MARITIME WHISKEYS ON THE ISLE OF WHIDBEY
by Colin Campbell, Cadée Crafter of Spirits
Whidbey Island is located in the Pacific Northwest in Washington State. It rests in a topographic region that has very unique weather and mineral properties.
As the airflow moves across the Pacific Ocean, over the Olympic Mountains and towards the mainland - and then over the Cascade Mountains - the barometric pressure differential in this area fluctuates dramatically. So much so that these changes squeeze our barrels and the spirits aging inside of them back and forth in the barrel extracting both flavor and color. This causes us to lose 20% of our spirits to evaporation and absorption in the barrel in less than two years.
Our water that we use in our coastal whiskeys is drawn through centuries old peat bogs which run through the entire Island, adding minerals into our whiskeys, creating a flavor profile that is in line with other Maritime Whiskeys from the Scottish Isles.
A Formula for Maturation
The thing about crafting good whiskey is it takes a long time – years aging in oak barrels – before it reaches full maturity. Aging whiskey in oak will always be necessary as three very important changes happen while the whiskey sits. These changes all are imperative to craft a great final product. The reactions that happen during the maturation process are very slow and that is why we need time to create a mature and balanced spirit.
When we char and/or toast a barrel, we change the wood chemistry – creating new, more favorable compounds that will be extracted by the spirit throughout the aging process. Lignin breaks down and forms many flavor compounds, of which the most important by far is vanillin. Hemicellulose breaks down into simple sugars (which caramelize when heat is applied to the barrel), and oak tannins lend color and mouth feel to the final product.
Now the whiskey must make its way into the barrel and grab hold of these extractives we have created. This process is governed by variations in pressure, which are the result of changes in air temperature and the air flow over Whidbey Island. Pressure change directly causes expansion, which in turn causes a rise in pressure. Rising pressure in the barrel forces whiskey into the wood, where the whiskey comes in contact with these extractives. Then, as the barometric pressure drops, the whiskey is pulled back inside the barrel, bringing the yummy compounds along.
This happens constantly, on an accelerated schedule, as several factors contribute to this process: island location, climate, aging environment, barrel size, just to name a few. Climate is arguably one of the most influential factors. For example, the climate in Scotland permits the whisky to age about one quarter of the rate that whiskey ages in Kentucky. In other words, four years in Scotland can be equated to roughly one year of aging in Kentucky - and three monthson Whidbey Island.
The removal of unfavorable products through filtering is called subtraction. When charred, the interior surface of the barrel becomes a charcoal filter. This filter serves as a roadblock to the undesirable flavors and aromas in the distillate. The longer a barrel is charred, the thicker the char layer becomes. Most whiskey casks have a high char level. However, no matter how thick the layer is, you can’t char a barrel, put whiskey in it, then roll it down a hill and expect all the undesirables to be removed. It takes time.
The final important change to discuss is oxygenation, or otherwise known as oxidation. Oak is a ring porous wood that allows the barrel to serve as a gas permeable “membrane.” Oxygen passes through the barrel staves while the barrel stays liquid tight. This is how the salt briny air in coastal whiskeys enters the barrel. Oxygenation (oxidation) occurs inside the wood, slowly and naturally, helping facilitate the maturation process.
Oxygen is needed for the initial oxygenation as well as two key reactions that are important to flavor development – esterification and transesterification, which are connected to fruity character and top note in spirits. Acids created by yeast during fermentation bond with alcohols to create esters (organic compounds). These newly formed esters will combine with alcohols to form different esters (transesterification).
This is not a static process. These esters continue to recombine throughout distillation and barrel aging. Flavors are continuously created, destroyed, and then replaced with new ones!
In a nutshell, the formula for maturation is:
Extraction + Subtraction + Oxygenation = Maturation
You truly need all three to have a well-matured product!
What goes on inside the barrel is, in my opinion, the most fascinating part of making whiskey. Much remains a mystery and I hope we never figure everything out. The allure of whiskey – why one barrel tastes different than the one sitting next to it – is what makes it so enjoyable to drink. Sláinte!
"Islands have always held special allure in the world of whisky. Scotch whiskies from the islands of Islay, Skye, and Orkney are renowned for their salty, often smoky character. Meanwhile, America’s traditional whiskey heartlands of Kentucky and Tennessee are located in hilly uplands far from the sea. But now, whiskey is being made in every parcel of the United States, including those surrounded by water. Pummeled by Nor’easters and gales, America’s island distillers produce whiskeys that owed as much to the Scottish isles as to their compatriots in Kentucky and Tennessee. These are whiskeys that capture the essence of the sea."