Forest to Glass: Distillers are Now Searching for the World’s Most Exotic Barrels

Wayne Curtis | 12.20.18

If you like the taste of bourbon, you like the taste of white oak.

Bourbon makers say that somewhere between 50- and 80-percent of the flavor in bourbon is derived from interactions with the white oak staves used to make a barrel. The oak not only has its own natural flavors in it—after all, it’s a plant like rutabaga or corn—but treating it with a flame to char the interior of the cask releases myriad other compounds, including a sort of butterscotch top-note that arises when the wood’s natural sugars are caramelized. The interaction of oak and the molecules naturally found in spirits also create new and inviting compounds.

Another distiller, Novo Fogo, has released three aged expressions of cachaça using Brazilian woods to finish its spirit, which is first aged for a year in used bourbon barrels. They’ve also released an amburana expression (finished for an additional year in 250-liter amburana casks), as well as a Brazilian nut wood spirit (aged two years in 250-liter casks), and a flavorful zebra wood variation, aged in a 350-liter cask. The latter is a dense, distinctively striped wood full of resin and flavor, and the spirit is finished for three months.

The Brazilian woods add a layer of flavor that is at once familiar and unfamiliar. The dense zebra wood adds curious bitterness to the cachaça. The nut wood brings creamy, baking spice notes and a touch of something that hints of menthol. And the amburana adds deeper vanilla notes than typically achieved with ex-bourbon barrels.

Production of these three expressions has been limited—Novo Fogo currently has a total of just seven finishing barrels—owing in part to the scarcity of the wood. Novo Fogo doesn’t want to further stress endangered hardwoods; while the teak and nut wood are available in limited quantities from sustainable sources, the zebra wood remains all but impossible to source ethically. The one cask they had made was of reclaimed flooring from a building remodeling. (They’re scouting for another rebuilding project for wood to make a second barrel.) “At this point, we don’t have a sustainable solutions,” admitted Luke McKinley, Novo Fogo’s marketing director.

Forest to Glass: Distillers are Now Searching for the World’s Most Exotic Barrels
Daily Beast | 12.20.18