Look, I don’t have to sit here and pretend like no one in the history of the world has written about American and French Oak, where they come from, and the impact they have on spirits. But I want to remind readers that oak, both American and French, remain two of the most popular types of wood when aging cachaça because they provide pleasing flavors, familiar to consumers the world over.
As far as I know, there aren’t any laws about the type of barrel used, whether it’s new or old, and the extent of charring required. So in Brazil, you’re likely to find a variety of oak barrels in cachaça production, most of which have been used to age other types of alcohol. New oak barrels are likely to be prohibitively expensive. And for producers trying to differentiate their cachaça, why would it hurt to use a barrel that has already been used for wine or bourbon or scotch whisky production?
The best piece I’ve found, which is relatively easy to understand, comes from ISC, a barrel producer! So here, I will summarize what they’ve already done. And if you want to dig a bit deeper, please feel free to look at their excellent article.
There are over 500 species of oak in the world. But most of them are not big trees, appropriate for making barrels. Most of them are shrub-like. There are only a few oak species that are appropriate for making barrels.
The American oak tree most commonly used for making them is the White Oak. These oak trees are found in the Ozark mountains and much of the Appalachian region. These are slow-growing trees. An oak barrel isn’t going to be made from a young oak. I’m sure there are other people out there, with more knowledge than me, who could provide more insight into how coopers (barrel makers) choose the trees they will use to make their wares.
Quercus robur, the scientific name for the oak trees found in France used for making barrels, are equally sought after. And though they are often called French oak, this species extends into other parts of Europe. While often used for wine, in Europe, French oak is also used for cognac.
The ISC article has an excellent summary of the differences between the two types of wood. But for our purposes, let’s focus on how they impact the taste. According to the ISC, American oak is going to give a spirit a sweeter smell and taste, which samplers might associate with vanilla or toast. On the other hand, French oak is more likely to tasty spicy and have a similar nose.
Interestingly, in the context of cachaça, some brands put explicitly on their label the type of oak they use. However, others don’t. I’m not sure if this is because they don’t know the origin of the oak, or because they are not sure whether the consumer cares about the differences.
In my own experience, I have tasted many sweet, vanilla oak cachaças, and only a few spicy oak-aged cachaças. I’m not sure why that is. French oak is generally more expensive, but if a producer uses the oak two or three times, they will likely more than make up for the cost. Whatever the reason, and I’ll admit I’m speculating here, I think American oak is often used in cachaça production.
So, there’s still work to be done. Always something to learn. Up next week, I’ll take a closer look at Amburana.