French oak

Our journey is an exploration, with no hard and fast rules, no map... just an intense curiosity and a thirst for true knowledge -  and certainly not the cosy, received wisdom of the  whisky world.

Sounds pretentious - but oak used for maturing whisky,  and it's stylistic implications on the maturing spirit,  have changed dramatically over the last century.

Before Bourbon casks came on the scene, most Scotch whisky was stored in French (European) oak. Wine casks shipped to the UK for bottling in Bristol, London, Liverpool, Edinburgh and Glasgow.  George Saintsbury, writing in 1920 reminisced about his whisky experiences from 1875 onwards and noticed the 'recent loss' of darker, sweeter and heavier single malt whiskies of an older generation indicating a change of cask policy around 1900.  

That change has accelerated during the twentieth century. American oak Bourbon cask dominance started in 1933 with the end of prohibition and has grown to the all conquering position it holds today - 97% or so of all maturing Scotch whisky. This  wholesale change of cask type - and corresponding whisky style - has been achieved  because of cheap prices and ready availability.  Equally -  Sherry, Port and Madeira are no longer shipped in casks to the UK, and sales of these wines has plummeted from the nineteenth century highs,  the availabilty of those casks has all but dried up.

But another major change of direction is on the cards: increased demand for Bourbon casks from the Far East, Central and South America and the Caribbean  is restricting the supply. Indeed, the  'once only' US distilling law for the use of  casks in  bourbon maturation, the reason why these casks are/were so cheap, could soon be rescinded.  This would have far reaching consequences for the Scotch whisky industry. Distillers would be  forced into increased recycling of casks, the inadequate halfway house solution of  "decharr-recharr", greater use of  E150 and the clumsy introduction of oak chips and deceitful use of oak essence.

Yet as second-hand Bourbon cask prices increase,  the gap closes with  the cost of brand new American oak casks (US  or European grown to boot). This potential Bourbonisation would have a major implication on future whisky flavour, colour and age.  On the other hand,  premium quality French oak wine casks will once again be back on the menu as they were back in the nineteenth century.  Plus ça change as they say.

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