Do smaller whiskey barrels mature whiskey faster?June 27th, 2011
Or do they just make whiskey taste woody faster?
I’ve been thinking about this recently because I’ve tasted a lot of whiskies over the past couple of years that were matured in smaller barrels. While it’s true that the big distillers are using them (e.g., Laphroaig Quarter Cask), their use seems to be more prevalent with the smaller, craft distillers. Why? They want to mature their young whiskey as quickly as possible and get it on the market.
Let me be clear right now and say that I have absolutely no scientific evidence to support what I am thinking. Indeed, I can’t even cite specific examples, because it’s not something I have been really taking notes on. So, take what I have to say with a grain of salt.
Still, what I have noticed on several occasions when tasting young whiskey aged in smaller barrels, is that the whiskey didn’t seem taste mature. It just tasted woody. The smaller casks provide for more contact with wood because of the larger surface area for a given volume of whiskey. But it still tasted “green,” somewhat harsh, and very youthful in character.
So, I wonder: are we trying to cheat mother nature by using smaller barrels? Does it actually work, or are we just fooling ourselves?
Again, this is just a general observation. I have no facts to support my thinking here. But, I can tell you this: I was speaking with a very high official of a highly respected distilling company who is doing research on this topic, and their preliminary findings seem to support my thinking. Stay tuned for more information on this in a future blog post.
I respect (and embrace) the craft distilling movement and everything they do. I don’t want anyone to take this post the wrong way think I am accusing them of trying to pull a fast one on us. There are a lot of distillers using smaller barrels, not just the small guys. And like I said earlier, this is just a gut feeling of mine.
I do think that the use of smaller barrels as part of a mix of smaller and more standard size barrels can add a new flavor dimension and inject some extra wood influence into the whisky. Laphroaig Quarter Cask is an excellent example of this. But, I wonder what Laphroaig would taste like if all Laproaig was matured in quarter (or even smaller) casks?