Charring Barrels – getting Vanilla out of Oak.
It’s long been believed that vanilla has hidden powers: as early as the 1700s, physicians recommended it to male patients to ensure potency. We here at Hammerstone’s Whiskey Disks – makers of the world’s best whiskey stones – have always thought that the sweet welcoming odor has a mildly euphoric effect. In old medicinal literature, vanilla is described as an aphrodisiac and a remedy for fevers. It has been shown that vanilla increases levels of catecholamines (including adrenaline), and as such can also be considered mildly addictive. Tell us something we don’t know, huh?
It’s corn that determines bourbon’s taste, but it’s the aging of the whiskey in charred oak barrels that adds depth to the drink. Originally, oak planks were heated over a small fire, to help keep wood wood pliable, aiding the cooper in the barrel making process. Whether through trial and error, accident or innovation distillers eventually learned that letting the inside of a barrel burn or char added a breadth of flavor to the whiskey, in particular vanilla.
Vanilla is complex, comprised of 100s of different compounds, including its primary flavoring component, vanillin. The compound vanillin (4-hydroxy-3-methoxybenzaldehyde) is primarily responsible for the characteristic flavor and smell of vanilla. Vanillin is not exclusive to the Vanilla Orchid, it is present in other compounds including oil of clove and wood pulp. Charring oak extracts soluble agents, including vanillin from the wood, after a few years in a charred barrel the whiskey evolves with a caramel, spicy, vanilla-ee taste.
There you have it, a little explanation as to how whiskey develops its unique flavors and why it might be so hard to resist. So take what you’ve learned and meditate on it as you sip a fine bourbon, whiskey or Scotch this evening. And, might we suggest you pour that drink over one of our handcrafted whiskey stones in order to chill without diluting. Because the last thing you want to do- is water-down any of that bewitching vanilla flavor.