Around the World With Whisky Wood

 courtesy Carson Artac Photography

courtesy Carson Artac Photography

Ex-sherry casks, port casks, bourbon casks. The majority of casks used for whiskey maturation are defined by the liquid they previously held. The wood type, however, isn’t mentioned as often. Oak is expected. Scotch and bourbon regulations state that the barrels used for maturation must be made of oak. European and American oak is easier to find, and easier to bend into casks without leakage.

The whiskey industry, however, is changing. As the global whiskey boom continues, distillers are experimenting like never before. Countries with no history of whiskey making have entered the global market with no traditions or rules holding them back. This open things up for some distillers who are seeking out unique, rare types of oak, and here are many.

Here are some of the wood types kick-starting a new era of maturation beyond a barrel’s previously held liquid.

Garry Oak

Helmed by Seattle’s Westland distillery (Washington State Distillery of the Year in the 2017 NY International Spirits Competition), the Garryana Native Oak series uses the rare species of oak, quercus garryana, also known as Garry oak. Garry oak is native to the Pacific Northwest, found in the stretch between California and British Columbia, and delivers notes of dark, rich spice, chocolate and roasted coffee.

The issue is, the oak is scarce, and as its use in whiskey maturation is very new, there is no stable way of sourcing it. However, this doesn’t stop the Westland team, as they venture out, hunting down even a single stave of the oak across the West Coast. They make sure to use only fallen trees so that they aren't adding to the depletion of the species.

According to Westland, Garry oak grows “only in roughly five percent of its former habitat.” Paired with the fact that the wood has always been seen as scrap wood, for burning, furniture and flooring, makes its scarcity understandable. The distillery has been lucky up until now, as they’ve managed to secure thousands of Garry oak staves. Yet, the team understands that the years ahead will only grow harder, as the oak’s popularity starts to increase. Building relationships is key, a belief the team lives by.

In 2016, 10 casks of Garry oak were filled, while last year saw 25. They have a goal of filling 100 casks annually in the future.

Swedish Oak

As the pioneering whisky distillery, Mackmyra has led the Swedish whisky movement by utilizing ingredients sourced within a 75-mile radius of the distillery. Taking the term “local” even further, Mackmyra uses casks of Swedish oak, sourced in the south of Sweden. The oak was initially used for shipbuilding.

“Swedish oak (Quercus Robur) is very slowly grown here so its character comes from that slow growth,” says Angel D’Orazio, Mackmyra’s master distiller. “It has less vanilla than the Quercus Alba from the US and seems to deliver a more peppery, spicy side, compared to its American cousins.”

Try the Svensk Ek (Swedish Oak) bottling by Mackmyra for a first-hand experience of Sweden’s native oak.

Cherry, Hickory, & Apple Wood

The Cleveland Underground Select utilizes several types of wood, as they seek to unlock the many, unique flavours that can be imparted from different types.

The hickory wood finished bourbon brings notes of smoke and powerful spice while the black cherry wood bottling delivers tart, sour notes and sweet spice. The portfolio includes maple, apple, and honey locust wood expressions.

Cleveland Whiskey is bringing wood maturation to new, undiscovered heights.

Chestnut

The Method and Madness range of Irish whiskeys is helmed by the Masters and Apprentices of Midleton Distillery, and aims to instil further innovation into the booming Irish whiskey industry. New flavours, methods of distillation and wood finishes are some of the exciting happenings afoot.

Of the four expressions released initially, the MM Single Pot still is the most exciting in terms of wood, finished in French chestnut casks. The whiskey delivers sweet, subtle fruit, banana, and gentle cinnamon.

Yoshino Sugi (Japanese Cedar)

Kamiki is a blended whisky comprising of Japanese and imported foreign whisky, aged in Japan, and finished in Yoshino Sugi wood, known as Japanese cedar.

The first of its kind, the Kamiki is blended and matured in Osaka, Japan. Japanese spring water is added to bring the whisky to bottling strength which is then released in batches. Japan’s cedar, most commonly used for buildings and temples, imparts subtle notes of honey, sandalwood, and ginger to the final expression.

Strides are being made in unique wood maturation, as consumers and distillers alike realize that there is a range of flavours yet to be discovered, influenced by the endless types of wood across the globe. The casks may be harder to put together, and may leak more, but that extra bit of effort by the aforementioned producers is definitely paying off.