Tales Seminar: The Global Drinks Business
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The Mysteries Wood Maturation at Tales of the Cocktail

Here are notes from the Mysteries of Wood Maturation seminar at Tales of the Cocktail convention in New Orleans.

  • "We want to keep the character of the base spirit, but we don't want to have vinegar. Wood helps us do that. It takes some of those acids out that we don't want." Dale DeGroff
  • "We don't really know how far back barrel usage goes." Doug Frost. Theoretically you could throw it off a boat and it would float for a while. One person can roll it up a hill. "The very idea of bending staves is not way out - we're talking about ship-building." Doug Frost
  • "It was in idea vessel and it just happened to provide flavor." Doug Frost
  • "The very idea of whisky and brandy as aged products is a relatively new - 150 years or so- concept." Doug Frost
  • Barrels we use for aging have about 5 percent tanin, 23 percent lignin, 70 percent cellulose. Resinous/turpentine elements in oak for barrels is tiny and that's what we want. - Doug Frost
  • Prescription Julep - made with both bonded rye and cognac
  • In barrels alcohol solubilizes extractable substances from the wood and acquires color. The color acquisition is gradual 
  • Troncais oak was planted methodically in rows. The circles/grains have tighter grains. Limousin oak is fatter, grows among bushes. 
  • Oxidation: taste mellows down, stewed oak aromas (from toasting) disappear, replaced by floral aromas specific to the type of oak used and the toasting. Color intensifies. 
  • In France, 24 to 36 months natural drying in open air. Humidity in wood is  brought down from 17 percent to 10-14 percent. This tightens the fibers and locks in aromatic wood compounds. Harsh tannins undergo polymerization and eliminates the hard ones that taste like turpentine. Rain water washes the wood. 
  • Rain, Dampness, sun, winds, temperature variations, and micro-organisms all act on wood as it's aging outdoors. 
  • Wood from US - aromatic, sweet, low tannins. French: complex and aromatic, don't aromatically overwhelm the eau de vie.
  •  Fine grain wood better for long aging. 
  • The main aromas in wood: Eugenol - spices, cloves. Vanillin - vanilla, sweetness, sugars, Christmas cake finish. Whisky Lactone - grated coconut, mushroom, mulch, celery. (If too strong, lactone gives bitterness.) Mixed together over the years the levels of these three things give rancio; flavors that don't really go togher. "A mix of youth age spiciness, flower, tobacco, cigar box"
  • At Vicard cooperage in France (read about my visit to Vicard here on Alcademics) they use corrugated staves. These allow more exchange between the spirit in the wood. 
  • If you have too much moisture inside the stave, you'll get blisters when you toast the staves. These cause leaks. 
  • "Consumers are being more and more difficult today, and they know what they're drinking."
  • Can we separate what the wood does from what time in wood does? Yes, says, Doug Frost. As something ages in barrels it tastes on the spices from the barrel, caramel vanilla butterscotch. But then we take a step back - evaporation/oxidation from time in oak - you begin to make the fruit character we start with get riper and riper - raisin and dates and figs. If I'm smelling cinnamon and coconut and black pepper that's just the oak talking; the other notes are from time.
  • "Some 50 year old cognacs taste dried out to me - the fruit gets more and more ripe until it gets dried out." Doug Frost 
  • You always want to start aging in a humid cellar because these are when the biggest extractions take place 18 months - 2 years in a humid cellar, then move to a dry cellar. (In cognac.) You might bring a barrel back to the humid cellar to give it a little push. 
  • We a next tried Parker's Heritage Collection - 10 year old bourbon finished in cognac casks, 100 proof. I'm no bourbon expert but I am pretty sure people are going to like this stuff a lot when it comes out later this year.    
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