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have come to the same conclusion, with techniques such as microoxygenation being employed to accelerate wine maturation. Of course for a flavor change to be evident there needs to be a change in the levels of chemical entities that cause a given flavor perception. On balance it is fair to say that the flavor changes that occur during maturation are positive. So for instance, some sulfur compounds, such as dimethyl sulfide (DMS; sweetcorn aroma) and acrolein (partly responsible for fiery attributes of new make spirit) are lost, whilst others, such as some fruity esters, are by the reaction of ethanol with acids leached from the cask. Of these three examples, the loss of acrolein does not necessarily invoke interaction with the cask, but the other two do. Two other features should be considered here. First, the whiskey sensory experience is also affected by color perception. Color does not generally distill, so all of the color in a “brown” spirit such as whiskey comes from a combination of color extraction from the cask and, depending on the final product, the addition of spirit caramel (E150A). This brings me to my second point, which is that the contribution of extractives (flavors and colors) from the cask is dependent on the degree of char in the original cask and how long it has been used for spirit maturation. Both sensory inputs will influence a consumer’s appraisal of final product quality. Generally, the more contact a cask has with interred spirit, the less extractives that remain in the wood. In contrast, the overall porosity of wood to vapors leaving the cask and oxygen entering can arguably be expected to be essentially time-independent. So the balance of flavor and color development (extractives versus oxidation) can be expected to shift as the cask is used for successive generations. Indeed, many Scotch whisky producers blend a range of different casks (e.g., second-fill and third-fill bourbon) to both improve product consistency and achieve the desired flavor balance in the product. So, having asserted that the environment plays a relatively small part in the overall maturation trajectory, what can we conclude about the contributions of wood and spirit to overall whiskey quality? From the cask perspective, we need to think in terms of both the chemical activity of the casks (whether, for instance, it is the absorption characteristics of char or extractives from the wood), and its porosity to liquids evaporating from the cask and oxygen moving into the cask. Both elements appear to be essential for satisfactory maturation. In terms of the spirit, whilst maturation generally results in the loss of undesirable components and the development of desirable attributes, this cannot be considered to be black-and-white. So, when making whiskey we should not rely on the curative aspects of maturation, but rather think in preventative terms, creating the best new make that we can. Careful attention to fermentations (temperature, yeast strain, etc.) and judicious cutting of the heads and tails will undoubtedly augment the final quality of the resulting whiskey. Paul Hughes, Ph.D. is assistant professor of food science and technology at Oregon State University in Corvallis, OR. For more information visit www.oregonstate.edu or call (541) 737-4595. WWW.ARTISANSPIRITMAG.COM
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