The Freedom to Pioneer
Kinahans Irish whiskeys are made in wooden casks, which develop and complete all the complex flavours. By law the new-make spirit requires to be matured in wood for at least three years for it to qualify as Irish whiskey.
Kinahans whiskey making will often defy long-held stereotypes. An older whiskey is not always the better whiskey and age doesn’t necessarily contribute to maturity of flavour. Much more important is understanding the effect of wood, the way it is treated, how it will interact with the spirit, and how that will change over time, whether its 3 or 25 years. Get the right combination, and you will have a delicious, well balanced whiskey.
Since its foundation in 1779, at Kinahans pioneering in selection and use of wood is by far the key focus and the main gateway to what make Kinahans a great and unique whiskey for generations.
All our whiskeys are made in wooden casks, which arrive to us from many different origins and come in different sizes. Often, the wooden casks had past lives in different industries, such as American bourbon, French wine, or Spanish sherry, but we also use a big amount of bespoke casks built for our specific needs.
Our whiskey casks are made of wooden staves (a standard 200 litre cask will have between 30-34 staves), the metal hoops that hold them together, and the cask ends. There’s also the bung hole through which casks are both filled and emptied.
It’s the casks that provide Kinahans whiskey with many of the compounds that provide its unique flavours and all of its rich colour. Our different woods and preparation methods can imbue whiskey with different properties.
The Maturation Phenomenon
It is the job of the wood to pass on five different types of compounds into whiskey which provide its flavours.
- Cellulose – Doesn’t contribute much to flavour but helps hold the wood together.
- Hemicellulose – These are certain kinds of sugars which break down during maturation into compounds that not only give whiskey its colour, but also flavours including caramel, butter, and almond aromas.
- Lignins – Present in all hardwoods, when lignin breaks down it releases certain sweet and spicy aromas, especially vanilla (due to the presence of the chemical vanillin).
- Tannins – Deeper, richer, and complex aromas as well as some fruity ones. Often becomes more present in longer maturation as it interacts with oxygen over time.
- Lactones - The most important lactones are the ‘whiskey lactones’ trans and cisoak lactones which create coconut and spicy aromas.
Different types of wood will pass on differing amounts of these compounds. For example, French oak (of Quercus robur species) contains a higher quantity of tannins than other oak types and deliver cooked apple-like fragrances. American white oak (of Quercus alba species) contains a lot more vanillin and lactones.
Whiskey casks must go through a toasting or charring process, where the wood undergoes heat of different levels. This affects the presence of various unique tasting compounds as well as the colour of the whiskey. A lighter toasting and/or charring will usually deliver lighter and sweeter flavours while heavier charring can create nutty, caramel and even bitter whiskey.
- No.1 Char: 15 seconds
- No.2 Char: 30 seconds
- No.3 Char: 45 seconds
- No.4 Char: 55 seconds (a.k.a. ‘alligator char’ due to its textured skin)
Understand! 99% of all world’s whiskey is made in what we call “traditional” casks, which are ex-bourbon casks (American Oak), sourced predominantly in bulk from only a hand full of large bourbon producers.
Whilst traditional casks may vary in quality, they still mostly only provide a level playing field maturation to all whiskey makers. Such traditional maturation methods are used widely, and mostly gives rise to the concept of “the older, the better” whiskey, given that the fundamental composition of American Oak and prior use in Bourbon provides a very similar impact on the quality of maturation, with mostly only age and location of the maturing cask making the key difference to the whiskey.
Finishing (also known as double matured or wood-finished) is the procedure that some whiskeys undergo where the spirit is matured in a cask of a particular origin and then spends time in a cask of different origin (from a couple of months up to the entire maturation). Typically, the first cask is a “Traditional cask” - American oak formerly used to mature bourbon. The second cask may be one that has been used to mature some sort of fortified wine, often sherry, though sometimes casks for port, madeira, or even red burgundy or chardonnay are used. Some of the more well-known finished whiskies include Kinahans Merlot, which is finished in a very rich ex-Merlot casks.
A hybrid cask can mix and match staves from different types and origins of trees to create a more profound flavour impact. This practice that is rarely used in whiskey making, due to its very high cost and labour intensity. In 2019 Kinahans launched “The Kasc Project”, using hybrid casks which are made from staves built out of 5 different types of wood:
- American Oak (Quercus Alba species)
- French Oak (Quercus Petreae species)
- Hungarian Oak (Quercus Robur species)
- Chestnut (Castanea Sativa species)
- Portuguese Oak (Quercus Pyrenaica species)
It is a rare sight to see many of these woods used in whiskey at all, much less mixed together into custom casks. The result is a young, daring, and unconventional whiskey.
Each different variety of wood creates distinctive colours and flavours in the final whiskey, with the specific wood types selected for the unique flavours and aromas.