American White Oak (Quercus Alba) is a cornerstone of American Whiskey. To some, adequate aging is the single most influential character in a whiskey’s flavor profile and quality. This is why here at Finger Lakes Distilling, we take very conscious, careful, and oftentimes costly decisions when it comes to the aging of our whiskey.
First, before the whiskey even reaches the barrel, we must cut it down to our barrel proof. For Bourbons and Ryes, the legal maximum strength you can age whiskey is 125 proof. Many distilleries use this proof for a host of reasons, one of them being that you can technically pack more whiskey into less barrels this way. We like to follow a more traditional barrel proof here, a nice even 100 proof. This is considered a very low barrel proof by today’s standards, but we are trying to make a style of whiskey the common whiskey drinker hasn’t seen for a while. At 50% alcohol and 50% water, the interaction with the oak results in more flavor than just vanilla and oak. With a higher water content, we find that those complex, wood sugar notes come through: those cinnamon, nutmeg, caramel, and butterscotch notes.
We also only fill our barrels to 50 gallons. A standard whiskey barrel holds around 53 gallons. This is another costly position for us to take since we will be buying more barrels per batch of whiskey, but we leave the headspace for a very specific reason. Our philosophy is that the slow evaporation of the whiskey over time contributes to the richness of the product. To encourage evaporation from the start, we give the whiskey a bit of room to breathe. This starts the evaporation, oxidation, and esterification of the whiskey sooner, causing those complex whiskey flavors to come in earlier in the aging process.
The quality of the barrel is paramount to good whiskey as well. We prefer our white oak to be seasoned for as long as possible. This has nothing to do with salt and pepper; the term seasoning in barrel-making refers to the wood being allowed to naturally dry out overtime. The oak is left out in the open air and exposed to the natural rainfall, climate, and humidity of the seasons. The combined effort of microorganisms in the wood, the natural rainfall, and slow drying of the staves achieves the right characteristics and soft tannin structure.
Next comes our barrelhouse. Once the whiskey is in the barrel it needs a place to call home for a few years. We do all of our aging on-site in our newly built barrelhouse. If you’ve been a fan for a while, you may remember our barrel room that we have graciously overgrew. Our barrelhouse is heated intermittently during the winter to ensure aging continues (whiskey is known to become “dormant” below 60 degrees Fahrenheit, and will stop aging). We heat the room sporadically because we want the temperature to rise and fall. This causes the whiskey and the barrel to contract and expand, letting the whiskey move in and out of the oak. This ongoing conversation between the oak and the whiskey is what we believe makes a fantastic dram.
Other than the temperature of the room, the only other thing we control at our barrelhouse is the locks. Like temperature, fluctuations in humidity lend to an interesting and complex whiskey. Luckily in our region of New York, our humid summers and dry winters give us a nice big swing of humidity through the seasons. Our best aging by far, happens in the winter; when the humidity is low, more water evaporates then alcohol, and flavor esters are created in the barrel. Be sure to sign up for a tour this coming spring or summer to visit our barrels!