Booze and wood is a love story that goes back 2,000 years.
At first it was a marriage of convenience. Our fermenting forebears figured out, long ago, that barrels made of wood were the best way to store, ferment, and ship liquids.
Then the romance began. Shipping spirits in wooden barrels over longer and longer distances led to the discovery of barrel aging. Trial and error taught them that white oak was the best wood of all.
When British merchants transported rum from the Caribbean in the 18th Century, it tasted better after weeks and months aging in oak barrels on the ship. A century later, the good ol’ boys of Kentucky loved how their corn whiskey, floating down the river in charred white oak barrels to New Orleans, became the delicious elixir we now call bourbon.
But like all good romances, the one between booze and oak needs a spark to get things started. So we asked Nate Lindquist, head cooper of Rolling Thunder Barrel Works in Newport, Oregon to show us how it happens.
TOASTING: Caramelizing the wood sugars.
In coopering, heat serves two purposes. It makes the wooden staves easier to bend, and it toasts the inside of the barrels to caramelize the sugars in the wood.
Think of the difference between eating a marshmallow right out of the bag versus one that was roasted beautifully brown over the campfire. The roasted marshmallow tastes better. It’s the same thing with white oak.
The toasting level determines which wood flavors will be emphasized during aging.
Light Toast: Brings out the green and oaky flavors of the wood.
Medium Toast: Caramel, vanilla, bread flavors. Medium toasts are the sweetest.
Medium Plus Toast: Now we’re getting into the spicy range with flavors of cinnamon, nutmeg and coffee. The oak sugars are starting to burn.
Heavy Toast: Smoke and burnt sugar flavors.
CHARRING: 45 Seconds Of Hell
Watching Nate char the Rolling Thunder barrels is an experience you’ll never forget. He lights the insides with a blow torch, then rolls the barrel to create air flow that sparks a fire.
Old timers called this 45 seconds of hell. Nate is counting out the seconds, while studying the aroma from the fire. When it smells right to him, he puts out the flames with a lid and water.
Why char when we’ve already toasted the barrels? The charcoal created by the fire filters the spirit and adds color. This is where whiskey and bourbon get their distinctive brown hues. The heaviest char, called an alligator char, makes the inside of the barrel blister until it looks like alligator skin.
There’s a lot more work before Nate has a finished barrel that can hold spirits. But as far as flavoring goes, he’s done. When we begin filling Nate’s barrels with whiskey, bourbon or whatever else we want to age, it’s the beginning of a beautiful relationship between booze and oak.
Come to the Rolling Thunder Barrel Works in Newport, Oregon and see how we’re preserving the 2,000 year old tradition of hand coopered barrels. With Oregon White Oak we harvested from the Coast Range, each barrel is made one at time, all by hand. When we fill Nate’s barrels with a Rogue Spirit, that’s when the magic begins.