If people from way back 2000 years ago (or earlier even) hadn’t relied on wooden barrels as the best method to store large volumes of spirits, distillers of today would not have considered infusing their whiskey with oak dimensions.
To put it simply, it’s a happy accident of sorts that wood is now used for whiskey flavor enhancement, thanks to the more complex texture it lends to the drink, as compared to whiskey held in a less reactive container. So what then is this magic unique to oak that makes it the only wood vintners trust for whiskey storage? Whiskey benefits from oak in two specific ways:
In terms of whiskey, an oak barrel controls oxidation. This step-by-step process also helps control astringency and improve stability. It gives the whiskey more complex, interlocking aromas aside from their basic alcohol scent. This is the outcome of letting just a particular amount of oxygen to get into the drink.
Oak-Unique Notes and Flavors
Inside oak are certain kinds of complex chemicals that affect the flavor and texture of the whiskey in their own characteristic ways. This is felt in the evolution of herby flavors, for example, or those notes of tobacco or tea, and simply the totality produced by tannin as it fuses with the tannin coming from the fermented grain.
Such compounds add pleasing nuances in a finished whiskey. A few examples would be furfural from the byproducts of carbohydrate breakdown, oak lactones that impart woodiness, and hydrolyzable tannins which are crucial to the astringency or mouth feel of the whiskey. The final texture and flavors of the whiskey have much to do with the chosen oak barrel’s chemical makeup, and also with the type of oak used and how it was built.
Also, American oak offers flavors that are remarkably different from French Oak. Air-dried staves are not the same as those that were dried with the heat of a kiln. Even how the staves are bent causes important variables in the manufacturing process. All whiskey merchants have their own convictions about the ideal process for manufacturing barrels to make the best-tasting whiskey. But all are one in the belief that barrel making is one complex craft where there is no room for amateurs.
The good news is, it is possible to purchase a high-quality oak barrel from a reputable maker right on the Internet. But as always, you need to do a bit of working finding the right maker for you. You can rely on the web for this as well, and do focus on reviews written by customers. But stick to popular consumer websites to get authentic testimonials rather than marketing websites that are full of fabricated reviews.