Aging of whisky/whiskey
Replies: 16 - Last Post: Jun 26, 2013 5:47 AM Last Post By: VinnyD
Jun 14, 2013 2:54 PM
Aging of whisky/whiskeyA few years ago I learned at a lecture/tasting by the master of the restored George Washington distillery that when Washington was making whiskey, aging it in wood was unknown. The whiskey he made was a clear spirit, white lightning, like a grain vodka.
Two minutes of googling did not reveal the answer, so I throw out the question here: When did people begin to age whisky in wood barrels? Did it first occur with brandy? When did that start?
I ask because a columnist in the current TLS notes that the first writer in English to use the word vodka calls it "vodka (whisky)," in 1820. The columnist calls that a sketchy comparison at best, but if the whisky that the writer was familiar with was unaged, it's a very good comparison indeed. I would correct the columnist, but for all I know the Scots began aging in oak sometime between 1790 and 1820.
Jun 15, 2013 6:41 AM
1According to the Wikipedia article on brandy, brandy distillation from wine in W Europe goes back to about the 12th century. The original idea, clearly less than ideal, was to preserve wine for export, and redilute it on arrival. It was already common for alcoholic drinks to be stored and transported in barrels by that time, so the discovery that brandy was improved by aging it in barrel came shortly afterwards.
Whisky certainly was being made in Scotland and Ireland by the 15th century, but we don't know about it earlier than that. This tends to suggest that barrel aging first started with brandy. However I doubt the barrel aging of whisky was in deliberate imitation of brandy. I would expect that, with the use of barrels to transport and store alcoholic drinks in general, some whisky was put into barrels from early times, though perhaps far from all of it. Scotch whisky producers have long used second-hand barrels which have been previously used for the importation of sherry, brandy, rum, wine, madeira and the like - whereas cognac uses fresh barrels, which is why I tend to suspect the practice is not in deliberate imiation. So I expect at some point, probably fairly early on, someone just took a second hand barrel and used it to store some whiskey. When it became a specific feature of Scotch whiskey production, I have not discovered on this brief tour.
Jun 15, 2013 8:24 AM
2What I'm finding is that aging started with wine--barrels were an easy way to store it. Then people began figuring out that some woods made it better; some made it worse.
Cooperage dates to Roman times. The oldest known tools are from around 100BCE, but the art is assumed to be older. Cato (died 149 BCE) wrote about wooden wine casks.
By the first century CE, the Romans were mainly using barrels to store & ship wine, for convenience, not yet for aging. By the second century, the use had spread throughout Europe.
One history of whiskey making in Colonial America notes that there is little mention of aging bourbon until around the middle of the 19th Century, although barrels were certainly used for transport & storage. The source also mentions a "growing respect for the proper aging of whiskey and brandy" in the late 18th. Century.
Another source says Dutch merchants who were dealing in French wines in the 17th C. figured out that distilled wine took up less space on a ship--and improved with age as it sat around in barrels. (Distilled wine had been around a lot longer.)
The plural of anecdote is not data.
Jun 17, 2013 2:27 AM
3Vinny, those dates are what distillers have told me. The French revolution apparently had something to do with an availability of barrels. Smuggling and a new middle class market in England also played a role. Unfortunately, I was generally sampling the stuff as the history was explained to me, so I don't remember the details and can't link to anything.
Vodka is a fairly apt comparison but schnapps is possibly slightly closer - Scots had more contact with Scandinavians than Russians.
The one sample of pot liquour I've had was Chivas Regal. At about 60 per cent alcohol it was too throat burning to make any reliable sort of flavour comparison with vodka or schnapps.
Jun 17, 2013 4:42 AM
Jun 17, 2013 12:40 PM
Jun 18, 2013 2:30 AM
6People have also tried oaking wines with oak chips. However contact with the wood is not the only effect of barrel aging, so it does not produce quite the same effect, and so the method is restricted to cheaper wines which continue to taste cheap.
A better method of reducing the cost of barrel aging has been devised, and I'm surprised hasn't caught on more widely. One of the reasons barrels are so expensive is the curving and tapering of the staves and making them fit together without leaking. So someone has devised a stainless steel frame which straight flat wooden staves can be slotted into and clamped into place, in effect a stainless steel tank with wooden "windows".
Jun 23, 2013 10:43 PM
7Wikipedia can be accurate...or not.
"is the oldest spirit in the world, used as a medecine in former times it has been distilled and appreciated since 1411"
Having gone to Condom to look into armagnac (wrong time of day, they were closed) and preferring it to cognac,
" Armagnac had retained an association with Arab science in the Middle Ages through the famous University of Montpellier, closely connected with the great Islamic seat of learning at Salerno. It was not surprising that the Armagnaçaise learnt the Arab art of distillation before any other French wine making district. According to a document in 1411 in the archives of the Haute Garonne, a man called Antoine distilled wine at Toulouse to obtain aygue ardente, also called aygue de bito or eau de vie (water of life), a definition which emphasizes that the products were originally used for medicinal purposes. A further document in 1441 records that “distilled spirit relieves pain, keeps one young and brings with it joy”."
Obviously wood casks were necessary, the cost of copper was prohibitive, pottery was not practical and what was left? France has long had excellent oaks and coopers had been making casts for the storage of other foodstuffs so well-made casks could be obtained.
I know some of the best Scots whiskies are aged in former port and sherry barrels which gives additional character to the finished product. I do like whisky and I remember exploring what the local Trader Joe's (when they were still a fairly small chain) offered; often there were very limited offers and so I was able and could afford to same some wonderful spirits.
Like Nutrax's friend Lord Peter, I'm not a fan of cocktails and the idea of using a fine whisky (esp single malt or armagnac) to mix with other flavorings is an anathema to me.
I do remember drinking some vodka made with buffalo grass, supposedly an authentic recipe in SF in the 60s...so long ago I can't remember the difference.
Jun 24, 2013 5:10 AM
But that argument would apply equally well to 18th-century America, and my expert was quite clear that Washington's whiskey as a white spirit. For that matter, the argument would apply to the moonshiners in the 19th and 20th century, whose product was also clear.
Jun 24, 2013 7:16 AM
9Wood casks are not "necessary", glazed pottery would have been an alternative storage medium for the medieval spirits maker. Indeed people in Britain used to slowly poison themselves by drinking too much cider which had been stored in lead-glazed ceramic vessels. The Romans famously stored wine in amphorae before barrels took over. In a few places in Portugal, they still use ceramic vessels for wine-making and storage.
Pisco, the grape brandy made in Chile and Peru, comes in both wood-aged and colourless versions, or at least the Chilean version does, I'm only familiar with the Chilean version. I was pleasantly surprised how grapey and un-vodka-like the colourless version can be. Though I expect it is stored in stainless steel rather than ceramic. I find good colourless Pisco preferable to cheap wood-aged whiskey.
Irish moonshine known as "poitín", (and various anglicised spellings) of which there are today legally distilled versions, is a colourless vodka-like spirit.
Unfortunately it must be pointed out that it is permitted to add colouring to Scotch whisky, without mentioning it on the label, and I believe it is reasonably common practice to take advantage of this situation.
Jun 24, 2013 8:05 AM
When Whiskey Was the King of Drink from Colonial Williamsburg. Just found this one.
It goes on to discuss George's distillery.
This FAQ specifically says
No, during the 1790s whiskey typically was not aged. The storage area was for stocking whiskey until customers purchased it.
I did find mention elsewhere that in England, at least, customers would sometimes buy newly distilled liquor & age it themselves.
My father and grandfather made wine & "grappa" during Prohibition. I put "grappa" in quotes because from my father's description, it was pretty much rotgut. It was made from the skins, seeds, leaves, twigs, and bugs left over after the grapes had been thoroughly pressed and filtered.
My father talked about holding a cup under the spout and drinking it hot, straight out of the still. Not for the faint of heart or palate.
The plural of anecdote is not data.
Jun 24, 2013 10:44 PM
Jun 24, 2013 11:26 PM
12I remember in SF North Beach in the 60s some bars would open at 6am (the legal opening time) and there would be the old Italians, a cup of coffee (strong Italian, but not espresso) and a glass of grappa.
Clear, inexpensive and probably kept them going all day. Never tried it, asked about it but was told to leave it to the old men.
But in France, marc can be made from well-known grapes and thus have a special marque..and be more than just a cheap eau-de-vie from leftovers.
Jun 25, 2013 1:20 AM
Jun 25, 2013 7:40 AM
14A Washington Post article, that distinguishes grappa "of the 'white lightning' variety [that] burned the esophagus like kerosene" and "Good, premium grappa,... a lovely and complex spirit, just like premium tequila. "
There's Pleasure in the Grip of Grappa
The plural of anecdote is not data.
(4 star Hotel)
From US$168.54 per night
(4 star Hotel)
From US$120.33 per night
(4 star Hotel)
From US$282.22 per night