Two informative articles on coopering written by Shelley Sackier, Director of Distillery Education, Reservoir Distillery (permission to republish was granted).
Lock, Stock & Barrel: Going All In With Your Cooper
I could write countless articles on the topic of flavor. I could say that as we understand the term today, an easy formula to define it would be scent + taste = flavor.
Or I could argue that biologically speaking, flavor isn’t determined only within the oral and nasal cavities; rather it includes parts of the brain, as well as a person’s sensory memories, personalized palate, and other internalizations. Really, I like to think of the equation for flavor as a list of five ingredients: we’ll keep scent and taste, but we’ll also add a dash of touch, past experiences, and expectations. Now that’s flavor.
Of course, when we think of flavor in this way, it makes sense why spirit makers take such pains to understand their process, scanning all the components that may contribute both intended and undesirable profiles to their final product. Take it a step further, and you find an impressive list of sources to be mindful of, to play with and utilize, or to do your darndest to avoid.
Here’s why wood is a great place to start…
RESERVOIR, UNDER THE INFLUENCE
It’s believed that a whiskey receives between 50 to 80 percent of its flavor profile from the wood it’s aged within. So while it is important to acknowledge the influence of this woody embrace, we should also highlight the impact of those relationships we share with our barrel makers and brokers. To further whittle the field, let’s simply focus on the makers—the coopers and the cooperage responsible for engineering and crafting our sacred barrels.
This month, our team at Reservoir Distillery traveled southwest to Atkins, Virginia, to visit the Speyside Bourbon Cooperage—one of Reservoir’s highly esteemed barrel makers with wood expertise that originated in Scotland, 1947. It was here that we all had the privilege to meet Josh Chandler, Speyside’s plant manager and tour guide extraordinaire. It was also here that we learned just how advanced coopering has become since the days when highly skilled craftsmen practiced the trade by hand.
BURIED WITHIN THE WALLS (OF A BARREL)
As an industry, we’ve come to understand that wood’s weighty flavors are derived from the organic compounds located deep within the wood of each barrel. Its cell walls are comprised of cellulose, hemicellulose, and lignin, each of which contribute the qualities we’ve come to expect and enjoy in our whiskey:
The hemicellulose offers up color and sugars soluble in alcohol, providing the heady notes of caramel. The staves within a barrel, rich with lignin, break down into vanillin, furfural, syringol, eugenol, and lactones—all flavor molecules that give spirits their fruity, nutty, smokey, spicy, and buttery profiles. And one would be remiss not to include the influence of those mouth-puckering, astringent tannins.
Of course, the degree to which these ingredients will present themselves (and therefore affect the flavor profile of your spirit) is dependent upon several factors:
The challenge is deciding where to start first. With countless elements to factor in, will you request something time-tested and results-proven? A cask that falls within the realm of the industry standard and customer approved? Or will you stray outside of those parameters and journey a fresh path like that of a true frontiersman—play with cask shape, alter the toast, the char, or where that heat is concentrated to achieve caramelization?
Will you use a different source of heat—one that might infuse the barrel with flavors unique to its wood? Applewood? Hickory? Peat smoke? An approach to toy with phenols, perhaps?
Will you choose a unique type of wood, pursue oak from lands afar—chasing a distinctively place-based flavor? Or perhaps you wish to move more fully into the land of fringe-like trials and join others searching for methods where your barrel more quickly and efficiently removes some of your spirit’s less desirable compounds.
Whether you work with one of the dwindling number of independent coopers remaining in the world (1,500-2,000) or a larger, modern cooperage like Speyside applying, in their words, “state of the art technology and modern manufacturing principles to the age-old craft of barrel making,” my point is easy to illustrate: Yes, the world is your oyster--but your cooper is your gatekeeper.
The relationship you foster together may be the key to unlocking not just one new shelf of creativity, but access to an inexhaustible library of choice. Leverage that relationship and perhaps you’ll hack the next equation for flavor.
And now, an eye-opening peek into a marvelous carpentry journey you shouldn’t miss.
Barreling Through the Speyside Bourbon Cooperage
I never miss an opportunity to visit historical museums or villages set up to recreate bygone days. Seeing people dressed in antiquated clothing performing essential tasks with obsolete tools is not an experience I scoff at, rather I find I’m reflecting on the great advancements made over the short decades behind me.
Last week, our team traveled southwest to Atkins, Virginia to visit the Speyside Bourbon Cooperage—one of Reservoir’s highly esteemed barrel makers. And it was here we all had the privilege to meet Josh Chandler, Speyside’s plant manager and tour guide extraordinaire. And it was also here that we were educated as to just how advanced the coopering industry has grown since the days when highly skilled craftsmen practiced the trade by hand.
We here at Reservoir impress upon our customers the strength and influence of provenance, as all our ingredients—i.e., anything that influences our flavor—comes right from our little patch of earth. Virginia has a singular taste, and we capture every drop, scent, and organic compound that allows us to say our whiskeys’ flavors are “terroir-driven.”
A significant part of that distinctively place-based flavor comes from the organic compounds deep within the wood of each barrel, as the staves that comprise a five, ten, or a 53-gallon barrel are rich with lignins, which break down into vanillin, eugenol, furfural, and lactones—all flavor molecules that give our spirits their spicy, fruity, nutty, and buttery profiles. And as the majority of trees Speyside Cooperage utilizes come from Virginia forestland, we grow increasingly enthusiastic to share what we now recognize as true Virginia bourbon flavor.
We pride ourselves on highlighting Reservoir’s unique process of ‘grain to glass’ whiskey making, but we’d be remiss if we did not back farther up—a step or two behind where that timeline begins. I’ve written before about one of our stave mills--The Ramoneda Brothers in Culpeper, Virginia—and Speyside operates several of their own mills as well, but I’ve yet to take you on a tour of how our barrels are assembled. It’s an eye-opening peek into a marvelous carpentry journey you shouldn’t miss.
Founded in Scotland in 1947, the Speyside cooperage has impressive lineage, coming from a long line of traditional and highly skilled barrel makers. Estimates of remaining coopers worldwide are around 1,500—2,000.
And for as lovely the venerable and time-honored practice of coopering by hand is, where barrel makers apprenticed for approximately seven years before being capable of raising seven casks a day, Speyside has applied, in their words, “state of the art technology and modern manufacturing principles to the age-old craft of barrel making.”
Here in Virginia, those new design principles allow them to utilize equipment safer for the environment and their employees, use less energy than older manufacturing processes would require, create less waste and pollutants, and build stronger, better barrels than ever before.
Not only are the barrels they produce casks of the highest quality, but the company concentrates on their overall footprint left behind after manufacturing their product. Speyside has been recognized for their sustainable log buying practices, and every scrap of byproducts is either sold to other manufacturers or utilized in house via recycling techniques.
So, we here at Reservoir feel fortunate not only to partner with a company whose gilt-edged product helps to make our whiskies shine with a depth and breadth of flavor we’re determined to offer our customers, but also because their level of standards resonate deeply with ours: Offer the world the best you have.
And there you have it. Another glimpse into our process. I hope it will serve to educate, entertain, but more important, enrich your next sip of whiskey. Let’s all raise a glass to these men and women of great skill. Because they’re building better barrels, we’re bottling beautiful whiskies!
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