The Honest Cask

element: Wood / DATE: 29/12/2014

To make a cask that will not leak requires not only great coopering skills but excellent forestry work. An oak tree destined for casks must be split in a very precise way.

Wood contains not only annual growth rings, fibres that run up the length of the trunk that we call the grain, but also vessels which run across the trunk, from the core to the bark.To obtain suitable lengths of oak boards with which to work and avoid breaching these vessels, an oak tree must be cut in a much more elaborate way than for general lumber.A star-shaped cut is used to maximise the number of useable, leak-free staves from a trunk compared to for the lumber trade that looks for strength.

Each board has the fibres running along its whole length; the vessels going across its width from edge to edge. Consequently, the whisky should not leak through the two faces exposed to the air and the spirit. There is of course the angel’s share, but that’s another story, and that’s to do with pores.

This also accounts for the different width of staves used in assembling casks, the narrower sections not being wasted.
Slower growing French oak has to be split, while American oak with its tyloses giving extra leak-proofing, can be sawn. Once the rough boards have been obtained, the oak needs to dry out before the shaping can take place.

Following the disastrous US house market collapse in 2008, many older, skilled foresters in the Ozark Mountains of Missouri and Arkansas were laid off. Then, when the market resumed, those skills were in short supply resulting higher felled oak prices, delays in cask production and a doubling of barrel prices.

Once wood represented around 10% of the cost of a distillery’s annual production; now with our total ‘no compromise’ policy of premium and fresh oak it is around 40%.

Increasingly, since the seventies, distillers having been looking for ways to reduce the expense of casks. After all, they’re only an inert container, right?

Recycling used casks many times over, each time with rapidly diminishing effect, was one wheeze where the decreasing oak influence is compensated for by the clumsy addition of E150 (Caramel Colouring) at bottling. These days more scientific solutions are being explored, boundaries being pushed, trying to cheat both time and nature to save money. For us, qualitatively, that is misguided.

Cutting expense and wastage is the preserve of the accountant; cutting corners is the act of the scoundrel. For such a vital element in the making of great whisky, we believe it is a false economy to shirk the necessary investment in premium quality, vibrant wood.

Whisky has – or should have – only four raw ingredients. Compromising on any is surely weak and short-sighted.

Oak Trunk Cutting Plan

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Stave Vessels

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See other Wood elements