Finding wood in whisky

I am unusually sitting at my computer today convalescing my knee after an over-exuberant game of squash at the weekend. Note to self: warm up those aging limbs before engaging in racket sports with younger folk! On the positive side, a forced period out of the shop has given me some rare time thinking about wider matters of wood.

Which brings me to the subject of this blog. My latest commission is to design and make a boardroom table for a highland distillery. Doesn’t sound that unusual perhaps, but the interesting quirk is a brief from the client to incorporate some old oak staves (see pic) recovered from a decommissioned spirit VAT. Until a few years ago, the VAT was used to receive new spirit from the stills before it was transferred to barrels or sent away to blenders. Since being de-commissioned the VAT was left filled with water – a master stroke as it happens which very likely avoided the wood drying too quickly and warping and splitting beyond further use.

After a period stacked outside in the shade, the first challenge has been to dry the damp staves down to the target 8-10% moisture content which is usual for today’s furniture. First off we brought them into the lower area of the distillery still house where it is cool, dry and well ventilated – the doors are left open to keep the still workers from overheating! After a few weeks, I checked the moisture level and then moved them to the upper floor of the still house – still ventilated but much warmer from the firing of the stills. It seemed fitting that the wood should now be drying in the very environment that soaked it in spirit during all those the decades before! The wood is now back at my workshop, having been roughly milled and stacked in our boiler room for a final period of settling. A lengthy but necessary exercise in watching wood dry!

This whole process got me thinking about the role of wood in our whisky industry. We’re generally familiar with oak for making whisky barrels just as we are with copper for the stills, stone for the buildings and malting barley for the mash. How often, though, do we spare a thought for the wider use of wood in the whole process of making whisky?  The still house roofs commonly supported with huge baulks of pitch pine, timelessly bearing the load of the distinctive pagoda roofs. Washbacks –the large vessels used for creating the mash – are often still made from wood. Douglas Fir is a firm favourite for this.  Barrel aging sheds, blackened by years of spirit evaporation – the Angels’ Share – traditionally had timber roof structures although many now are of less characterful, but faster built steel construction. Other distillery buildings such as visitor centres are frequently fitted out with wood to give a warm welcoming feeling to the interior.

Back to the boardroom table, this will be located in the newly refurbished distillery house. Echoing the history of wood from the site, I will be combining new Scottish oak and ash with the older reclaimed oak to create a table top inspired by the shape of a barrel. The centre of the table will feature a large ‘coin’ made from reclaimed still house copper engraved with the distillery logo.

We’re still looking into how old these oak staves might be; they could date back to the early years of the 20th century but it is just as likely that they are as old as the distillery itself which was built in 1824. In wood terms, this is not actually that old when you consider the age of some antique furniture but it is still quite humbling to think that I will be working with wood which could originally have been crafted into a spirit VAT nearly 200 years ago. It is also quite likely that the new oak I’ll be using will have started its life around the same time – another intriguing ‘time loop’. As satisfying as good dram!!