Still Speak: The Craft of Barrel Aging
By Rob Dietrich, Head Distiller
What makes a great whiskey? Is it a bit of malted grain or corn, a strain of tamed or wild yeast, and a splash of the purest water? Absolutely, but just these ingredients are not enough.
Great whiskey also needs time – time in the finest casks available. It takes a lot of care and preparation to produce the finest whiskies in the world and it all ends in finding the right barrels to rest your hard-won spirit in.
It begins with grain. In order to make whiskey, you’ve got to start out with the intentions of making the best whiskey. That means the finest grains, the healthiest yeast, the best stills and the perfect casks.
Let’s say you want to make an American straight whiskey. A unique set of rules applies, and with a little bit of skill and a lot of imagination you can produce a top-quality whiskey. If you were working right alongside us here at Stranahan’s, you would start with 100% malt-barley – the majority of which is malted locally – and the purest water. You would use our proprietary yeast for fermentation and Vendome stills for distillation. Now it’s time to barrel!
You would use 100%, brand new, White American Oak casks with a #3 char in which to age the spirit. The staves are dried and cured for three months before being trimmed to fit an individual barrel, then charred with a great deal of flame before adding the butts of the barrel. By charring the wood, the natural sugars, vanillin and tannins rise to the burn surface, where the spirit can readily interact with those flavors and absorb them. 100% of the color comes from the wood and almost 50 to 60% of the flavor of whiskey comes from the wood itself!
So why do we use new barrels and namely, white oak? In order to be designated a “straight” whiskey, the spirit must be aged in brand new, white American oak casks only once, and aged no less than two years. I relate barrel-aging to using a teabag. You will get a strong cup of tea on the first use of the teabag, but on the second or even third uses, you will get a very watered down, less flavorful tea, or at the very least, it will take a lot longer to extract the desired flavor. The same can be said for barrels. That’s why you see 8- or 10- or 12-year Scotches. It takes longer for those flavors to be extracted once that barrel has already been used.
It takes a lot of effort to properly produce and age a whiskey – you have to have a lot of patience and foresight.
As I frequently tell guests who tour our facility, I am constantly living in the past, present and future. What we produced in the past affects the present. What we produce now affects the future. What we harvest today affects everything…
Cheers, and happy drinking!
Rob Dietrich, Head Distiller
Stranahan’s Colorado Whiskey