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Scotch Whisky by John Lamond

Depending on who you speak to, the received wisdom is that between 70% and 80% of a whisky's flavour comes from the wood -- either the honey/beeswax/coconut/etc. flavours directly attributed to and drawn out of the oak during maturation or else an extended flavour as a result of oxidization, e.g., the way that a youthful, juicy fruit flavour transmogrifies into dried fruits or marmalade as a result of some years' aging.

The industry's understanding of what happens to the spirit as it slumbers within the cask has expanded exponentially within the past 20 years. A cooper (those who make the barrels) would previously have said that any wood would do just fine, while a certain leading member of the industry said in the early 1990s that a cask would last for 80 years: for the first 40 years it would give something to the whisky, while for the remainder it would merely act as an oxidization vessel. That individual is now much more precise and demanding of his wood.

For him, a cask now only lasts for 3 fillings: the first and second fillings are for the single malt and the third filling is for the blend. As little as 13 or 14 years before the barrel is consigned to firewood!

Until 1983, most Scotch whisky was matured in casks that had previously held sherry because all sherry sold in the U.K. was shipped here in barrels, thus creating a ready supply of empty sherry barrels (known as "butts"). The Scotch whisky distillers took the casks from the sherry importers...and got them cheaply. In 1983, however, the Consejo Regulador in Jerez changed the laws and all sherry must now be bottled in Spain, eliminating barrel shipments entirely.

The full text of this article is available in the Winter 2014 issue of Scottish Life.

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