At Glen Breton Whiskey, we know what it takes to make a fine Canadian whiskey. We know how to create the ideal combination of taste, smell, and looks to ensure our customers can enjoy whiskey aged in the right way, every time.

But when it comes to that aging, what exactly does that mean? Why is it important? Let’s look more closely at the process of aging whiskey so you know exactly what to look for when you’re choosing your next stunning bottle.

Why Is Whiskey Aged?

There’s almost no doubt that you will have heard of aged spirits – and specifically whiskey –before. Usually, we’re told that the longer a whiskey has been aged, the better it tastes, and that is the general idea. But what does the aging process really do, and how does it make the whiskey so much better?

Simply said, aging is the process of storing distilled spirits in barrels for a certain amount of time; for whiskey, that amount is typically three years. Because raw alcohol has harsher flavors, aging spirits removes them while also bringing woody flavors from the barrels, which imparts a unique flavor. Spirits such as whiskey and brandy are often aged in the manufacturing process since this step is critical to their formation. However, rum and tequila are also common candidates for aging.

Oak is often utilized to make the barrels or casks that are used to mature the alcohol. It’s possible to char them in order to open up the wood, which will allow the spirit to better absorb and extract the flavor from the wood. It is possible to utilize other kinds of wood, however this is dependent on the intended final flavor profile of the spirit since various types of wood can substantially vary the profile of the flavor.

What Is The Difference Between Aging Times?

If you believe that the older a spirit, the better it tastes, the difference between a three-year-aged whiskey and a 15 year-aged one may well be easily discerned. A young whiskey often has a classic spirit flavor, which may be harsher and more one-dimensional than in an older bottle of the same spirit. Longer aging in the barrel allows whiskies to develop a richer flavor profile with less of the harshness and more body and a longer finish.

However, it should be noted that each whiskey is unique. Even 10-year-old whiskies have been shown to be more complex than 15-year-old whiskies. It’s also important to keep in mind that your preference for a certain whiskey is mostly a matter of personal taste.

How Are Whiskey Barrels Made?

Perhaps it’s how whiskey barrels are made that is the real difference when it comes to aged whiskey. It all begins with choosing the oak.

Barrel-aging whiskeys like Scotch and Bourbon must use oak as the preferred wood for their casks. What is the purpose of using oak? Roasting it gives tastes like caramel, vanilla, and nuts when it’s made into a barrel.

Nearly 600 distinct species of oak exist, each with unique characteristics that reflect the region in which it grows. However, not all of these oaks are suitable for the aging of whiskey. Although a wide range of oaks may be found across the world, the most often used species is Quercus alba (American oak).

Casks are made at cooperages, which often collaborate with sawmills, lumber suppliers, and forestry commissioners to guarantee that the oak is supplied responsibly.

The process of creating a barrel begins in the forest, and the best trees to choose are tall, straight oaks that, ideally, don’t have too many branches – after all, you only really need the trunk. These are harvested and taken to a sawmill to be chopped into staves. Each tree should provide enough wood for three barrels. The mill uses a ‘quarter cut,’ which involves cutting the wood against the grain (for American oak) to prevent the oak from leaking when it is made into a barrel.

Because a white oak tree contains around 60 percent water when it is cut, the quarter-sawn wood must be left to dry when it arrives at the cooperage. Depending on the oak species, moisture level, and planned use, a cooperage will normally air-dry the wood for a few weeks to many years. This method not only allows water to gradually evaporate from the wood, preventing splitting and cracking, but it also causes tannins and other unwanted components in the wood to degrade.

Next comes the shaping. All of the wood surfaces are planed first to achieve uniform widths and to tidy up the outside. The larger staves will form the body of the barrel, while the shorter ones will make the heads, or ends.

Holes are made into the sides of the smaller pieces, which are fitted with dowels and connected to make a flat oak square. The squares are carved into circles with rounded edges and will be placed on the barrel to make the ends later. Long, planed pieces of woodare shaved into a trapezoid shape to generate staves, which, when put together neatly, form a barrel shape.

Assembling or elevating a cask is similar to putting together a puzzle. The cooper uses approximately 31 staves per cask, but since they are all various widths, they must choose the best sizes to build a leak-proof barrel with no holes. At the start, a very broad stave is chosen for which a bunghole will be drilled after construction. The cooper secures the staves together with temporary steel hoops.

It is heated and tied by temporary hoops to bend the staves into a barrel form without breaking or fracturing the wood. The inside of the barrel must first be toasted and/or charred, according to the needs of the distillery, vineyard, or brewery, before the ends may be installed.

Although the techniques vary, both toasting and charring entail heat-treating the wood in preparation for filling with fresh make spirit. To toast a barrel, hold it over a heating source or flame for several minutes, depending on the level of toast desired, to break down wood components that extract certain flavors into the whiskey. Toasting breaks down lignin, which produces vanillin, the basis of whiskey’s vanilla flavors.

Charring entails lighting the inside of the barrel for a considerably shorter amount of time, just a few seconds, in order to develop a char layer that will react with the spirit and eliminate undesired flavor components during maturation. While toasting penetrates the wood deeply, charring simply affects the cask’s surface.