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Oak: part one

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Capn Jimbo
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Joined: 11 Dec 2006
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PostPosted: Mon Aug 15, 2011 3:48 am    Post subject: Oak: part one Reply with quote

Can you tell the difference in oak?

Yes. Or no.

Distillers love to proclaim that their rums are "painstakingly aged" in oak, and sometimes even name the oak, eg. French Limosin or when aging or finishing occurs in used sherry barrels. Some reviewers - especially Wolfboy - actually claim to be able to taste the tannins in what they love to call "over-oaked" rums.

Never you mind that tannins - when present - are not tasted, but rather experienced as a drying, slightly puckery sensation. This from Introduction to Tasting 101. Felt, but not tasted. Got it?

Let's first start with the notion of cost and just where distillers get their barrels.

Many distillers age their rum in used American bourbon barrels that by law, can only be used once. Period. The bourbon distillers then sell their once-used oak barrels to the rough, er rum trade. Now the Wolfboy will claim that these barrels are cheap, and delivered with leftover bourbon or sherry sloshing around in the bottom.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

These barrels are often disassembled, cleaned, reassembled and sometimes toasted or retoasted, then seasoned (sealed) and - finally - get to hold rum. They are not particulary cheap. Thoughtful rum distillers are very, very careful about the barrels they buy. Oaks vary widely in their geography of origin, preparation, grain patterns, toasting, storage and former product held.

All greatly affect the characteristics they will add to the rum.

Once-used American oak bourbon barrels are the least expensive, while French Limosin oak costs substantially more. Used sherry barrels are the most expensive by far, which is why so few distillers finish in them.

This last unlike the magnificent single malt distillers who are so fanatical about the wood,that they actually obtain specific oak from specific area and with specific grain, manufactured to their own criteria, and then - are you sitting down - then loaned to designated sherry distillers to be seasoned for a specific amount of time, and then finally returned to be used for their fine whisky!

Not rum distillers.

Barrels are also classified by first fill and subsequent fills. As each year passes, the barrels impart substantially less and less of the "oak qualities" for which they are used. Older barrels and vats - though they will polish the spirit nicely - really have lost most of their oaking qualities. This especially is one of the great misunderstanding of "aged rum".

Aged in what kind of oak, what size of barrel, with what former contents and what fill of that barrel. All make a huge difference in the outcome.

For example, a year in a small, first fill barrel will achieve far more oak effects in a year than a old, large barrel will achieve in years more. This is why the statement "aged in oak for ten years" doesn't really tell you much - but the marketing department would have you believe otherwise.

An excellent example: Phil Prichard's Fine Rum spends but four years in small, new oak barrels, but as God is my witness, you can compare his amazing rums to others claiming ages exceeding ten or more years. Don't get me wrong - you can't get real aging effect by throwing in a bunch of oak chips for a year, but there are real and noticeable differences in the coopered barrels used.

Enough for now, stay tuned...

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