Tea Cocktails, Part 3: Aging the Alcohol

For most of us, aging is not something that we happily embrace. For many liquors, however, aging and maturation are not only required—they’re transformative, creating something fine, valuable, even rare.

And as with all the previous steps I’ve looked at in the alcohol producing and distillation processes, aging and maturation are both science and art.

So, continuing with our tour of Mammoth Distilling‘s facility—

new casks_sm

Aging and Maturation

While some liquors, such as vodka and most gins, are bottled right away and remain clear and colorless (unless color is added), others—such as whiskey and most rums and brandies—are aged. In fact, there are laws regulating this, with many countries specifying the number of years that a particular liquor must be aged.

During this aging process, the alcohol acquires color from the barrel. More importantly, they develop their flavor.

glass by cask_smThe new barrels shown at top are made of oak, with charred interiors.

Interestingly, how the barrels themselves have been made, as well as their size, impacts the liquor stored inside them.

According to Encyclopædia Brittanica:

White oak is one of the few woods that can hold liquids while allowing the process of breathing through the pores of the wood. . . . small molecules such as water move through the wood more easily than larger molecules such as alcohol. This breathing process is caused by temperature and humidity differences between the liquid in the barrel and the air in the warehouse.*

Phil explained that the charring and the barreling process do the following:

  • Filtration. The charred layer, which is essentially activated charcoal, pulls impurities (such as sulphur notes) out of the alcohol.
  • Extraction. The alcohol extracts elements, such as tannins, from the wood itself. You want those “oak notes,” but you don’t want it  “too oaky.” Tannins extracted from the oak operate the same as tannins in tea: they impart astringency, color, and flavor to the alcohol.
  • Esterification. New, desirable, chemical reactions begin taking place after a number of years. The tannins from the oak help break down organic chemicals, turning them into aromatic compounds. You get fruit esters and all those flavors definitive of a good, matured liquor.

Thus, the end product depends upon the original alcohol that went into the barrel, the charred barrel itself, the reactions that take place in the barrel, and the balance between all of these. And, perhaps foremost, expertise.

Blending

Further, this end product can actually be the final product—or it can be blended with the contents of other barrels, other batches, and so on. But either way, with the small batches that Mammoth produces, every one is unique, and will exist only once.

The darkened barrels shown here contain ten-year-old bourbon. You can see the difference between these and the new oak barrels, and you can see some seepage. (We were even able to sample their contents!) The longer the barrels sit, especially if they are stored under dry conditions, the more evaporation you get, along with a more concentrated product.

with bourbon by casks_sm
Enjoying our tour! I’m with Lisa (left) and Nancy (middle).

Mammoth recently established their own blending house, Borrowed Time, so they can buy fine and/or rare liquors (such as this bourbon), or those that they are unable to make in the U.S., and blend them into something new (see earlier post on blending)—again, something unique, attainable only once.

And Sending Out into the World

Finally, bottles are all hand labeled, and then filled and boxed, ready for shipping (the barrel is actually empty, per U.S. laws).

Next up, the marriage of spirits with tea as Mammoth and TeaHaus collaborate!


*Thomas, A. T. and F. M. Shipman, “Distilled spirit,” Encyclopædia Brittanica, https://www.britannica.com/topic/distilled-spirit#ref66688.

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