Whiskey is traditionally aged in oak barrels and is widely considered the most powerful tool in a distiller’s arsenal. Oak cask whiskey’s complexity, layers of flavor, aromas, texture, and subtle nuances are aspects of oak barrel maturation, making it a crucial element of the whiskey maturation process.
It’s generally considered that 80% of a whiskey’s flavor comes from oak barrel maturation. Oak is used to flavor and mature many spirits, including cognac, brandy, wine, port, sherry, tequila, and others.
There are more than 600 oak species, but the type used for American whiskey barrels is Quercus Alba, also known as American oak or white oak. There is no legal requirement to use a specific type of oak, but its abundance in the US makes it a popular choice, and its distinct characteristics are ideal for the whiskey maturation process.
White American oak differs from European oak in its vanillin content and wide grain. A wide-grained oak imparts more flavor into the spirit, and its high vanillin content lends vanilla, coconut, and spicy notes typical of oak cask whiskey.
Oak whiskey barrels are made by a cooper, an artisan specializing in barrel-making. During this process, the barrels are charred on the inside. That char represents another aspect of flavor that transfers to the liquid inside, resulting in smoky, toasty aromas and flavors that add depth and complexity.
Most new barrels produced are used to finish and age bourbon, as new charred white oak barrels are a designated requirement. After a single use, the barrels are resold, often used to mature other whiskeys, tequila, rum, sherry, and others.
As a spirit spends time in a barrel, it undergoes incredible changes in flavor, texture, and bouquet. Depending on the age of the barrel, the whiskey will take on varying degrees of “extract” from the wood. The younger the barrel, the more extract it will produce. Thus, the whiskey (or other spirit) will be more intensely flavored.
The extract weakens and passes on more subtle flavors and less color as the years pass. That said, even an older barrel has a powerful effect on the whiskey maturation process. Once a barrel has been used four or more times, it is considered “neutral” in terms of extract, but even a neutral barrel will add to the texture and mouthfeel of the whiskey.
Because of the evolutionary nature of whiskey barrels and since they are hand-crafted and individually charred, no two are alike. This is why master distillers choose to blend whiskeys from several barrels. Whereas one barrel might be newer and have more aggressive flavors and char intensity, whiskeys from older barrels will provide balance and unique layers of flavor that would not be possible from a single barrel.
The craft of blending whiskey is based in tradition and a source of pride for every distiller. Each batch can be as singular, unique, or consistent as they want, based on their meticulously managed barrel program and masterful blending skills.
Pendleton® Whisky is unlike many whiskeys you’ll find in America. It’s a Canadian blended whisky, which denotes a particular category with its own set of rules.
Like all Canadian blended whiskies, Pendleton® Whisky is aged for a minimum of three years in small oak barrels with a capacity of 700 liters or less.
From the still, the spirit is transferred to oak barrels to rest, where it takes on the flavors and aromas of the barrel.
Grains are typically a mix of rye, corn, wheat, and barley. However, Pendleton® Whisky 1910 Rye is a 12-year-old whisky crafted from a single grain, offering a significantly different flavor profile. It’s distinctly peppery with notes of tobacco, nutmeg, clove, and dried fruit—a symphony of flavors, each attributable to the whisky maturation process.
You’ll see aging designations on whiskey labels, and you’ve probably wondered, “Does whiskey get better with age?”
While we can’t pretend to know your palate, most whiskey aficionados will agree that whiskey becomes more complex and fascinating the longer it rests in cask. Once it’s bottled, it will not evolve any further. Therefore, a whiskey’s character is directly attributable to oak barrel maturation.
The longer a spirit spends in an oak barrel, the more character it develops. It becomes richer and mellower, and as time goes by, the vanilla and toast notes evolve into butterscotch, honey, brown sugar, creamy crème brulée, and spice.
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