouard Adam had created his own version of this still and his was also referred to as a patent still. In the 1880s in Sweden, Lars Olsen Smith built a similar contraption; at the ripe old age of sixteen, he was using it to create a neutral grain spirit he called Absolut Brannt Vodka, or completely pure vodka. Smith's brand expressed his goal: by distilling to a higher proof than previously possible in pot stills, he was creating a purer kind of spirit.
All of these variations worked basically the same way: cold wash drips in through the top of the column, and as it drips down through a series of perforated plates, the steam rising from the heated bottom of the column strips other more volatile compounds, which are in turn condensed as they rise by more cold wash dripping down. The plates have raised rims around the holes so that they can catch the dripping liquid, which is then drawn off through a tube in the side of the column.
In general, the column still allowed the distiller to turn beer into nearly pure alcohol. With mid-nineteenth century innovations, the column still (a.k.a., continuous, patent, Coffey still) didn't require the distiller to stop and clean the still once a day. One could keep it running as long as one had more wash to pump in. Thus, distillers were able to distill humungous volumes of spirit in column stills compared to the small, individual batches delivered by pot stills.
These industrial improvements had as their goal a purer, higher-proof and, most importantly, cheaper spirit. That doesn't mean the spirits had improved in quality. As we shall see, greater purity is not necessarily synonymous with greater quality. In fact, many traditional distillers were horrified that these stills had become, by the end of the nineteenth century, the tool of choice, forever increasing the numbers of their competitors. But those holdouts and their old-fashioned products were nearly drowned by the flood of cheaper, higher-proof product that was brought to market.
In some countries, pot stills endured among the artisanal producers, some of whom were supported by the wealthy or the nobility (for example, in Russia and Poland), some of whom simply labored in remote or nearly forgotten regions (the Scottish Highlands and the Islands or in the secluded glens of Ireland). Even today, the myth endures: that a spirit is superior because it has been distilled many times in a continuous still, and therefore it is purer. The number of distillations has little to do with the quality of the product. It is the quality of those distillations, no matter the type of still, that counts.
QUALITY OF DISTILLTION
Not surprisingly, quality in a spirit comes from attention to detail. Was the grain free from defects? Was the wine without flaws? Was the fermentation efficient? Was the product that resulted kept from growing wee beasties that add bizarre and off-putting aromas? Was the still clean and properly maintained? Was the yeast used in fermentation pure? Was the water source uncontaminated? (Stills utilize lots of water.)
But the single most important factor in determining a spirit's quality is determined by what distillers call the "cut." To explain: as the wine or beer begins to vaporize, the first few vapors that rise up are not necessarily good since they contain methyl alcohol (oh, mama, not good) and hot, piercing aromas (even worse). Once the temperature rises above the about 78° celcius /173° Fahrenheit mark, the distillation is in full roil and most of the vapor represents the "heart" of the wine or beer, the very best or at least the most representative aromas and flavors coming from that beer or wine (aside: you can see why the quality of the beer or wine has a big influence).
Eventually, the alcohol will begin to be exhausted, leaving a number of heavier organic compounds, including water, of course, but also a selection of oils and compounds. As a result, this tail end of the distillation (indeed, many call this part the "tails") can have aromas and flavors that are offensively pungent. A skilled distiller will influence the quality of his or her spirit by making sure the wine or beer is of good quality and in good condition by controlling the temperature of the distillation and, more importantly, by making a skillful "cut", or selection, between the "heads" and "tails", keeping only the heart (although often the heads are returned for further distillation, in the hope of extracting whatever alcohol might be contained in them).
So, then, the number of times a product is distilled represents, gee, let's see, what's the word? Oh, yes, marketing.
But the marketers aren't completely wrong in talking about the number of distillations, though they've recently over-played their hand. Each time a product is distilled, whether in a pot still or a continuous still, the stillman has a chance to cut heads and tails, and to purify the spirit further. Whether he or she does so is a matter of personal integrity and skill, along with the cost a distillery is willing to accept for the product. Each time you cut heads and tails, you are either throwing away or at least recycling (usually back into the beer) hard spirit that could have otherwise been sold for cold, hard cash.
Each time a cut is made, flavors are removed. Those flavors represent all sorts of alcohol and lipids and fatty acids and organic and inorganic compounds but we tend to collect them all together under the rubric "congeners." As we've explained, some of those flavors (or congeners) are bad, but some of them are interesting and others are even delicious.
So, the higher proof to which a product is distilled, the more likely it is that the spirit that comes out of the other end of the still has fewer flavors and aromas. For that reason, the liquid that comes out of a continuous still, at 190-proof or higher, is called "neutral grain spirit", if it is made from grain, and "neutral grape spirit", if it is made from grapes. It's neutral, or at least relatively so. Most of us just call it vodka.
As long as we're discussing how quality happens, let's discuss the much-ballyhooed matter of the shape of the still. Certain distillers place an almost-mystical faith in the power of little eccentricities in the shape of a pot still to affect the spirit that it produces. Indeed, they can be practically as secretive about that as gin-producers tend to be about the particulars of the botanical recipe they're using.
But as crazy as it sounds, the shape of the pot still has a profound effect on the spirit it produces, down to the dents, dimples, and dings in the side of a copper still. When they are forced to replace it (copper being a malleable metal, they do wear out), they'll place the new still right next to the old one, and reproduce every little blemish they can, in the belief that to do otherwise would compromise the integrity of their spirit. They're not crazy. The shape and makeup of the still you use really matter, as do the temperature of the water you're using and even the proximity of the ocean and a million other obscure little environmental factors.
Whether you use a pot still or a continuous still, you might be trying to make something cheap or something great. The real art comes in doing something that is both inexpensive and delicious.
The usual line about barrel maturation is that it was a serendipitous discovery that spirits improved when aged in barrels. But as with the discovery of beer making, we do our ancestors a disservice to ignore their familiarity with barrels and their effects. Since Roman times, specifically the 3rd century A.D., barrels have been used to transport materials, like coins, nails, olives/olive oil, wine, dried fruit, salted meats and fish because barrels protect their contents and can even be relied upon to float (at least for a while) if the barrel should topple over the side of a pier, ski or barque.
Perhaps most important, barrels improved upon the existing containers, hardened clay and therefore brittle amphorae, in their sturdiness and their ability to roll. A cylinder resting on a single point, a barrel filled with whiskey may weigh over 200 kilos (440 pounds), yet one person can easily roll it, even uphill. And the Romans also noted that some (please take note of that word, some) drinks improved inside those barrels, whether wines or beers.
If there is no 1,000-plus year tradition of barrel-aging for spirits, that may owe more to the lack of extra available spirit than to any intention. For a long time, spirits were stored in anything that would hold them. Since the virtue of high proof is that it's impervious to most of what nature and time would throw its way, the storage vessel didn't matter greatly. It's not until the advent of commerce with the New World that there is a marked move toward oak barrels for long-term spirits storage.
Until the 1600s most of the drinks boarded on a ship bound for the Americas were consumed long before arrival. Eventually some spirits flowed in the other direction. The European powers quickly realized that the great spice hoards they had sought by traveling west (remember, Columbus thought he was traveling west to India and hence called the natives Indians) were still many thousands of miles farther across the Pacific. They sought what riches they could find.
There were plenty of new and exciting foods, as well as some exotic captives to parade around the court (oh yes, and a little gold and silver, too). Eventually, though, an exciting and stimulating white powder joined those products: sugar. When you have sugar, you have molasses; when you have molasses, you have rum. It would be a while, though, before that most useful spirit was flowing back across the pond.
By the late 1500s, though, there was enough rum being made in Brazil, for instance, that the King of Portugal slapped a massive tariff on imported rum. The same sort of preventive medicine would be applied in other countries against their local spirits (by Napoleon against the Caribbean Islands or in Mexico with "Mezcal Conyac," as some merchants called it), for the colonial method has always been to take raw materials back home, refashion them into something more expensive and sell them back to the colonies from which the raw goods were taken in the first place.
The point being, there weren't a lot of barrels being used for shipping spirits back to Europe. So despite Scottish and Irish insistence that whisk(e)y as we know it (a barrel-aged, beer based distillate) is an invention of the British Isles, the Americas might in a bit of a stretch be able to claim as much themselves.
While European settlers in the Americas busily created ports from which goods and materials could be shipped back home, they were slower to move far inland. But when they did, barrels were the vessel of choice for everything. Two of the larger scale trades were between the Caribbean Islands and the ports of North and South America, and between the American interior and what would become the Atlantic coastal communities of the United States. To some degree, the spirits that formed part of that trade remain some of the most famous of barrel aged spirits: aged Caribbean rum and bourbon whiskey.
The barrels used in spirits production were often leftover from the transport of wines or spirits from the motherland. There were plenty of barrels and little reason not to use them (only in the last century have straight bourbon and rye whiskeys been legally required to be aged in brand new charred American white oak barrels). In fact, most early distillers were happy to lay their hands on any sort of barrel at all. Even today, when dedicated industries (cooperages) have come into being to supply barrels just for spirits making, a great many distillers rely instead on once-used bourbon barrels, available in plenty since the bourbon producers aren't allowed by law to reuse them.
Broadly speaking, there are two origins of oak barrels: Europe and America. The two harbor different species of oaks, and that may be the smaller difference. Instead, it's in the transformation of oak to barrel where the two have differed most. In Europe, the tradition has been to split the broad-grained oak on its grain, air-dry those split staves for two to three years and then assemble the staves into a hoop, using a small fire, perhaps some steam (and a bit of animal power) to ply the staves into a cylindrical shape. These methods are ideal for wines, whether white or red, as well as for brandies.
American oaks are tighter-grained and therefore the cooper can saw the staves against the grain, as needed, and still the staves won't leak. As a result, some people feel that American oak barrels (especially when used for wine) exhibit a sawdust-like smell that shows up in wine, for better (think Zinfandel or Shiraz) or worse (think Chardonnay).
Either the fast pace of American life or American know-how could be the culprit, but the tradition for American oak was to age it briefly outside and then bake it inside a kiln, instead of waiting all those years for air-drying. Drying the staves has two purposes: to get the moisture content of the barrels down to about 12 percent, and to leach some of the harsher character of the oak's tannins and lignins out of the wood. Air-drying and exposure to the elements and seasons accomplishes both; kiln drying does not.
Today, American barrel producers are air-drying some of their barrels, especially those intended for wine, for greater periods of time. But differences persist. And the greatest difference between European and American barrel production is that American whiskey barrels are severely burnt (charred really) on the inside. European barrels, and wine barrels in general, are not; they are lightly toasted. That's right, toasted, just like a piece of toast. Indeed, when you buy a wine barrel, you will specify toast levels of light, medium or heavy, more or less the way you would set the little dial on your kitchen toaster.
There are some who think American whiskey barrels were traditionally burnt to sterilize them for re-use. Since virtually all consumer goods were being transported by barrel, the barrel in which you were about to pour your precious whiskey might previously have held tar or nails. Best to burn the inside and be sure to remove any flavors.
On the other hand, a study of scientific journals in the early nineteenth century, when the American whiskey industry was establishing its practices, discloses a good deal of discussion about the benefits of charred barrels for storing both spirits and water, due to the interaction between the liquid and the layer of purifying carbon thus produced. So it's quite possible that American distillers, always a technologically driven lot, were merely following the best industrial practices of the day. And indeed, the stereotypical general store of America's frontier always had a water barrel so that anybody could grab a cup and have a drink of clean water. The inside of that barrel was charred, too. Today, your glass of bourbon has a smoky, sooty, even burnt note because of the barrel in which it was aged.
So, the kind of barrel and the way it has been made are critical to determining the flavors that show up in a whiskey. But just as important is the age of the barrel. A brand new barrel, legally required in bourbon production, has a great deal of flavor to impart. A used barrel, less so, as the flavor impact fades with every passing year until the barrel becomes a nearly neutral vessel. Not every barrel is made from oak, it must be also noted. The Brazilians use native woods for their cachaÃ§as; Italian chestnut is less used today than a half century ago, but you can still find it in Italy and also in Japan.
While we will wrap up this unit with a detailed module on the basics of spirits tasting, here we must note that one of the least understood things about in aging spirits is how the barrel (especially when new) can impart flavors of smoke, spice, caramel, butterscotch and vanilla, among a myriad of others after extended contact. In Cognac, a new 400-liter barrel will absorb 12 liters of new spirit when eau-de-vie of the pot still is pumped into the barrel. The process of wood and spirit mingling charts the direction for the future of the evolving spirit and cannot be overestimated.
But if the very act of putting the spirit in a barrel imparts something to it, the amount of time in barrel gives something else. A barrel is a porous environment and thus allows in oxygen which, in concert with the oak itself and the many potential congeners found in the spirit, will substantially add to or alter that spirit's flavor and texture. Typically, the longer that spirit is aged in barrel, the more it will show confectionary notes of chocolate, almond, walnut, prune, fig, date, raisin and the like. Storing the barrel in a warm, humid environment can hasten these developments. A cooler, more temperate site, such as in Scotland or Ireland, slows the maturation process down. Scottish master distillers routinely claim that over 60 percent of a whisky's flavor comes from the oak barrel.
Finally, too many people assume that the older the spirit is and the longer it has been aged in barrel, the better it must be. True, if only because of evaporation and rarity, it's very likely that the oldest spirit will be the most expensive spirit you'll see. A barrel, as noted above, is a porous vessel and as much as 15 percent of the contents of that barrel might evaporate in a year's time in tropical climates, though the figure is usually much lower (2 to 5 percent) in temperate climates. Distillers relish calling this evaporation, the "angel's share", though we would have thought that the loss of valuable spirit might have brought less celestial thieves to mind.
But any drink, whether it's wine, beer or spirits, and whether those spirits are aged or enjoyed more or less straight from the still, ought to be judged on balance and on deliciousness. A balanced drink (as we shall see) is one that has lots of aromatic and flavor notes, but allows the mind, nose and mouth to linger over all of them, instead of being whacked over the head by one powerful note.
When a spirit comes off of the still, depending on its raw materials, it is likely to have various fruity, earthy, vegetal, herbal, floral and even spicy aromas and flavors. Those should form part of the interest for the drinker. A barrel adds more spice, but also nuttiness, caramel, butterscotch and the like. Time in a barrel should make the spirit softer. In a great spirit, all of these elements intermingle. Any spirit, no matter how great, will eventually lose that balance if left too long in the wood; indeed, all of its fruit will fade away, only to be replaced by tannins from the barrel. In a spirit like that, the nose can be intriguing to many people, but the mouth will be bitter, dusty and astringent.
How long is too long? As noted before, it depends upon the spirit, the barrel and where the aging is happening. Some distillers will say that one year in a hot place like the Caribbean causes rapid aging, and that it takes three years in cool Scotland or Ireland to equal that year. So there's no formula but an important axiom to remember is this: the oldest spirit isn't necessarily the best spirit.
OTHER METHODS OF SOFTENING SPIRIS
If barrels were first utilized for transport, we know that people quickly figured out that they could soften and deepen a spirit, making it more alluring and for many people easier to enjoy than the fiery stuff out of the still. While many stills today are massive contraptions manned by personnel cloaked in white lab smocks, ordinary people, like farmers and merchants who might as well have been moonshiners, made most historical spirits. Readers of this manual are not expected to have tasted moonshine or true poteen (a. k. a. in Ireland, poitin, potcheen), but your teachers have (in the spirit of research only) and can assure you that "white dog", as some call it, usually needs a bit of taming.
Barrels were one answer. But in many other instances, filtration was used. Moreover, the oldest of spirits brands (Kummel, Benedictine, Chartreuse and the like) might have seen barrels, but relied more upon flavorings, such as honey, to dampen their heat. In the next module, we'll talk about liqueur production, but sweetening and flavoring have been used since time immemorial to tone down the fire of distillate. After all, what is a cocktail but a delicious and softened vehicle for alcohol consumption?
Filtration is a newer method for softening the fiery potion, at least in comparison to flavoring. Lots of producers have done so. The Russians and Poles elevated filtration to an art for neutral grain spirits. To some degree, the definition of vodka is that it is a neutral grain spirit, distilled to remove as many impurities - good and bad - as possible, then further filtered to remove the last traces of them. In the vodka tasting, we'll notice that flavors and aromas remain nonetheless. Filters still in use include gunnysacks, earth, pressed paper, glass, sand, quartz, silver, diamond dust and, yes, charcoal (especially birch and maple). Each has its adherents and some postulate that each has its own residual flavors to impart.