Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Life After Whisky - What Happens To A Cask?


Ever wondered what happens to all of those old whisky casks?

A recent event in London that I attended saw a whisky company collaborate with a bicycle manufacturer to produce something extraordinary from used whisky barrels. It got me thinking about some of the innovation that is going on in the whisky industry.

But what normally happens to a wooden cask once its days of maturing whisky are finished? What do people do with them? The answer is different in different places.

For instance, in America the laws governing the majority of big whiskey producers state that a cask can only be used once and that it must be made from fresh oak. Once this cask has been emptied and the whiskey bottled, sometimes after just two or three years, then it is essentially useless in the American system.

This may sound wasteful but it then presents a plentiful supply of casks to other markets, where the more subtle flavour imparted from seasoned oak is preferable. These include whisky producers across the world (particularly the major players in Ireland, Japan and Scotland), other spirits producers (especially rum and tequila) and the wine industry.

Once it enters a secondary market, such as the Scotch whisky industry, the working life of a cask is roughly 50-60 years and could be filled as many as five or six times with whisky. Modern techniques are now extended this further, resulting in an increasing number of rejuvenated casks entering the system and maturing whisky.

The rejuvenation sees the inside of the cask shaved and the exposed wood re-charred. This activates compounds deeper in the wood and allows any spirit that comes in to contact with the surface to pick up more vibrant compounds and flavours. Essentially, it gives the cask a new lease of life.

But what happens once the cask is dead and can no longer be used?

Many companies sell off spent barrels cheaply and they are then turned in to a variety of products – the ‘whisky oak chips’ you throw on your barbeque, that upturned barrel tub at the garden centre perfect for bedding plants or that candle holder made from a stave that sits on your mantelpiece.

Others take it a step further and get more creative - there are an increasing number of people making bespoke furniture, ornaments or sculpture from cask staves.

However, arguably the most innovative use of old whisky casks is the one witnessed at that event mentioned earlier. It inspired me to get thinking and write this article.

This saw the famous Glenmorangie single malt Scotch brand working with Renovo, the American wooden bicycle manufacturers, in a collaboration to design and make a bespoke machine from whisky casks as part of Glenmorangie’s Beyond The Cask programme. The casks, which are unusually only ever used twice, had previously matured whisky in Scotland before being broken down and shipped to Renovo’s workshop in Portland, Oregon.

Renovo + Glenmorangie = Cycling Perfection.

It is not the first time that such originality has been seen – Glenmorangie themselves worked with British eyewear designer Finlay & Co last year to produce sunglasses made from the whisky cask wood and Irish brand Bushmills similarly collaborated with Grado Labs to design a set of DJ-quality headphones.

However, the Renovo bicycle takes this type of creative project to a new level. Each frame takes a skilled craftsman 20 hours to make and uses 15 different staves from a cask. This is also why you will have to pay nearly £5,500 if you want one. As I said, - a new level.

These types of innovative projects are obviously not the norm, but it is encouraging to see creative collaborations and uses for old whisky casks. The whisky industry generates plenty of surplus wood, much of which could be reused or recycled in a more effective way.

It seems a sad, undignified and unromantic end for a cask that has spent its life maturing one of the world’s most loved drinks to end up thrown on a barbeque or cut in half and filled with flowers. They deserve a better retirement after half a century of service. Projects like this new bicycle gives them that.

- MC.