Having matured port, beer, jenever and three different whiskies in my cask, I started noticing that I didn’t get as much flavour from the oak as I used to. This is common in the whisky industry too, where casks have a limited lifetime. Distillers will typically use first fill or refill bourbon barrels, with first fill having held only bourbon before, and refill both bourbon and one batch of whisky. After this, the casks become less active: the oak has fewer flavour compounds left to pass onto the whisky. Distillers of course don’t discard cask that easily and have found ways to reuse them. One common approach to reactivating the oak is to toast or char the inside of the barrel. This opens up new surface area for the spirit to interact with, thereby replenishing those lovely oaky flavours that are needed for a maturing a good whisky.
Taking inspiration from the professionals and armed with some YouTube videos, I decided to try this out for myself. After all, how hard can it be? I aimed to give my cask a heavy char, also known as alligator char, since the result looks similar to alligator skin. With my barrel once again bursting with flavour, I planned on doing a full maturation, rather than just a finish as I’d done previously. For this purpose I bought raw spirit from Lagg, the Isle of Arran’s new distillery that produces peated whisky. I wanted to age the spirit into something that would mimic what the distillery’s whisky may look like 10 years from now. Since Lagg single malt will not be available for a few years yet, this is something that I was very excited about! I even had a working title for the whisky already: a-Lagg-ator. But first I had some work to do.
I hadn’t used my cask for a long time, so the wood had completely dried out and contracted somewhat. This meant that the hoops were already loose and came off easily. I pried open the head, revealing the inside of my cask for the first time. I left the bottom two hoops in place so that the cask wouldn’t fall apart. So far so good… I then took a blowtorch and started the process of charring the oak. There were clearly some alcoholic vapours still in the wood, given how easily it burst aflame. Immediately the smell of wood smoke mingled with a fragrant, sherry-like perfume. I toasted the wood until it had a lovely char, then let it cool down for a while.
Next came the process of reassembling the cask. With a hammer and a screwdriver it was fairly simple to get the hoops back in place, but placing the head proved rather tricky. The head needs to be placed inside the staves before fitting the final hoop, so that the hoops press the staves against the head in what is hopefully a waterproof seal. Once done, the cask was releasing a delicious fragrance. The nutty aromas of the port it had held previously were still there, accompanied by scents of caramel and vanilla from the burnt wood. The result was lovely, and I honestly couldn’t wait to age my spirit in it! On top of this, I’d had a lot of fun being a cooper for a few hours.
Of course you can only make whisky in a cask that doesn’t leak, and this is where I ran into trouble. Although the staves were watertight, the head most definitely wasn’t. I left the barrel submerged in a bucket for a while, hoping that the water would help the oak expand into a watertight seal. This unfortunately turned out not to be the case, with the head still leaking heavily. The wood did expand though, meaning I could no longer take off the hoops for another try. I therefore left the cask to dry for a week, before coming back for another attempt.
With the wood dry, the hoops once again came off easily. In fact, probably a bit too easy… As I was taking the cask apart, disaster struck. The bottom two hoops slid out of place, and my cask collapsed into a heap of staves. I’d experienced at the Speyside Cooperage how hard it is to put a cask together from scratch, and having lost the order of the staves I knew it was pretty much hopeless. Even so I spent several days fitting staves together and bending and hammering the cask into shape. I even got some reeds from the park to plug any small gaps that appeared in between staves, much like a real cooper would. At this point, fun was no longer part of the equation, but had been replaced by a lot of frustration and a sort of foolhardy stubbornness. In the end though, I produced something that… just wasn’t very watertight. There’s a reason coopering is a craft that’s carefully passed down the generations, and I clearly just didn’t have the skills and experience needed to make it work.
So… that spells the end of my cask, at for anything other than ornamental purposes. I felt strangely sad about it, like I somehow said farewell to a good friend. I’ve aged a lot of stuff in this cask and it felt like a fun idea to revive it, knowing exactly what it held previously and for how long. Although I did buy a new cask, it doesn’t have the heavy char I need to make a-Lagg-ator. As it turned out though, my order of raw spirit from Lagg got lost at British customs among all the Brexit confusion, so perhaps it just really wasn’t meant to be. Although my new cask is both bigger and sturdier, it actually has a smaller capacity, at 850 ml. But hey, at least it doesn’t leak! Since the cask is virgin oak, I bought some rum that I will age to take the first overwhelming oaky flavours out of the cask. And of course that sets me up perfectly for maturing a rum finished whisky. I’m thinking Talisker could be an interesting fit… So despite my misadventures and lack of skill at coopering, I will of course continue providing my whiskies with weird and wonderful finishes, and hope to produce some nice drams in the process. More to come soon!