Wood & Spirits

Wood & Spirits

Why many of the world's favorite spirits wouldn't exist without wood.

From Whisky to Rum, from Brandy to Cachaça (of Caipirinha fame) all have one thing in common: they are aged in a wooden barrel.
Collectively called “dark spirits”, for their wood derived dark color, they are increasingly dominating the top 100 list by volume. Annually published by the International Wines and Spirits Records (IWSR) company, it is the sectors most important benchmark and a great gauge for consumer tastes.[i]

So, why is wood so important to the spirit making process?

Historically of course, was the wooden barrel the most robust storage and transportation container available, making it the number one choice for millennia. Only when metal, glass and later plastic came into the picture was this dominance broken.
Evident by its wide use in spirit ageing still today, pure storage vessel necessity wasn’t the only reason though. Wood has a multitude of highly thought after influences on the flavors and colors of the liquid it holds. 

Number one is thereby its natural sponge like structure, that allows the permeation of gases but not liquids. Letting air in, and gaseous spirit compounds out, it effectively lets the spirit breath. This breathing allows for a multitude of chemical reaction between the spirit and oxygen. Called microoxidation this natural process strongly influences the color and taste of the liquid within. Also, the famous “angles share”, poetically describing the yearly loss of spirit within a sealed barrel, is the result of gaseous evaporation through the barrels wooden walls. 

Then there is of course the wood itself consisting of lignin, cellulose and hemicellulos as well as various extractive substances stored in and between the cells. Each individually reacts with the spirit and imparts different flavor notes. Read all about it in my recent article/book excerpt for Popular Science:

Altogether does the wooden barrel impart a host of flavor notes that are highly cherished by the consumer. The most recognized and widely used is thereby the wood of the mighty oak. With its strong and pleasing vanilla notes, but also hints of chocolate, butter and coconut the American and European oak has become the golden flavor standard. Probably most famous for its exclusive use in the aging of Whisky, it is also used in the making of Rum and Brandy.

The mighty oak tree
The flavors of oak wood

Only Cachaça is sometimes aged in barrels made from a host of different wood types. This was most interesting for me.
Although oak wood has a fantastic combination of flavors, I always wondered what else was out there. With an estimated 100.000 different types of tree species in the world one can only imagine what other fantastic wooden flavors have yet to be discovered.

During the research for my book “The Flavor of Wood” I discovered several fantastic wooden flavors. There was for example European black alder (also called red alder) wood that imparts the mouthwatering flavor combination of Darjeeling black tea and raspberries.

Brandy with Darjeeling tea and raspberries anyone?

The flavors of European black alder wood. (also known as Red Alder)

Imagine the incredible spirits that could be produced with all those different wood types!
Practically weekly I now discover new wooden flavors that would make fantastic alcoholic and non-alcoholic ageing vessels. Join me on this epic journey and lets together create an ever-expanding chart of wooden flavors. Share your discoveries on Instagram at @artur_cisar_erlach or by using the hashtag #theflavorofwood

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