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The Angels Share

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The Angels Get Their's



By Michel David Ratkowski

An old Polish proverb states that; If you chop your own firewood, it will warm you twice. While I havent chopped wood recently, I can see where that might be true. However there is a third way in which wood plays a role in providing mankind with warming comfort. Wooden barrels (primarily oak) have always played an essential part in the creation of fine wine, ale and whiskey.

The use of wooden barrels for storage dates back to ancient times. The existence of open wooden pails, utilizing the skill of a cooper(barrel dude), has been documented in Egypt as early as 2690 BC. Closed barrels were first developed during the Iron Age and soon became the standard container for holding wine, beer, olive oil, and water, etc. As commerce and the need for wider distribution of these products developed, shippers soon discovered that sealed wooden containers were vastly superior to the fragile clay vessels, which they replaced. The advantages of barrels were quite evident. They were strong being made of wood and fitted with hoops, which trussed the joints of the barrels staves into a double arch. The barrels were also mobile as they could be easily rolled from one place to another, a task thats bit more challenging to do with a square container.

However in todays technologically advanced world, the wooden barrels most important contribution to great wine, ale and whiskey is not in the storage or the transporting of them, but rather in the enhancement of them. To mankinds utter delight, it became exceedingly clear from early on, that these libations actually benefited from being kept in wood. These beverages become mellower, rounder, richer and more complex when stored for a prolonged period in wooden barrels. This is the raison d'Ítre for its continued use today, when we have stainless steel and synthetic materials, which easily outweigh all the other advantages that wooden barrels once solely possessed.

Oak wood contains a large number of chemical compounds and almost every one of them can add a little something to the flavor profile and personality of wine, ale or spirit when kept in contact with it. The most recognizable of these are a wide range of vanilla, tea-like (tannins), caramelized sugars, toast, and tobacco flavors and complimenting aromas. Aging on wood also adds pigmented color elements and hydrolysable compounds, which contribute to mouth feel. Oak aging is an extremely complex subject involving a huge number of factors. Oak can impart varying degrees of flavor traits and qualities depending upon the barrel size and the way it was made. The type of oak used, sawn or hand-split, air-drying or kiln drying of the staves, and the use of boiling water, steam, natural gas, or wood fire to bend the staves. Skilled winemakers may use a combination of both new oak, for more intensity and old oak for elegance. Scotch whisky is aged in used sherry (sometimes in Port barrels) barrels. American Kentucky and Tennessee whiskeys owe their characteristic color and a great deal of their flavor to the use of heavily charred barrels. The charring creates a red layer of caramelized sugars between the charred and un-charred part of the barrel.

All barrels have one thing in common they are relatively porous. This plays a part in another aging factor, oxidation. This very gradual oxidation results in decreased astringency, increased color, stability and the formation of complex fragrances. As the wine, ale or whiskey ages, the barrels breathe. In the case of whiskey, somewhere between eight to ten percent of the alcohol volume will be lost to evaporation in the first year. Evaporation continues over subsequent years at a rate of four to five percent per barrel. A good whiskey is likely to lose approximately thirty percent of its original volume by the time it is ready for bottling.

The expression The Angels Share refers to the quantity of the whiskey or wine, which is lost to evaporation during the aging process. In grade school we were told that it was the angels job to look after all of us. In todays perilous world, that must be hauntingly demanding work, which would certainly merit a few perks.