Oak AlternativesLesson 10: Oak Alternatives, Unacceptable ShortcutsThis is lesson 10 of 12 of "The History and Science of the Barrel" available through The Rum University's website, www.RumUniversity.com
Lesson 10: Oak Alternatives, Unacceptable Shortcuts
Oak barrel aging is the only acceptable form of rum aging
If you’ve followed this Rum University course from the beginning, you should have a very clear idea by now of how important oak barrels are in the aging and character development of rum. In this lesson we explore the proper and improper role of alternatives and additives commonly found in the industry, we also bust common myths about artificial “aging” techniques.
Why do we age rum in oak barrels?
Barrels interact with the rum they contain in many ways:
• releasing wood extractives
• absorbing volatile elements
• allowing air transfer between the inside and the outside of the barrel
• releasing tannings, which affect the taste and the color of the rum
• if charred, the barrels also absorb some aromas from the rum
Oak chips and spirals are among the most common oak enhancements being offered in the market. There is a misconception, especially among newcomers to the industry, that these are not only barrel “enhancers” but also “replacers.” Nothing could be farther from the truth.
Over time, oak barrels get weaker, losing much of their ability to impart flavor to the rum they store. In the case of ex-Bourbon barrels, this typically happens after 6-10 years, depending on how long their first (Bourbon) use lasted. Once it is determined that the barrels are “weak,” the Cellar Master has to either rejuvenate them (through recharring), replace them, or “enhance” them. The enhancement can be done by introducing new oak chips or spirals into the old barrels, thus allowing them to be useful for several more years.
Anyone using these oak enhancements in glass or stainless steel containers, instead of in oak barrels, will certainly get the tannic content and the color they expect, but they will not get any of the benefits of true aging listed in the previous
page. Another drawback of exposing alcohol to barrel alternatives is that, in most markets, this exposure time is not considered “true aging.”
There are few things more amusing and comical in this industry than seeing “bottle aged” or “aged in stainless steel tanks” claims on products. We can only hope that as consumers get better educated and begin to demand “authentic” aging from distillers, that fewer companies will attempt to bypass the time-honored tradition of barrel aging.
Our special thanks to Independent Stave Company for their support in our research of oak.