Why Mention Casks?

I’ve written about wood before. The previous article talked in detail about casks because they are important to so many different kinds of maturing alcoholic beverages that it is useful to see the big picture: Where do casks come from and how are they used? You might think that a cask is a cask is a cask, but that’s not true at all. At least in the Scotch whisky business, distillers pay very close attention to their cask supplies, and even have job titles involving “wood management.” Casks are not an afterthought.

We saw that many ex-Bourbon barrels end up in Scotland — but they aren’t all alike. In order to maintain a steady supply of barrels of the same type and with the same flavor characteristics, various Scotch distillers have long-term arrangements with Bourbon producers — to the point where a multi-national corporation that owns a Scotch distillery might acquire a Bourbon distillery just so they have more direct control over the sourcing of the wood used in the barrels that will age their Scotch. There are specialist cooperages that are tied to certain Bourbon distilleries that use particular shapes, toast levels, residual moisture levels, etc.

As with much of the Scotch production process, details matter. To deliver a consistent product, year after year, decade after decade, it’s critical to keep track of all these details. The production of the new make spirit takes only weeks, from malting to mashing to distillation (months if you include growing the barley), whereas the aging takes years or decades. You had better get this part right or your careful production of the spirit will come to naught.

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