I’ve been thinking about virgin oak again, and it’s all Conor McGregor’s fault.
Speaking as a man with a black belt in running-the-hell-away, all forms of pugilism are utterly wasted on me. So the extent of my Conor McGregor knowledge is that he’s someone who says provocative things and thumps people. A bit like Mark when someone claims whisky can’t have terroir.
Anyway, among Mr McGregor’s more recent verbal victims was – bizarrely – Tennessee whiskey. (Ha – ‘Mr McGregor’ – like the baddy in Peter Rabbit!) Apparently, some luckless Tennessean messaged him on instabook or whatever, and his response was a totally unrelated diatribe against all things Lincoln County Process. Which you can (and should) read here.
I’ll leave aside his “corn, rye or wheat over grain” comment (what does he think corn, rye and wheat are?). I’ll even gloss over the 2 years ageing bit. I want – sorry Mark – to talk about wood.
There’s far too much wood-related chat around whisky. The claim that oak is responsible for 70-80% of whisky’s flavour is bandwagon lunacy, but it’d be a conservative estimate for how much of the conversation it takes up. And what an overblown gumbo of smouldering marketeer piffle that conversation is.
You’ve the misleading, pseudo-accurate smoke and mirrors of “sherry casks”, for one. Then there’s all that guff about finishes – let’s not even go there. And as for the term “refill”: don’t get me started. The fact that you can put the same word on a whisky from a second-fill cask as on one from a fifth-fill clutch of lifeless sticks is insanity.
And somewhere in all that murk is the schizophrenic babble around virgin oak. Upon which subject ‘The Laborious’ (or whatever his sobriquet is) McGregor has deigned to grace us with his insights.
I had a bit of a moan about this babble a few months back when I reviewed the Tomatin Cù Bòcan, and you’ll be shocked to learn that my position hasn’t changed. Nor, really, has the scotch whisky industry’s, which – as with so many things – can’t make up its mind whether to stick or twist. Neatly metaphored by “the debate” on scotchwhisky.com.
Virgin oak isn’t some ham-fisted whisky-smotherer for know-it-all snobs to chortle about over their refill 70s Ardbeg. If it was, all bourbon would taste the same. No one would grumble about some of the over-youthful craft stuff in the US. No one would give a bunghole about mashbills. No one would flip Pappy Van Winkle. No one would compare ‘dusty’ bourbon favourably to the modern article. Oh – did you think that was something only scotch fans did?
The stance against virgin oak smells to me like old world snobbery. Like condescension. “Oh, those Americans – one of these days they’ll learn.” The more bourbon-educated snob might snidely remark that bourbon became new-oak-only thanks to laws put in place at the urging of the cooperage industry. That the coopers had the distillers over a barrel. (I’m so sorry.)
But let’s not pretend that scotch whisky – or Irish whisky – arrived at its used-oak position through a conscious decision. That some 19th-century bloke wandered the world, conscientiously testing different types of cask, and concluded that virgin was for suckers.
When ageing whisky in barrels for any meaningful time was still a relatively infant concept, Britain’s forests weren’t exactly teeming with barrel-ready trees. They still aren’t. A chap from Scotland’s Forestry Commission told me that Scotland had 102.7 square miles of oak forest. France has 34,000. And a quick peek at the Oxford Companion to Wine offers eye-opening statistics on the amount of “growing stock” by country in 2012. America was reckoned at 1,019 million cubic feet. France at 580 million. Great Britain had an estimate of 34 million. Ireland? 2 million.
No wonder Conor’s on team re-use.
So whilst France and America groaned beneath their weight of useable oak, Scotland was left scratching around for spare Quercus. After all, what oak Britain had was largely ring-fenced for shipping. And guess what the own-bottling wine merchants of the 19th century had loads of just knocking about? Why – isn’t it a stroke of luck that ex-sherry casks are “the best things you can possibly age whisky in”… ?
I’m not rubbishing sherry casks. I love a sherry cask whisky. You’d have to be a sour-faced, yoghurt-souled humbug not to. And God knows there’s plenty of terrible Tennessee whiskey around. Gentleman Jack tastes like it’s been filtered through banana mallows.
But this moron suggestion that virgin oak kills spirit needs to be shot down. As much as I enjoy the irony of Conor McGregor accusing something of being heavy-handed, over-aggressive and thuggish. In any case, Irish whiskey has plenty of logs in its own eye.
That’s two dreadful puns in one article. We’d better crack on with the review. Which, today, is the bourbon from Reservoir, with its unusual 100% corn mashbill. Bottled at 50% ABV, it costs about £70 and is aged in the same tiny five-gallon barrels as their rye.
Guess what they’re made out of?
Reservoir bourbon – review
Colour: dark caramel
On the nose: immense depth for the youth. Oak appears in caramel and old furniture guise, plus sweet pecan pie and plenty of corn oil. Sandalwood. Blood orange juiciness. It’s a seriously buttery bourbon. Almost unreal to think that this is all corn … except that it makes me think a little of some of the Balcones bottlings.
In the mouth: reservoir’s signature laser-like intensity on the palate. Oak crashes in first before grilled corn, char and dark chocolate. More oranges, with nuts and cereal on the finish. Big, bold, brash beautiful stuff – just a touch down on complexity compared to – for example – the rye.
Unmistakeably bourbon; unmistakeably different to the rye. And (spoilers) unmistakeably different to the Reservoir wheat I’ll be reviewing in a couple of weeks too. It’s a cracker. Not quite as much flavour or complexity as the rye, which makes me think it’s perhaps a tenner too expensive, but bourbon fans can load up here with confidence. (And it’s cheaper for our US readers anyway.) A big cut above your average craft corn-juice.
No one’s denying that virgin oak imparts significant flavour. But it’s about time people stopped sniffing dismissively and writing it off.
Probably wouldn’t tell Conor McGregor that in person, mind you.
There’s a commission link in this review should you want to purchase this bottle. Adam won’t mind but Conor might. Such links don’t affect our view or score.