The barrels we use are crafted by our own Master Cooper, from the best French oak money can buy, which is allowing us to take the whisky craft to the next level.
Our Master Cooper, Ramiro Herrera, is one of only 34 people alive today who’ve earned the title. He works with us to craft the most extraordinary oak barrels in the world, each attuned to the nuance and character we want to achieve in our wines and our spirits.
When you’re making wine, 50% of the flavor comes from the barrel, but when it comes to spirits, it’s somewhere between 85 and 95% of the flavor. The combination of the wood’s pedigree (from the Haute Futai Ancient Oak Forest in Jupille France), age and grain, the shape and size, and the toast of the barrels, all play an intimate role in the way the final product will taste. And flavor is only part of the equation… both the oak and the wines previously aged in a particular barrel have a profound effect on the tannins, structure and mouthfeel of your drink.
Barrel making is an art, and toasting is a craft all its own. During the four-year training to become a Master Cooper, everything in the barrel-making process is learned and practiced completely by hand. No electrical tools are allowed. The result is true mastery of the craft. As a Master Cooper, Ramiro not only knows how to build a structurally sound, water-tight container out of wood, he also has a keen sense for toasting (in the case of wine barrels) and charring (in the case of heating barrels for spirits), which is another facet to the craft, and an artform all its own.
When you toast a barrel, especially for making Cabernet, you create your toasting fire from the same kind of wood that you’re using for the barrel. You place the barrels over the fire and toast them like marshmallows – super low and slow, over the course of about an hour. During this time, the outside of the wood begins to almost caramelize, and you start to smell scents of chocolate, coffee, caramel and vanilla. Thirty-five minutes of toasting gives you vanilla flavors, 40 minutes offers mocha tones, 50 minutes yields sweet coconut, and every minute after that develops different spicy characters until you start getting dark chocolate scents. At an hour and 15 minutes, you’ve dipped into coffee tones. The combination of natural wood character and the nuance of flavors and scents from toasting the oak must marry with the type and varietal of the wine, as well as the house style of the winery. For example, John and Marc like our Caldwell SILVER Proprietary Red blend to offer up loads of chocolate and spice, so I think through all the varietals we use in that blend to create the final flavor profile.
Now, when you’re making barrels for spirits, you actually char the wood. That means you use a hotter fire. In Kentucky they use gas fires to get the temperatures they need – but we stay true to the art, and burn wood fires only. I put the barrel into the fire, then cover the top to get the heat inside raging. When you’re charring a barrel you put it right into the fire for 45 seconds. You want to burn just very outer layer. The wood actually catches on fire, and it happens really fast, so your focus and your timing has to be spot on or you’ll ruin the entire thing. And when you’re dealing with something that costs at least $1000 per, you wanna make sure it’s right.
The magic is when the wood, tannin, flavor and color all come together just right. That’s when you know your work has paid off. Working with the winemaker during blending sessions really helps both of us hone in on the smallest, but some of the most important nuances that separate a good wine or spirit from a great one. I honestly can’t think of anyone else in the wine or spirits game as committed to this kind of detail, or as willing to put this level of attention into the entire process, but I can tell you that you can taste the difference.
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