Chinquapin – the American oak that’s fighting its own whiskey corner
When Rademon Estate Distillery set out to reinvent northern Irish whiskey with its first release, its 5yr old Shortcross Single Malt Irish Whiskey, it looked to the American Chinquapin oak to give it its edge.
The team had spent a lot of time in the US, researching cask types and looking at what was happening within craft brewing and distilling and the Chinquapin oak kept bubbling up, explains David Boyd-Armstrong, their head distiller.
The Chinquapin Oak (Quercus muehlenbergii) is a common shade tree that can be identified by its rounded saw toothed edges (leaf margin). The underside of the leaf is lighter than the top surface
A member of the white oak family (Quercus) you’ll often see it written as Chinkapin, but the name is said to come from the Algonquian Indian language and is correctly spelt with a Q. Native to eastern and central North America, its Latin name is Quercus Muehlenbergii and coopers will tell you that it’s a notoriously difficult oak species to work with. It doesn’t grow in a uniform fashion and prefers rough sloped ground that makes it hard to reach. It also grows more slowly than its white oak siblings. As a hardwood, it’s most commonly used in furniture manufacturing, but distillers are realizing that the extra cost and time it takes to use it can pay dividends in extra flavour and complexity, Boyd-Armstrong explains.
Oak casks at Rademon Estate Distillery await filling
Shortcross weren’t the first to use it in a whiskey finish in Ireland. Teeling Distillery released a distillery exclusive Chinquapin finish in 2019, but Shortcross are the first to use it without a standard ex-bourbon initial maturation here.
Further afield, the great Scottish distiller, Billy Walker, used Chinquapin in his Glenallachie brand, a relatively new whiskey house that has quickly made its mark under his expert watch. Back in the US, Buffalo Trace gave its Kentucky Straight Bourbon a nine-year maturation in Chinquapin under its Old Charter Oak series. They used the Chinkapin spelling but found the very same shift in flavour profiles that other makers were reporting.
Creating the first whiskey wholly distilled and matured in Northern Ireland since the 1920s pushed Shortcross to experiment not just in wood choice but at every stage of the distilling process. They made bold choices around yeasts and fermentation times that they saw in the US craft world, but cask choice was the biggest shift in their focus. “We knew we had to do something different. So rather than start with a standard bourbon cask we eventually settled on initially maturing this whiskey in first-fill Grand Cru Classe Bordeaux red wine casks and then finishing it in Chinquapin oak with a very high char,” he explains. “We took advice on everything, visiting distilleries and cooperages looking for clues. We were creating a blueprint for our brand and every stage had to be perfect.”
The people on the Shortcross team are big fans of wine casking and so they were confident that the initial casking would give them the bold identity that they wanted for their whiskey. But they were also conscious that because they were using first-fill casks, the wine could dominate everything. “We’re pretty patient people so we just let the whiskey do its thing for the first three years. But we were acutely aware that after that point the strength of the first-fill cask could dominate the spirit too much.”
This is the point at which they had to prepare for the Chinquapin finish.
“With Chinquapin you get a sweet almond note, it’s a much more rounded sweet flavour, a less one-dimensional experience than you might get from standard American oak. The high level of vanillin and other flavour compounds are more robust, more complex.”
But to reach those flavours they first had another choice to make, and it was an expensive one. “We had to decide whether we would use kiln-dried or air-dried wood. How the oak is dried massively affects what the wood does – particularly the virgin oak we wanted to use. We chose to use air-seasoned casks that had been dried naturally for around 36 months. This pulls a lot of the tannins out of the wood that might remain in a faster, kiln-dried process. It also generates a microflora growing on the wood itself and these contribute to a flavour and aroma compound in the wood and ultimately in the whiskey.”
This air-drying process is becoming a fast favourite with chinquapin. It appears to suit its slower growing time and gives it the freedom to release more flavour compounds than a fast-drying machine process. Buffalo Trace, by comparison, gave their Chinquapin two years to air dry. Glenallachie went even further, allowing almost four years for the wood to dry naturally before toasting the casks to a medium level.
Filled casks gently rest at Rademon Estate Distillery
Glenallachie and Buffalo Trace both found warm spices and chocolate with notes of honey and herbs in the resulting whiskey that they ascribed to the Chinquapin. Shortcross also champions these kinds of results with a beautifully natural and cask-derived colour, offering waves of dark browns and honeyed layers though the light. With less than 700 bottles released, this first batch from Shortcross is a confident, bold and complicated whiskey which is likely to become a collector’s item. As a first-bottle release, it’s a crucial anchor in the future of this exciting producer, giving us a hint of the flavour profiles of a developing core range.
For Chinquapin, it’s yet another step forward in its recognition as a whiskey wood and you can expect to see a lot more from this subtle yet rich flavour source in Irish whiskeys in years to come.