Home To Glenfiddich: Part 4

2 April 2014

Barrels Without Borders: The Journey of the Cask

by Joel Harrison

Casks have been used for thousands of years. They have provided us with a vessel to transport goods from producer to consumer, and it was their usefulness in this capacity through which the maturation of liquor was discovered.

A cask about to be shipped

With America’s most famous spirit, Kentucky bourbon, being made in a land-locked US state, it needed to be stored somehow to reach various ports dotted along the coast in order to be shipped out across the world. In the 1700s, during the transportation of bourbon in oak casks down local rivers and across state lines, it was discovered that with time, the clear liquor in the cask interacted with the oak to become a darker, more flavoursome product.

Similarly, with Scotch whisky, oak barrels would be used to store aqua vitae, the clear distillate produced and stored by local distillers – often in the cellars of large houses. It would develop desirable characteristics over time, and it was these flavours and aromas, enhanced by long maturation in wood, which became the most sought-after.

Fast-forward to the 1930s and the end of Prohibition in the United States. It had been a hard time for many distillers, forced to close due to the legislation banning alcohol and especially distilled spirits; save for those deemed to be worthy of 'medicinal' status. The trade of the Cooper, often a skill passed down through generations, was perhaps hit just as hard. It stands to reason that if there is no distilling, there is a hugely reduced call for casks, resulting in the loss of thousands of jobs in the coopering industry. At a time when the economy was already severely depressed, being a highly skilled, highly trained Cooper meant very little.

That was until the repeal of Prohibition when a law was passed to help rejuvenate the coopering industry. The ruling, still in place today, requires all American bourbon whisky (and Tennessee whisky, too) to be matured in new, toasted American white oak barrels only. This left a surplus of 'used' American white oak barrels and an opportunity for distillers across the Atlantic in Scotland, where the temperature allows for longer, more relaxed maturation. By filling their spirit into American oak barrels shipped over from the US, Scottish distillers gave a greater subtlety of flavour to the maturing Scottish spirit. This imparted understated, spicy oak tones and rounded, balanced vanillins over time.

Today, the same rules apply - when casks have been used once by American distillers, they are returned to the family-run Kelvin Cooperage where I witnessed one of those casks skillfully pieced together. Their team of Coopers work to keep the casks in top-notch condition before sending them on their journey from Kentucky to the American seaboard, and onward to Scotland.

The journey from Kelvin Cooperage, Kentucky to Speyside, Scotland takes around five weeks. At Glenfiddich, the long maturation in these casks imparts oak spices and rich vanilla flavours, all of which are key to the great taste of Glenfiddich single malt whisky.

Watching the barrels being loaded at Kelvin Cooperage, ready for this American adventure, I waved farewell to these most precious of vessels. I knew that it was less a goodbye than an au revoir as I would see them again in a few weeks time at the Glenfiddich distillery, when they start a new chapter in their life as Scotch whisky barrels.

Join me next time for a visit to Speyside and the next chapter in the life of these American oak casks.

Loading casks for the journey ahead


Read the 5th installment of this journey: A Slice of Speyside, to find out what care and attention goes into the rejuvenation of the casks before we fill them with our own liquid. To read more about this process from the start, go to A Journey Begins