I have attempted to write this article more times than I’ve had hot dinners. And quite frankly, I find my head spinning with facts and language oftentimes too foreign for me to comprehend without taking a lengthy course in chemistry analysis. Surely there must be such a class. Sadly, I’m unwilling to clear out the space needed in my brain for the information.
Which brings us to the topic: headspace.
If you do what I do a thousand times a day, you’ll Google it, and find out that the term is attached to musical albums, rock groups, a horror film, firearms, and—according to the stripling scientist I provide food and bed linens for—the empty space inside the fuel tank of a liquid rocket booster located above the liquid propellant.
In whisky terms, NASA’s definition fits best.
Fascinating as the parallelism may be, I doubt any master distiller would want a patron likening his product to rocket fuel—unless you happen to work for Ardbeg.
Having ditched repeated efforts to understand the baffling alchemy taking place beneath a barrel lid, I thought I was done with it. Until my mother handed me a book revealing exactly what she thought I needed a dose of at the moment. It’s called, Get Some Headspace; How Mindfulness Can Change Your Life.
Apparently, it was also a message from the Distillery Deities I worship. Clear your head and don’t give up.
Coincidentally, headspace also changes a spirit—and I’m not referring to the essence of life, but rather the water of life. It’s magic.
And by magic, I mean much of the “oohing and ahhing” comes from those hidden spaces we normally don’t see. In keeping with my theme, I’ll not explain things like you’re reading a lab report, rather I’ll attempt in slightly elevated Harry Potter terms to explain the bewitchery of a barrel.
I’ve always liked the idea of seeing a barrel as a lung. And since I cannot go five minutes without using a metaphor, it works for me.
Lungs expand and contract with the intake and exhalation of air. So does a barrel—but you’d probably need sorcerous eyes to truly see the movement. Regardless, once a whisky barrel is filled, evaporation occurs after a period of time. Storage conditions are key:
– Damp conditions = a faster loss of alcohol (ethanol)
– Dry conditions = a faster loss of water
– Cool environment = slower ageing
– Hot/warm environs = faster ageing (but according to some, at the cost of the product)
This explains how some spirits increase in strength during maturation while others decrease. Don’t forget that alcohol has a lower evaporation point than water, so what is pumped into the barrel at 56% can be poured out at 58%.
Evaporation rates also depend on airflow around the cask. Perhaps you remember the Diageo “experiment” in 2008, when they dabbled with wrapping casks in cling film? I’m guessing that idea came from someone in accounting looking to squeeze the most out of every effort. I’d bet it was a nifty science experiment regardless.
But interaction with air is something distilleries are still researching and playing around with. Where the warehouses are located (by the sea, in a cave, just off the M8 on the side of the road), the types of warehouses (dunnage, racked or palletized), the environment inside the warehouse (temperature and humidity) and ventilation are all variables in the quest for answers regarding air’s effects on a spirit’s quality.
Even the act of filling a cask or rolling it creates a meshing of air and spirit; the oxidation process. There’s a wealth of science that can explain how oxidation and evaporation are heavy hitters in maturation reactions, both additive and subtractive, and how they eliminate or modify the components of the spirit. Luckily for you, I’ll not explain further, as I’ll simply make a pig’s ear of the attempt.
Of course, there are other factors that participate in altering the flavor profile, but today I simply wanted to dabble in the element of air. In reference to our Japanese friends and their philosophy of the five elements—Earth, Water, Fire, Wind, and Void—perhaps we covered two. Maybe wind and air could be interchangeable. Perhaps headspace could stand in for void.
Suffice it to say, finding the perfect balance is a worthy quest—both in this world of whisky and in our way of thinking. The spirit needs room to breathe, the ebb and flow of variables, and an opportunity to review the cause and effect of each influence.
Do yourself and the whisky world a favor; create a little headspace in either your literal or metaphorical barrel. Scoop in and have a dram.
Give your spirit a little room to breathe.