By JAMES DRYBURGH
ADAM Bone was a stonemason in 1997 when he began learning the art of making the perfect cask at a small cooperage in the Huon Valley. Eventually, he decided to buy the business, figuring if he could complete two or three casks a week he would be able to sustain himself. Not long after this decision, the Tasmanian whisky industry began to really take off. Now Adam’s Tasmanian Cask Company employs nine other people at the factory in Bridgewater and supplies casks to premium whisky and spirit producers across Tasmania, Australia and even Scotland.
The value of a barrel is its story: what it is made from; what it has contained and for how long; where it has come from; and how it has been manipulated by the cooper.
French and American oak are generally the chosen timbers. They have the right grain and density to enable both the absorbing and the giving of taste, and importantly, unlike many timbers, they don’t contain any toxins that can be harmful for consumption.
The ‘cask-histories’ most sought-after for whisky are port, sherry, pinot noir and bourbon. The bourbon casks come mostly from the USA, port and sherry are generally from the Barossa and pinot casks come from various places. It is the sugars from these products that gradually soak into the oak and crystallise on, and within, the interior surface. The charring of the inside of the casks further reinforces this by caramelising these sugars into the charcoaled oak.
Sherry casks give a sweeter, delicate flavour to whisky, whereas port casks produce a heavier ‘Christmas pudding-type whisky’. Bourbon casks produce Adam’s favourite whiskies.
The endless profiles of flavour that can be created by adjusting all of these elements is what is so highly sought after by makers of fine spirits. Distillers and blenders are able to work with Adam and his team to develop casks with a very specific story and to ensure they can maintain consistency across the number of casks they require.
The timber itself and its story matters more than the cask itself. So a 500-litre sherry cask, for example, can be used to make several 100 litre whisky casks. Small casks are important for the thriving whisky industry because the aging process is able to occur much more rapidly in a small cask (there is more surface area of oak per volume of whisky).
The processes involve cutting the tops and bottoms out of the casks, shaving and thinning the timber and pulling the individual pieces of oak apart. To re-size and reshape the timber into a new cask involves a process of steaming and bending under pressure, and of course the interior of the barrel is ultimately charred to optimise the aging process.
When a cask is kept the same size they generally have a layer shaved off the outside, which reveals the beautiful light grain of the oak, and when combined with the new metal braces, makes the casks look brand new again.
Adam’s team now supply casks to all bar one of Tasmania’s whisky producers, including for Lark, Shene, William McHenry and Sons, Nant and Redlands distilleries, as well as the 2014 winner of the of other fine spirits such as gin, brandy and vodka, supply several mainland producers such as Archie Rose gins and vodkas and are now even sending casks all the way to Scotland.
With the growth of fine spirits in Tasmania and indeed across Australia there is a now a large demand for the preparation of suitable casks. The Tasmanian Cask Company’s production has tripled in the past two years and it now produces about 13 casks a day. Adam says they are aiming to get this number up to 20 with an expansion planned within the next year. However, whilst demand for spirits has increased as they have gained in popularity and notoriety, port and sherry are not as widely consumed as they once were. This is one of the reasons Adam has a large shed with over 10,000 mostly port and sherry casks stored in it – to guard against any future shortage.
Casks are usually only used once for whisky. When they are used twice, but they need about 50 per cent longer to appropriately age.
You might think a cask’s story would end once the whisky or spirit is finally bottled, but far from it. Used whisky casks are now becoming sought after for the aging of boutique beers and ciders, adding yet another chapter to the flavours absorbed and re-gifted. Then, when they truly reach the end of their life as a cask they are recycled for use in interior design and the shavings are perfect for burning to smoke fish or meat.