April Greetings from Catoctin Creek - All about barrel aging
All about barrel aging
No foolin' here. Let's talk about barrels!
Whenever I give tours at the distillery, I always start with a little bit of history, then walk my way through production: mashing, fermentation, distillation, etc. We always end up standing in front of a tall stack of used barrels, which provides a nice backdrop for the discussion about barrel aging. You see, unlike vodka or gin or other white spirits, whiskey is not whiskey until it has kissed the barrel! There is an old saying that if you carry new-make spirit in a bucket (a wooden bucket, back in the day), by the time you reach the other side of the distillery, it has become whiskey.
In the United States, by federal law, all American whiskey must go into new, charred oak barrels. The law doesn't specify how long it must stay in that barrel, but economics suggest that you want to get the most out of each barrel, especially if you're only allowed to use it once. And when that barrel is emptied, legally, you cannot use it again for whiskey. It's a strange law, and industry folklore points to the 1800's when the lumber lobby was seeing the coopers (barrel makers) using a lot of wood. They passed a law that said that whiskey had to be placed into a new barrel each time, and that law is still on the books today.
What that law did, was set up a supply chain for what were otherwise still useful barrels. Enter into the picture, Scotland. Scotland is a country with different laws. It is also a country with lots and lots of whisky, and no trees, The British cut down almost all the old Scottish forests hundreds of years ago. So, today, 90+% of all scotch is aged in re-used American whiskey casks.
When people come into the distillery, and I meet them on tours, inevitably, someone will ask me about our aging in comparison to scotch. In this regard, and I speak as a deep lover of scotch whisky, the Scotch Industry (capital S, capital I) has done us an enormous disservice. Since the beginning of the big single malt craze in the 80's and 90's, almost every bottle has boldly on it a number—its age: 10 year old, 12 year old, 18, 21, etc. And as the lazy, simple creatures we are, everyone assumes that 10 must be good, but 12 must be better, and 18 better still, and 21 better than that! But it's more complicated than that...
See, when you age a spirit, you are making tradeoffs. With a relatively short-aged product, you have a higher percentage of the taste of the original grain. As the product ages, the grain flavor is absorbed by the char, and replaced by the flavors of the wood. If you draw it on a graph, it looks something like an "X", with the rising line being wood, and the diminishing line being the grain. Somewhere around 3-5 years, the lines cross, and you get a balance of the new make grain flavors and the wood flavors. What is not expressed in this graph is the effect of oxidization and more complex reactions that simply require time to soften and subtly change the spirit in nuanced ways.
So, where does this bring us? Well, I like to use the analogy of a tea-bag. A barrel, in many ways, is like a tea-bag. When you make a cup of tea, you are pulling flavors and tannins out of the tea. No different for barrels. We pull out tannins, vanillins, lignins, complex wood sugars, and many more things too complex to mention here. All those flavors of toasted nuts, caramel, and vanilla are actually white oak. You are drinking a glass of oak. And unless a distiller is using caramel coloring (We absolutely never do!), the color of the whisky is entirely from the barrel. If you were to pull samples from the barrel every few months or so, you'd see a nice progression of color from clear (like vodka), to that of Sauvignon blanc, then Chardonnay, then light honey tones, then dark and amber honey tones, to a light maple syrup tone, to darker maple, and so on... We like to pull our samples around 2-4 years, where we get a medium maple tone on the 80 proof rye.
In America, the average age of all American whiskey consumed is about 3 years old. This astonishes most people, because in products like Maker's Mark, Jim Beam, Jack Daniels, they don't put the number on the label. We've been trained by the Scotch Industry (again capital S, capital I), that all whiskey is about 12 years old or older. In the US, most is not, and rarely has been.
So, back to my tea-bag analogy: If, in America, we are required to use virgin casks, new wood each time; it's like that first-use tea-bag. You get a deep rich flavor, and a deep rich color. In Scotland, they use the re-used barrel, so it's like making a cup of tea from that 2nd or 3rd use tea-bag. Yes, you can do it, but the tea takes much longer to steep, and it's not quite as dark and rich as that first cup was. Next, you factor in climate to the story, and you see that here in Virginia, as in Kentucky, we get 100°F (40°C) in the summer, and -10°F (-25°C) in the winter, and crazy spring and fall weather which is always fluctuating. This weather drives us nuts as humans, but the whisky loves it! It drives the whiskey in and out of the barrel like a sponge. And how about in Scotland? It is almost always about 75°F (30°C) and overcast. There just aren't as many weather extremes driving that whisky in an out of the wood like here in the U.S.A.
Take for example, an Islay whisky that I love: Ardbeg 10 year old. This is a wonderful smoky scotch whisky with no added coloring, but at 10 years old, it is yellow. It looks like lemonade! And yet, it's three times older than our whisky, which is dark brown. That shows you the influence of the barrel and the weather on how it ages the spirit. I'll also note that all those fresh grain flavors and phenolics (smoke) in the Ardbeg 10 begin to wane and are lost when you get into the Ardbeg 21 year old. (Replaced by a stronger flavor of wood.) I personally prefer the 10 year old product over its older cousin.
So, drink your whisky, and enjoy what you like. If you like old woody whisky, then by all means, drink away (responsibly). But if you also like a whisky that is carefully produced and bottled as single barrel whisky so that you can taste both the wood and the freshness of the grain, then we might have a product or two for you! But if you come into the distillery asking me why our whisky isn't older, or why it's not like scotch, I will tell you that American Whisky and Scotch Whisky are not alike. They are apples, and oranges coconuts.
Sláinte and Cheers!
Old Tom Gin Released in April
On Saturday, April 27 at noon, we will release this year's batch of Old Tom Gin. We took our regular, award-winning Watershed Gin, and set some aside for a time to rest in a re-used Pearousia pear brandy barrel and then added 10% sugar. The result is a golden, rich, and surprisingly fruity gin which gleams in those cocktails made for Old Tom gins, like the famous Ramos Gin Fizz or the Martinez. Rye Society™ members may contact us at 540-751-3294 to obtain their bottle anytime before the release date.
Catoctin Creek Wins Gold and Silver at San Francisco World Spirits Competition
Awards include Gold Medal for Braddock Oak Red Wine Finish Rye Whisky – available at Total Wine nationwide
Additional honor include a Silver medals for the Roundstone Rye 92 Proof "Distiller's Edition"
Catoctin Creek Distilling Company has won two awards at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition (SFWSC), including a gold medal for the Braddock Oak Red Wine Finish Rye Whisky, a special release sold exclusively at Total Wine stores nationally. Catoctin Creek was also a silver medal for its Roundstone Rye 92 Proof "Distiller's Edition", which is a version of our popular Roundstone Rye single barrel whisky that has been hand selected from barrels that develop a spicier, richer profile.
"We are honored to continue to be Virginia's most awarded distillery. It is wonderful to be recognized by the judges at the world's most prestigious and recognized spirits competition,” says Catoctin’s co-founder and general manager Scott Harris. “Our team at Catoctin Creek continues to distill the best handcrafted Virginia whisky available today."
To read the full press release, click here.
Wow! We have some great events in the coming months. Here is the full list of events planned at the distillery and in the area this month. Many events are free, so be sure to join us for something fun:
- April 8 - Last Dance Dinner - Enjoy the very last of Mosby's Spirit at this wonderful dinner at West End. $75/pp
- April 11 - Yoga at the Distillery - Come share our beautiful, peaceful space for a Vinyasa Flow class. $20/pp
- April 13 - Bottling Workshop - Come join us for a free, informative day bottling your own bottles of whisky! FREE to attend
- April 29 - Sip + Craft - In collaboration with Finch Sewing Studio, we'll craft and cocktail. $45/pp
- May 10 - Dinner at the Distillery - Join us for our spring dinner at the distillery. $99/pp
For the full list of events, check our events page.
Cocktail of the Month – Colonial Mint Julep
The mint julep is perhaps the most iconic American cocktail, among a field of cocktails which are, by definition, American. The julep is the cocktail of the south, evoking images of horse-farms, warm summer breezes, and sipping cool beverages on a wide porch. The history of the julep dates back to the 1700s, when it was prescribed as a medicinal. This variant uses rye, not bourbon, and uses a brown sugar syrup, which to us has more flavor and is truer to the sugar that would have been found in colonial America.
[Part of the Art of the Cocktail series, season two.]
6 mint leaves, plus additional for garnish
½ oz brown sugar syrup
2 oz Roundstone Rye
Muddle the mint in the bottom of the glass, add the syrup and whisky, stir, and add crushed ice and more garnish mint.
Recipe from Colonial Spirits by Stephen Grasse.
See this cocktail and hundreds more on our cocktails page.
As always, there are lots of fun and information on our Instagram, Facebook and Twitter pages, where you can stay up to date with the daily activities at the distillery. We are open every Tuesday through Sunday for tastings and bottle purchases, so stop by and see us sometime!
Scott & Becky