So how important is the barrel to the finished spirit in the bottle?
We produce pure copper-pot distilled American Brandy that is non-chill filtered and unadulterated by boisé, other flavors, sugar or caramel color. We enter the barrel at a highish proof +/- 135 so that we can extract the wood tonality with clarity. We do not dilute in the barrel through maturation.
Our American Brandy is the result of an undivided, unpolluted, relationship between the spirit and the barrel. Full integrity intact.
Having said that, its very, very clear that we believe that the barrel as a maturation vessel is pivotal, critical and beyond essential to the quality and character of our aged brandy. It is the vessel that adds texture, fragrance, complexity and balance to the spirit.
A LITTLE BIT OF ROCK & ROLL
Fire it up! We are fired up. The Project Phoenix.
We work very closely with our friends Paul & Kevin Mclaughlin at the Kelvin Cooperage in Louisville Kentucky. What we like about them is their depth of knowledge and affection for their craft, and their willingness to look beyond the obvious when it comes to a manufacturing process that hasn’t changed in millennia. They know that an oak barrel is more than a storage vessel, and sits at the heart of great spirits.
A while back we bought some 30 year old Oloroso sherry butts – 500 Liters each in size. We aged grape and apple brandies in them for 16 months. We decided to move to a smaller sherry cask size (primarily focused on apple brandy) and decided to sell Joe’s Big Butt(s). We were left with 4 that had some badly damaged staves after emptying them.
We proposed to Kelvin to use this sherry/brandy infused wood as firewood to naturally toast and char the new American oak barrel staves with novel aromatics and flavor, and to take those new barrels and use them to add unusual depth and complexity to brandy.
“For us, the interplay of toast and char is the heart of what we offer in a new spirit barrel. You can just char a barrel in a few minutes and you will have a perfectly acceptable barrel, but we think that slowing the process down and ensuring that you have both toast and char is crucial… we are a bit more aware of subtle differences we can make just by adjusting the way in which we toast and char. We enjoy going for a long, deep toast over natural fires and only then allowing the barrel to ignite. You get a sweetness from the toast that is really pleasant and it is a sweetness that you can smell at the toasting fires” says Paul.
For barrel staves Project Phoenix utilized some specially selected oak that had been air-dried for 24 months.
The fire was unusually clean, with not too much smoke, and the smoke was unusually subtle, with delicate floral notes, almost a “gin” botanical perspective.
Early toast notes were popcorn like, with some red wine aromatics. The typical Kelvin long toast opens up the wood to absorb the fire and smoke aromatics. The charring process (to a Medium-Char level) brought up the typical heady, sweet baked bread aromas.
The barrel is finished to a wine-cask size of 60 gallons and is finished with a used Kentucky Bourbon barrel-head.
We wait. We wait for the barrel to do it’s own labor. For us.
For those who like a little more depth in terms of the history and art of coopering – here’s some additional detail regarding the history and art of coopering.
A LITTLE HISTORY
The art of hand crafted barrel making, or coopering, can be traced back to the ancient Romans, as early as the 3’rd Century AD. And early Greek and Romans credit the Gauls with the development of barrels. When Julius Caesar invaded Gaul – his army were met with wooden barrels filled with burning pitch and grease. (Perhaps the first (over) charred barrels).
The word cooper is derived from the Latin cupae, or kūpe, or cupa. The surname Cooper is derived from this artisanal history. As is the name Hooper (he who slides the steel hoops on the barrel with the cooper).
A WORK OF ART
The elegant simplicity and purity of the structure is a work of art. No glue, no nails, no screws. And the process is much the same today as it has been for its +2000 year history. With maybe a bandsaw or sander to help.
And that’s after finding great wood.
IT’S THE WOOD STUPID
We age our brandy in a variety of wood barrels. But for us American Oak is our first love.
Oak is in of itself a strong wood, its wide radial rays give strength when shaped for a cask. It is “pure wood” without the resin canals that can pass on off flavor when maturing brandy.
American Oak is high in lactones, which when toasted provide warm, buttery, woody, vanilla and coconut flavors. It is this honeyed warmth and caramel that we find so attractive in our American Brandy – especially as we personally trend towards higher proofs. European oak is richer in tannins, which offer up slightly dryer, more astringent flavors – tea, walnuts, for example.
The barrel is the key catalyst for the reactions that develop aroma and flavor in the spirit. Charring creates charcoal inside the barrel that filters (through adsorption) the spirits and partially removes undesirable flavors.
If you ask people in the industry how much flavor comes from the barrel, and how much comes from other elements , it ranges from 50% to 70%. Brown-Forman Master Distiller Chris Morris is on record saying that 100% of the spirit color and 50 – 60% of the flavor is derived from the barrel itself.
Click here to view the images from this project.