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Understanding the role of casks in whisky maturation

Pokeno Whisky

When is a whisky not a whisky? Okay, this may not one of life’s greatest philosophical ponderances, but it’s worth noting that whisky cannot be called thus until it has spent time maturing in a cask (barrel).

Every distillery will look to achieve a different profile for their whisky initially through variations in the mashing, fermentation and distillation processes, locking these in to ensure that this profile is consistent from batch to batch. When this distilled product leaves the still and is collected in the spirit receiver, it is a completely transparent liquid known as ‘new make’ – so not yet whisky.

In what type of cask it must remain and for how long before assuming the name are considerations determined by the legislation in the county of origin and influenced by the desired flavour profile of the distiller. This raises another question to which there is no exact answer. How much of the flavour of the whisky comes from the barrel?

What we can be sure of is that the barrel plays a major role in defining the final profile of the whisky. Through changes in pressure, temperature and humidity during maturation, the liquid will expand to push up against the sides of the cask, absorbing flavour and colour, and then dilate.

In warmer climates this cycle will happen a lot quicker than in the colder temperate countries traditionally associated with old world whiskies, and so controlling the length of the maturation period becomes incredibly important to the end flavour. Longer is not necessarily better.

At Pōkeno we are very proud of our new make spirit, and so our aim is to enhance our whisky with the barrel, not dominate it with too much wood. And with 9% evaporation per year thanks to our sub-tropical climate, age quickly becomes irrelevant. With Old World Whisky makers having spent many decades communicating that older is better – as indeed it is for them – this is an important consumer education point for New World Distilleries.

Traditionally in single malt, the choice of cask has been either bourbon (from the US) or sherry (from Spain). The first time the ex-bourbon casks are filled with single malt is known as a first fill bourbon, then second fill, third fill etc. We have decided to use only first fill bourbon casks for our single malt, as they bring the richer notes we’re looking for to complement our whisky.

The sherry casks can be either re-seasoned casks or those emptied after a full maturation of the sherry. Here there is a myriad of choices: PX, Olorosso, Moscatel, Amontillado, Palo Cortado etc etc. More recently distilleries have started using barrels from other industries, such as wine casks, rum casks, cognac casks and virgin casks to name but a few. These barrels can either be used to fully mature the whisky or used as finishing casks for a second maturation. These different casks will give our whiskies unique colourings, from the ruby red of the sherry cask to the rich gold of the bourbon.

Many legislations around the world will only permit the use of oak casks. However, some of the New World whisky territories (New Zealand included) have written their legislation to stipulate that the whisky must be aged in ‘wooden casks’. This is to allow room for innovation and experimentation. A good example is the Totara Cask whisky we recently released as part of our Exploration series.

It is a long process to understand how well a particular wood will interact with the whisky – and then to see whether it is even possible to make barrels out of that wood. While I’m sure we’ll see more innovation in this area, this will not be a quick process as it takes many years of research for each new wood type.

Understanding the way that the different barrels interact with the whisky is as important for a distiller as determining the profile of the new make spirit. A bad choice of barrel can destroy a good whisky, while a mediocre spirit in a good cask will remain a mediocre whisky. Getting both aspects right is therefore essential to creating a great product.

For more info click on the link to watch the video.